Saracens steer steady course

RUGBY UNION'S NEW ERA No two clubs will cope with professionalism alike. Steve Bale discovers a contrast in attitudes
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Everyone likes Saracens, even if everyone hates the journey round the M25 to their corner of north London, and everyone knows that once again they have to overcome being a pauper among the more opulent princes of English rugby's First Division.

This is the perception, at any rate, of a club with a postage-stamp ground that once crammed in 3,500 for a cup tie with Bath, seeking to compete with the likes of Leicester, for whom a capacity of even 17,000 is often insufficient.

As it happens, the newly promoted Sarries kick off at Leicester on Saturday, and in the new open era - which will sooner or later mean outright professionalism at Welford Road, but surely something more modest at Southgate - the contrast has never been more vivid.

But are they downhearted? No way. "You only have to look at what some of the lower-division football teams - Huddersfield, Chester - have done in far less auspicious circumstances," Mark Evans, the thoughtful Welshman who coaches Saracens, said. "In our rugby context, we are better placed than they were. We have no debt. We have limited revenue, but we are not in hock to anybody.

"Look at those clubs and the grounds they've been able to develop and it shows you don't have to be the equivalent of Manchester United. You just have to have people in various areas who know what they are looking for. I've been at the club 15 years as player and coach and I'm more confident in the people here than I've ever been."

By this Evans means those administering Saracens as well as those who play for the club. The two are perforce intertwined, but if those who are in the market-place seeking funds to finance some sort of quasi-professionalism are to have a chance, they need a decent product. Which means a First Division product aiming, season by season, for a place in Europe.

A start has been made. The simple fact that Saracens have retained all the players who won last season's single promotion place, and added a few more, leaves them better ready to face the First Division than they were when they were among four clubs relegated when the division was truncated in 1993. Gone - Evans ventures to hope - are the days when such as Dean Ryan, Jason Leonard and Ben Clarke would make their names at Southgate and then take their talent elsewhere.

"We are a considerably better team now than when we went down, but then the First Division has grown stronger while we've been away," Evans said. "When we were relegated we had to put a new team together because quite a few departed - with varying degrees of success. I have to say with hindsight, though I would never have said it at the time, it was probably no bad thing that we took two years to come back up.

"We probably weren't ready 12 months ago. It was helpful that we were promoted so early. We were virtually up in February and the players have had a long time to come to terms with being in the First Division and what will be required of them there."

But as of this season mere survival will no longer suffice. During the four seasons of their first First Division incarnation, Saracens finished fourth once and fifth once, but with qualification for the incipient European Cup the new imperative, the struggle against clubs more blessed in personnel and income will never have been more unequal.

Still, Evans dares to believe that Saracens will win themselves a place among the elite that in his view will be the inevitable result of rugby's professionalisation. "The aim must be to be highly competitive and three or four years on to win something.

"Elitism is not new or necessarily a bad thing, but what must be ensured is that we don't get a situation like they have in South Africa where every year it's the same six clubs, or in their case provinces, with no opportunity for new ones to break in. I have no problems with an elite emerging, as it undoubtedly will, as long as it's not self-perpetuating, as long as there is the threat of relegation and the possibility of promotion."

Evans, 36, Cambridge graduate and deputy head of Saffron Walden High School, is among the more cerebral coaches in the game and, having pondered deeply, has no intention of changing Saracens' style to suit the First Division. When you have a back row who include England A prospects such as Anthony Diprose and Richard Hill, you use them, and nothing on Sarries' pre-season Irish tour, when they beat all three leading Limerick clubs - Shannon, Garryowen and Young Munster - persuaded Evans otherwise.

"I'm a bit of a pragmatist," he said. "There's a lot of rubbish talked and as rugby's profile heightens, you have to expect even more. If, for instance, you were Argentina's coach and had those superb scrummaging forwards, you wouldn't be throwing the ball about. If you look at the over-reaction to England's win over Australia in the World Cup and the equal over-reaction to the defeat by New Zealand, you see you have to maintain some sort of perspective.

"In the Second Division we tried, but didn't always succeed, to play a game in which the ball was largely kept in hand and moved quickly around the park. At the same time we did run our back row over the gain-line quite often. We will be trying to play the same way but do it better - because I know we will have to."

However softly spoken, it amounts to a call to arms, Saracens setting out on a crusade.