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While there is considerable substance to the Guinness Premiership’s claims to provide the strongest club rugby in the world, for half the season it lives a strange, submerged existence.
While retaining aficionado loyalty, with crowds still rising, it lost wider public attention when the autumn internationals began in November and only truly resurfaces this weekend following the conclusion of the RBS 6 Nations. In that time each club has played exactly half a season – 11 matches.
In some respects, little has changed. Sale remain top, with Wasps their closest pursuers and both Gloucester and Leicester cherishing serious top-four ambitions a little further away. Leeds are still bottom, the subject of anxious glances from Bristol, Bath, Newcastle and Northampton. Worcester have dropped two places. But the Premiership’s solid centre on November 5 – Saracens and London Irish, who were sixth and seventh with 16 points apiece – has exploded apart.
Eleven games on, Irish have tripled their points total to 48. Nobody did better than their 18 points from the six international weekends. They are now third, just ahead of Leicester and Gloucester, less successful without their international stars. A 20,000 crowd is predicted for today’s visit by Sale.
Saracens have taken just 16 points from those 11 rounds – only four from the five non-international weekends. Only Leeds, who gained ground with four of their five league wins and 17 points on international weekends, still trail them.
Sarries’ last home crowd on a non-international day, against well-supported Gloucester on January 8, was just under 6,500. This was supposed to be the year when they finally fulfilled their potential. A fine second half last season under the coaching of Steve Diamond took them into the Heineken Cup and persuaded one eminently sane national rugby correspondent to tip them to top the Premiership.
Ill-luck has played its part. Neither high-profile rugby league signing Andrew Farrell nor iconic England flanker Richard Hill has played a Premiership minute because of injury. Tomorrow they will entertain Worcester minus France full-back Thomas Castaignède and three players – Richard Haughton, David Seymour and Ben Russell – on England Sevens duty.
A point off the play-offs on November 20, their subsequent headlong decline cost Diamond his job.
But struggle and decline date back further than November. Driven by owner Nigel Wray’s money and the marketing genius of Peter Deakin, Sarries were the fast risers of early professionalism in the late 1990s, but have stagnated since. Their crowds this year are about 8 per cent better than six seasons ago, but that compares with a rise nearer 80 per cent across the Premiership. Then only two clubs, Leicester and Northampton, pulled higher numbers. Now only Leeds trail them.
Saracens led the exodus from London followed by Irish and Wasps. But where Irish have been buttressed by ethnic identity and Wasps by on-field success, Sarries – for all the excellence of their schools and development work – still look a club in search of an identity, marooned in a cold, charmless Watford stadium whose 20,000 capacity too often destroys atmosphere.
The arrival as consultant of former Australia coach Eddie Jones may have checked the on-field malaise, his debut being a 15-9 win away to Sale two weeks ago. The players have been refreshed by warm-weather training in Portugal and know victory over Worcester would send them to Leeds next Friday a Headingley win away from securing Premiership status.
But the wider enigma, the failure of the club that once seemed to be doing everything right, will take more than a couple of wins to solve.