Pioneer with a world of dreams

The Francois Pienaar interview: The Rainbow warrior who rose to power at Saracens sets sights on European domination
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The Independent Online

Francois Pienaar has a dream. "There's no reason," he said, without laughing, "why Saracens can't be one of the best clubs in Europe."

Francois Pienaar has a dream. "There's no reason," he said, without laughing, "why Saracens can't be one of the best clubs in Europe."

Not so many moons ago they weren't even the best in north London and although they have undergone a transformation that would knock spots off the caterpillar-into-the-butterfly routine, they have never managed to become the finest exhibit in England's garden.

"The squad has now gelled," the Springbok icon said. "It's time to take a step up." Pienaar has taken such a step, from high-profile player to chief executive and director of rugby. If Saracens, who have made a good start to the season under Kyran Bracken's captaincy, do not lift some heavy-duty silverware, Nigel Wray, the owner of the club, can blame one man, although it is extremely unlikely to come to that.

Pienaar did get his hands on the Tetley's Bitter Cup in 1998, but that was small beer compared to the achievement of Bath and Northampton in winning the European Cup and Leicester taking the Premiership in the last two seasons, when Saracens were nowhere. "We lost six games by a point and we had a bad run of injuries. We scored more points in the Premiership than anybody else. The trouble is we leaked more too."

The South African, of course, is accustomed to the best. Four men have captained their countries to the World Cup summit, but only one of them received the Webb Ellis Trophy from Nelson Mandela. In what could be interpreted as the ultimate gesture of affirmative action in the post-apartheid Republic, Mandela presented the cup to the Afrikaaner while both were wearing the Springboks' No 6 jersey. They have remained friends, and another dream emerges. If the former president of South Africa attends the Labour Party conference this year, Pienaar will invite him to a Saracens match at Vicarage Road, Watford. Elton John eat your heart out.

Pienaar has already extended an invitation to Mel B - "why not, we are in the entertainment industry" - who is a fellow guest on Trevor McDonald's ITV chat-show programme today. "Why did you leave such a beautiful country?" McDonald, whose son lives in South Africa, asked him. "It wasn't the violence. I've had my car broken into six times in London," Pienaar said.

It all went banana-shaped when the game turned professional in 1995. No sooner had South Africa won the World Cup than the South African Rugby Football Union converted a silk purse into swine fever by falling out with just about everybody, including Pienaar. "We had won 15 Tests in a row and although we won the World Cup that team never had the opportunity to realise their full potential."

Pienaar was ditched - when South Africa played Australia last weekend there were only two survivors from the class of '95, Mark Andrews and Chester Williams - and although he still had Transvaal to play for there was no crock of krugerrands at the end of the rainbow nation. He had been earning £200 a month and wanted more.

Wray, a heavyweight London entrepreneur and former rugby lightweight who is worth about £50m, unveiled Pienaar at the Trocadero in the West End in December 1996. Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella had already joined. "It was all done on old-fashioned trust," Pienaar said. "If I didn't like it I could go. If Nigel didn't like me he'd ask me to leave. He's always been direct and honest. This is a challenge. I have a passion for it and Nigel drives that passion."

God knows how much Wray has lost in the enterprise so far, but unlike some he is still investing and he is still going for names that top the bill: Thomas Castaignÿde, who has become a neighbour of Pienaar's in Hampstead, and Tim Horan, who was outstanding in Australia's World Cup-winning team last year. Both can play in a variety of positions. Squads in the Premiership have a salary cap of £1.8m and it is estimated these two stars alone would swallow up about £500,000.

"We only recruited a handful of players and released 10," Pienaar points out. "We have 23 full-time professionals and if they are English-qualified the first £10,000 of their salary is not included in the budget." Saracens also have junior and senior associate professionals, taking the contracted players up to 34. If a player is employed in a coaching capacity only half his salary counts towards the budget. Last year Harlequins lost Thierry Lacroix to Saracens for £120,000 but alleged that £40,000 of that went into the Frenchman's bank account.

