Saracens ready to go on attack

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Rugby Union

DAVID LLEWELLYN

In the past Saracens have been virtually defenceless in what appeared to be a losing battle to hang on to their better players and keep up with their wealthier London neighbours. Now all that is to change. Saracens finally have a financial cutting edge.

The transformation has come thanks to the London businessman Nigel Wray, a self-confessed rugby fan, who has just sunk pounds 2m of his own money into ordinary shares in the newly formed Saracens plc, as well underwriting a pounds 500,000 rights issue which will be offered to club members in a few weeks.

The chances of any other wealthy club succeeding with further asset-stripping looks unlikely following the intervention of Wray, so rising stars such as the back rowers Anthony Diprose and Richard Hill are unlikely leave the club in the same way as former players such as Dean Ryan (Wasps) and Ben Clarke (Bath).

James Wyness, the Saracens president, said: "It will give us great pleasure to be able to keep the predators, with their tempting offers to our players, at bay. Until now this club has lacked just one thing - money. It is the one resource that has always been missing."

Wray, 47, who describes himself as an entrepreneur, played at centre and full-back for Old Millhillians in the Sixties and Seventies and also turned out for Hampshire, but there was no trace of a rugby traditionalist when Saracens became the first English club to become incorporated, following a unanimous vote by members on Monday night.

And Wray is no philanthropist either. He regards his involvement as a business venture, albeit one whose profits will be ploughed back into a club which is just up the road from his Totteridge home in North London.

"In my experience philanthropic gestures don't work. I've gone into this as a businessman," Wray said. "I'm a huge rugby fan and having observed what was happening I thought I'd like to get involved. I was in discussions with Saracens long before Sir John Hall hit the headlines at Newcastle."

But he has no intention of throwing money at the club. "There is no bottomless pocket here. We've worked out how much was needed, now the club has to generate money itself. Saracens has to become a commercially successful business."

Wray, who graduated from Bristol University with a degree in economics, is executive chairman of Burford Holdings plc, listed on the stock market and valued at around pounds 380m. His substantial stake in that company as well as seven others, including Trocadero plc, a leisure company, warrants Wray's inclusion in Britain's Richest 500 listing.

Saracens' first job will be to select a board of directors, on which Wray will sit. Then they intend appointing a chief executive who will be paid between pounds 40,000 and pounds 50,000 per year. "It's very exciting," Wray said. "I believe Saracens has the potential to become London's premier rugby club, capable of attracting the best players in Europe."

To that end, Wray also intimated that, in line with other clubs, he would be able to add a further dimension to his input, finding employment for players in one of his many companies or directing them to one of his business contacts. "The game of rugby is on the move," he concluded. So are Saracens.

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