Wray: 'We have let down our players'

Chairman takes blame as Saracens try another fresh start
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The Independent Online

It was undeniably a George Best moment. Nigel Wray is on the other end of a telephone line, sipping a cool drink on a beach on the exclusive west coast of Barbados and gazing at the gently lapping waves of the Caribbean. So, Nigel, where did it all go wrong?

The answer, as it happens, is "everywhere", because of course the subject at hand is Saracens, the rugby club of which Wray, the multimillionaire investor and property developer, has been chairman and majority shareholder for 10 years. Last week the Premier-ship's classic underachievers appointed yet another coach - Alan Gaffney, a 59-year-old Australian - in search of the trophies which, a Tetley's Bitter Cup in 1998 apart, have eluded them. Wray has crossed his fingers so often he is in danger of arthritis. The difference now is that he is holding his hands up and admitting to his errors.

"From me downwards we've all made big mistakes," said Wray. "Any club that's gone through as many coaches as we have, you'd have to say the guys at the top have made mistakes. Put Saracens' record down against Wasps' and who do you think has got it right? What we've done now is, I hope, get the coaching structure right, heavily aided and abetted by [former Australia coach] Eddie Jones, who has been our consultant for a few weeks. We're listening to him because we think he's very good."

Saracens' results have been more bad than good under successive coaches Francois Pienaar, Alan Zondagh, Tim Lane (as a consultant), Wayne Shelford, Rod Kafer and Steve Diamond. The charge at Wray's door is that while he has enjoyed the kudos of friendships with former players such as Pienaar, Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella, the star-gazing dazzled him into neglecting the detail. Privately, players have complained of being telephoned after matches, or upbraided in the bars and team rooms. Wray, who shares the financial burden of annual losses with several other directors, pleads guilty.

"We've resolved as board members that, as keen as we are, we will no longer have discussions and chats with players," he said. "It undermines the coaches, it's their job not ours. To be perfectly honest we've actually let the players down over the last few years. We've lacked attention to planning and individual preparation. There have been a number of players who've left Saracens and gone on to fulfil great potential, which has to imply there's something wrong in our basic structure. The latest one is Raphael Ibañez. He went to Wasps and is almost their player of the season."

Saracens host Wasps in the Premiership today - it's "an internet job" for Wray, who will still be away - going for a fourth straight win since hiring Jones on a short-term contract and staving off the possibility of relegation. He might have stayed permanently had he not accepted a job at Queensland before Saracens made contact. Instead, after all the gaffes, they have settled on Gaffney, a son of a bookmaker whose predecessors' coaching CVs in some cases would have fitted on to a betting slip.

A fly-half in the Sixties and Seventies with Randwick, the club where inventive back-play is akin to mother's milk, Gaffney left rugby to set up a real-estate business before being enticed into coaching by Bob Dwyer back at Randwick in the Eighties. After a part-time stint with New South Wales as assistant to Matt Williams, Gaffney has spent the past six years with, successively, Leinster (under Williams), Munster and - as backs coach for a few months until Jones was sacked last December - the Wallabies. While at Munster he pulled off the Heineken Cup win over Gloucester known as the "miracle match". Saracens are looking for whole season's-worth of rabbits out of hats.

"I guess it's the most pressure I've had as a coach," said Gaffney, who was warmly applauded by around 100 supporters at a "fans forum" on Wednesday. "You knew in Ireland your team would be in Europe the following season. Here there is no respite, week after week."

His plan is a little less lavish spending on players and more on coaches: backs, forwards and defence. The club's Australian chief executive, Mark Sinderberry, promises it will not be a Down Under takeover, although two Aussies - Richard Graham and Jim Williams, currently with Bath and Munster respectively - have been tipped for the backs and forwards roles. Mike Ford, the Lancastrian defence specialist who was appointed as head coach by Diamond, could stay on. Thomas Castaignède, the full-back who was scathing of Saracens' training regime in a recent French magazine interview, has been offered another year, but the noises over the England flanker Richard Hill's knee injury are equivocal.

And what of Andy Farrell, the man known as "Faz" around the club, as if he has played a hundred matches rather than none since he signed from Wigan last summer? Sinderberry, who built the ACT Brumbies from nothing to a viable professional outfit but has seen Saracens' attendance slide and members get in a huff over facilities at Watford, said: "We expect Andy to play a very significant role." Which one? The Ghost of Seasons Past?

Briefly, Wray cuts through the nebulous platitudes. "Shit happens," he said of Farrell's injuries since switching from rugby league, though he declined to say how many thousands of pounds of wages and signing-on fee have washed away like the Caribbean breakers. "Touch wood, he'll be a very exciting player in rugby union for a few years. Until his back gets a wallop, we won't know."