Balancing the books is a work of art. Saracens have sold more than 4,000 season-tickets, with a special family deal for £99. "It works out the same as a Big Mac meal," says Pienaar. "Leicester have 12,000 season-ticket holders. They play the Barbarians at Christmas and if you don't have a season-ticket you can't get in. They've kept that base. We're aiming for an average gate of 10,000. In the football community of Watford we've reached 105,000 people. It's stupid to compare rugby with soccer. We have a different appeal."

As chief executive, Pienaar can attend meetings of English First Division Rugby or EFDR (an unfortunate acronym as there is no such thing as a first division) and they have still to reach full agreement with the Rugby Football Union. The structure of the season is one of Pienaar's pet hates. He thinks the Rob Andrew plan is a step in the right direction but what he wants implemented is the Pienaar plan.

This is his so-called global season, starting not in August but January. The Six Nations' Champi- onship would be played over five successive weekends from February while the Premiership clubs would compete in an eliminator series, home-and-away with a round-robin format. The climax would be a world club championship in October with teams from the Six Nations, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. In all there would be 20 teams split into five pools. December would be a month of rest and tours would take place in June.

Pienaar says the initial response was "overwhelmingly positive" since when the proposal has disappeared without trace. Dream on. "I have no doubt it will happen one day and the sooner the better. As it stands, we can go weeks without a home match and then play three in seven days. It's not conducive to anything. A proper structure is far more important than the commercial deals coming through now. We can turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. We should treat the players as assets, not liabilities, but everybody wants their pound of flesh.

"The owners have put in more than the unions and they want to protect their investment. They must release Test players and I want my players to play international rugby. I was proud that Saracens had six on England's tour to South Africa. Four years ago we had none. What I don't want is to be penalised for it.

"One week Richard Hill would be playing against Neil Back, the next they would be team-mates for England and then he'd be expected to play at Rotherham in a league game. How can he be motivated? The game has a massive future, particularly in Europe, if they can get the season right."

Playing more in the summer than winter is another issue close to Pienaar's heart. He is a fair-weather man. When he first clapped eyes on Saracens' training pitch at Southgate - it used to be the club's ground - his heart sank, as did his feet. "I was prepared for conditions to be primitive," Pienaar wrote in his autobiography Rainbow Warrior, "But they were far worse. There was a dusty, unheated changing-room with mud left on the cement floor from the last session. The playing-field was thick with ankle-deep sludge and mud and lit by floodlights which amounted to not much more than a few torches on a couple of poles. The players tried to wash off the mud in the small showers."

The facilities have been upgraded, but Pienaar is not looking forward to the winter. "We'll be playing in a quagmire and it's the racehorses that suffer. Our aim is to play a fast expansive game but it's high-risk. In November we'll play five games without 10 internationals. The kids will have to play. In South Africa if it rained we would cancel the training session. The number of games I've played in the wet can be counted on two hands."

At 33, and after a career spanning 26 years, he has stopped playing. Castaignÿde and others asked him to reconsider. "I'll always miss it but you can't get it back." He was injured last year and became coach, a development that led Mark Evans, a Saracens stalwart, subsequently to join Quins as chief executive.

"I came here as a player but more and more my brief has changed." He thought he'd played his last game in South Africa when he was stretchered off with concussion in the Tri-Nations against the All-Blacks in Cape Town in 1996. In the changing-room he was ignored by Louis Luyt, the then president of Sarfu, and André Markgraaff, the coach. However, a couple of weeks ago, with a bit of arm-twisting and an injection of cortisone, Pienaar played in a benefit match for Hennie le Roux before a crowd of 50,000 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. It was like a World Cup reunion and Pienaar finally went out, not on a stretcher, but on a high.

"It was incredibly emotional and humbling. I had a stormer and was made man of the match." Clearly this is how Pienaar, who threw his boots into the crowd, wanted to leave the scene where he had won the World Cup. "I don't have long-term goals but we'll go home one day."

It seems that whoever coaches the Springboks can look forward to an early retirement. With Nick Mallett now under pressure, would Pienaar be a contender? "It's hypothetical."

If they ever ask him he will take it. It's in his blood... and probably his dreams as well.