Edward Griffiths: 'We're innovators, not the naughty boys of the game'
With their coach banned from Saturday's Premiership final and the club branded upstarts, Saracens are making few friends. But, their chief executive tells Chris Hewett, they are just misunderstood
Wednesday 26 May 2010
It should be some occasion, the Guinness Premiership final at Twickenham on Saturday evening. Saracens, the surprise package of the campaign, will be playing at the home of one of their freshly-made enemies, the Rugby Football Union, against one of their long-standing enemies, Leicester – possibly in the enforced absence of their director of rugby Brendan Venter, who has been upsetting the apple-cart all season and now finds himself barred from the stadium and its environs. Such draconian banning orders are rare indeed, but then, Venter is a rarity himself.
This evening, the World Cup-winning Springbok centre and practising GP – he still runs a surgery in Cape Town, albeit from a distance – will pitch up at a London hotel and attempt to persuade a second RFU tribunal boasting two QCs that the law as interpreted by the governing body's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, is something of an ass. Earlier this month, Venter engaged in a full and frank exchange of views with a group of Leicester supporters during a league game at Welford Road and picked up a 14-week match-day coaching ban (plus the added extra of exclusion from Twickers) for his trouble. It was his second conviction for "behaviour prejudicial to the interests of the game" in a matter of months, and while he feels extremely hard done by, those who do not like the cut of his jib think he deserves everything he continues to get.
According to the anti-Saracens set – a growing constituency that also includes the Northampton club – Venter and his team operate on three broad principles: that tradition is bunk; that an English club cannot have too many South Africans; and that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The last accusation may be accurate, for the Watford-based side certainly appear to believe that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
But it is worth remembering one or two things here. The RFU types are angry because they have had their authority questioned in public – Edward Griffiths, the Saracens chief executive, responded to the latest judgement against Venter by suggesting that the union might start running the game like "a modern professional sport, rather than a rural prep school" – while Leicester and Northampton, no great friends of Sarries even in the pre-Venter days, may have been a touch less critical had they won their recent home matches against Saracens rather than lost them.
The Leicester head coach Richard Cockerill, who knows what it is to feel Blackett's hand on his collar, touched on this on Monday. "There's been this rivalry thing with Saracens for a long while, stretching right back to the late 1990s," he said, referring to a time when Martin Johnson, the current England manager, found it impossible to play against them without landing himself in the dock. "There's always a fair bit of niggle between us and there have been a fair few disciplinaries." Is it worse now because Saracens are a power in the land, rather than an irrelevance? Cockerill thought there might be something in that.
If people have a problem with Saracens, it is because Saracens have a problem with the same old same old. They are the arch-modernists of the Premiership, the ones most determined to "make it new", and the shock of the new has never been welcome in RFU circles. Teams used to winning, as Leicester have been for years and Northampton have been all season, do not much like it either. By doing things differently and doing them loudly, Sarries are questioning many of the Premiership's long-cherished certainties.
They are also difficult targets to hit. At the start of the season, they were roundly criticised for pursuing a policy of South Africanisation: South African board, South African CEO, South African director of rugby, South African-dominated squad. Yet their success in promoting young English talent – Alex Goode, Noah Cato, Adam Powell, Andy Saull, with the likes of Jamie George and Owen Farrell bubbling under – is as impressive as anyone's. They were also condemned for playing an ultra-conservative style of territory-based kick-ball, yet their rugby over the last couple of months has been exhilarating.
"We don't want to be seen as the brash, naughty boys of English rugby," Griffiths insisted yesterday, "but somewhat reluctantly, we've been drawn into a place where we wouldn't choose to be. The idea that we're South African raiders tearing up the fabric of the game here is nonsensical; we hold the values of the sport as dear as any club, we live by them day by day, and we don't seek confrontation, although if something appears to us to be wrong, we'll say so.
"In essence, we want to make club rugby an entertaining sport. American sport is what I call an 'invitation' to the public; by comparison, English sport is a challenge to them. It's a challenge to find somewhere convenient to park, something decent to eat, somewhere reasonable to watch the game. We're not trying to be a shock to the system, but we don't want to do things just because it's the way they've always been done. So we will continue to stage gatherings of our supporters at away games, to hand out a few pies and something to drink, to march to the ground in numbers. We are trying to be innovative, to add to what is already there."
If Northampton do not appreciate the sight of a Sarries merchandising truck parked a few yards from their own turnstiles, or the thought that some bright spark can interfere with the Franklin's Gardens sound system and broadcast the official Saracens song to half of the East Midlands, it is not obvious that Griffiths and his colleagues give a damn, for all their protestations of blamelessness. People willing to take on the RFU judiciary in a bare-knuckled PR fight are unlikely to lose much sleep over the odd bleat from a rival team.
What does disturb them is the prospect of Venter missing the club's biggest day out in more than a decade. Paul Gustard, one of the full-time coaches at the club, described the punishment as a "nonsense", while Griffiths, who may yet find himself up before the beak for his sharp criticism of the judgement last week, opted for the word "disproportionate", adding: "I don't want to run our appeal here and now, but we're disappointed that the judgement spilled over from the issue of the case into comment about Saracens. We've lodged our papers and it won't be a case of a hot dish served up cold. We'll be making a new case on behalf of Brendan."
In a previous life, Griffiths was a sure-footed, supremely well-organised chief executive of the South African Rugby Football Union who coined the resonant phrase "one team, one country" during his country's triumphant World Cup campaign in 1995 – the so-called "Mandela tournament". Now, he spends his time squaring up to rugby's oldest establishment rather than creating a new one. Did he fear he might have said just a little too much in recent weeks? "I'll take whatever comes my way," he replied, "but I'm clear on this: Brendan and his family deserve to be a part of what happens at Twickenham this weekend."
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