Saracens held a lavish dinner last month to mark the induction of two of their recent greats, Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella, into a new hall of fame. Lovely idea, shame about the timing. "It was three nights after the team were thumped at Harlequins," said Lynagh, the eminent former Wallaby fly-half. "It put a bit of a dampener on the occasion."
Events have conspired to rain on Saracens' parade more or less constantly since the retirement of Lynagh and Sella at the end of the 1997-98 season. The Australian and the Frenchman quit their London sojourn as heroes with a glorious win over Wasps in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final at Twickenham, and a second-place finish in the Premiership. When the champions-to-be, Newcastle, visited Vicarage Road for a crucial match in April 1998, the ground was full with almost 20,000 Saracens supporters and Lynagh dropped a late goal for a 12-10 win. "Saracens have never had a better day at home," said Lynagh, "before or since."
Newcastle are back today for a Powergen Cup tie, and their glittering drawcard, Jonny Wilkinson - a teenaged centre in that match six years ago - may nudge the attendance at Watford into five figures. The initial explosion of interest has petered away with successive league finishes of third, fourth, fifth, 10th, eighth and 10th. Saracens have not been in the Heineken Cup for four seasons, and last week the resignation of Rod Kafer ushered in Steve Diamond as the sixth coach in the open era.
Lynagh views the decline with alarm, albeit expressed with the same quiet perspicacity he brings to his analysis on Sky Sports' rugby programmes. "For supporters, players, coaches and backers, it has been tremendously disappointing," he said. "The formula's there - there were 400 people at the dinner, and people want to support Saracens. Clubs have copied their community programmes. But I wouldn't think the backers can keep going on forever, and it would be a real shame to see it all disappear."
Saracens are used to the comings and goings of high-profile coaches - Mark Evans, Francois Pienaar, Alan Zondagh, Wayne Shelford and now Kafer. There was more bad publicity when their best-known backer, Nigel Wray, walked out during the first half of the 40-10 defeat at Quins. "His actions spoke pretty loudly," said Lynagh. "All the people investing in Saracens are in the same boat. If they were getting some emotional return, from good rugby at a good ground, that would be enough for them."
For now, the nine directors who share the financial burden are keeping the faith. One of them, Peter Wakeham, used to play with Wray for Old Millhillians. "None of us would put money in if we didn't feel the prospects were good," he said. "Commercially, the organisation is as strong as I've seen it in three years. We've had a terrific year, off the field."
In '98, Wray donned a fez for his day in the Twickenham sun, but allowing Pienaar an overbearing influence as both coach and chief executive is widely regarded to have started the rot. "When Philippe and I were there," said Lynagh, "we were a nice buffer between the squad and Francois as coach. If players were not keen on what he was doing, they had an avenue through us to open things up.
"I'm sure the current squad is good enough, but they need to know it's about more than turning up at nine o'clock, doing your weights and going home. That's why the dinner was good, and next year they plan to get more of the old amateur guys back. The younger players need to see there's a passion about the club, that it's got a history. Australia did something similar in the 1990s, inviting past captains to come and present the jersey before a game. Rugby is about more than getting a win bonus."
Diamond has vowed to stem the perennial turnover in the squad, by signing "three or four" predominantly English players in their mid-20s for next season. "They've had an unlucky trot with injuries," said Lynagh, "but is that because they train on a poor surface, or is it the techniques, or is it plain bad luck? You look at the team and on paper it should be better. It's got everybody stumped."Reuse content