Sinderberry searches for resurrection at the Vicarage Road graveyard of coaches

Saracens' chief executive is used to personnel upheavals. He tells Chris Hewett how the succession must breed success
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The Independent Online

What Saracens do not offer is job security, or anything remotely resembling it. Ice hockey coaches in Yemen have more chance of long-term employment. Mark Evans, Francois Pienaar, Alan Zondagh, Wayne Shelford, Rod Kafer and, most recently, Steve Diamond have all found themselves either sacked or eased into Watford High Street to the sounds of doors being locked behind them. Diamond, the former Sale hooker who succeeded Kafer a little over a year ago and inspired an upturn in fortunes so dramatic that the team rose from a relegation-haunted shambles to Heineken Cup qualifiers in the space of five months, was given the "thank you and goodnight" treatment last week, and for many Vicarage Road regulars, it was a case of one bum's rush too many.

"I cannot deny there is some discontent amongst the supporters, much of it overt," conceded Mark Sinderberry, a Sydneysider who left Australia after a successful stint with the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies to take up the chief executive's role three years ago.

"What is more, they have every right to ask the questions they're asking. Change is always a difficult thing to sell to people, and we've had a hell of a lot of change here over the years. However, I also believe there is a growing recognition that the decision we've just made needed to be taken. A degree of balance is beginning to come through in the discussions I'm having about Steve's departure. I hope that sense of balance grows as we search for his successor."

That search is critical to Saracens' long-term future, and Sinderberry knows it. During their former life as a blue-collar amateur concern rooted in London's northern reaches, they were counted among the prime examples of how a spirit of close-knit camaraderie could allow a club to punch above their natural weight. When Michael Lynagh, one of the greatest outside-halves ever to put boot to ball, joined on the cusp of the professional era, Sarries were still playing on a rubbish tip of a pitch in Southgate, yet the World Cup-winning Wallaby sensed something in the fabric of the place that made him want to die for the cause. Nowadays, after so many personnel upheavals, precious few people are captivated by the allure of that fabric or by the worthiness of that cause.

Sinderberry has persuaded Eddie Jones, who was coaching the Wallabies at Twickenham as recently as last November, to spend three months or so at the club in an advisory capacity. He knows him of old - the two were on the Brumbies payroll together for four years, before Sinderberry headed for England and Jones succeeded Rod Macqueen as Australia's national coach - and has been working on the deal since before Christmas. Diamond was somewhat less than ecstatic at this development, viewing it as a public undermining of his position. Sinderberry saw it differently.

"Eddie will be with us in early March and he'll add a great deal of value to the things we're doing," he said. "The guy just wants to coach, and as he's not doing too much of that at the moment" - Jones was sacked by the Wallaby hierarchy following a Tri-Nations whitewash down south and a dismal autumn tour of Europe - "he was keen to get involved. If you look at the Premiership, there isn't a lot between top and bottom. Someone of Eddie's experience and quality will certainly help us through our short-term problems and provide some guidance for our coaching staff."

But Jones will be back in Australia come the summer, beginning a new job at Super 14 level with Queensland. Assuming they avoid relegation - defeat in the important fixture at Northampton this afternoon would leave them in a position of some discomfort, but there is every chance that the incoming consultant will discover a means of salvation - they will have to stand on their own two feet when the new Premiership season begins in September. For many reasons, ranging from an immediate restoration of credibility to the club's very survival as an élite force, the next appointment will have to be good. Very good.

"We need someone who understands the Premiership - its demands, its pressures, the way it functions with its built-in risk of relegation," Sinderberry said, appearing to push any southern hemisphere types to the back of the queue. "Probably, we need someone who actually knows what it is to work in this environment." Such people are few and far between. Dean Ryan, a former Saracen, is doing a superb job at Gloucester, but as that fact is not lost on Gloucester, they are unlikely to let him out of their sight. Sinderberry might go sniffing around the national academy coaching set-up, but why would Jim Mallinder or Jon Callard swap a well-paid, pressure-free job for a challenging walk across the burning coals of Vicarage Road?

"You wouldn't believe how difficult it is to get the right man," Sinderberry conceded. "When I arrived, Wayne Shelford was in charge. Wayne was a fantastic player and a fantastic bloke. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. But very early on, we recognised that he wasn't the right person for the role and made the only decision we were able to make. We started the search process, but there weren't many options. We gambled and lost on Rod Kafer - I have the highest regard for Rod, but it was too early for him - and then turned to Steve. Unfortunately, when the board asked him to outline his vision of the way forward, his ideas didn't strike the right chord. That part of the job wasn't his strength, to be absolutely honest with you."

Having already tried it every which way - the northern hemisphere approach, the southern hemisphere approach, the big-name approach, the little-name approach, the no-name approach - what can Sinderberry offer the perfect director of rugby, assuming such a creature exists? Saracens are mere tenants at Vicarage Road, and although facilities at the stadium should improve if Watford, challenging hard for promotion from the Championship, make it into football's big time, the local obsession with the round-ball game will only increase, making it more difficult for union to flourish in what has always been difficult terrain. Sarries' attendances are already on the slide, which bucks the trend in the rest of the Premiership. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are slowly turning wine into water.

"There are some short-term issues," said the chief executive. "Tenancy is not ideal - the aspiration for any ambitious club is to own its bricks and mortar. A stadium share arrangement would be much more to our liking and we want to start moving towards that. There is also work to do on our pulling power. Vicarage Road is a big venue, and it's difficult to fill. We still pull in a good number from the old heartland of Southgate and Enfield, but we need to push into other areas. Essex is an obvious opportunity. We have to do these things better.

"But look, there is a lot of good work going on away from the public gaze. We have a very active board - nine members, including six major investors - and a clear idea of where we want to be. One good season would see us put 33 per cent on the gate. The frustration is that we're so close. The academy is producing some outstanding youngsters, the squad is more settled than ever before - there will be three or four changes this summer, but nothing drastic - and while we're only seven points off the relegation place, we're also only a couple of victories away from Heineken Cup qualification. Those are the margins in this game. They're tiny."

In Sinderberry's view, Saracens are a big club. It certainly looked that way when Lynagh was making the decisions on the pitch and Nigel Wray, the most committed of financiers-in-chief, was making them off it. Lynagh is long gone - it is eight seasons since he conceived and executed a seven-try dismantling of Wasps in the cup final at Twickenham - but Wray still does what he does with an enthusiasm bordering on abandon. There is no shortage of desire. Just a shortage of delivery.

"The next few weeks and months are so important - definitely the single most important period in the club's recent history," Sinderberry admitted. "We have to get it right." Some would say he could make a start by getting rid of that God-forsaken tee-carrying machine, but most would acknowledge the presence of more pressing items on his agenda.

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