Six, seven or even eight hundred thousand South Africans live in London and the south east of England, and most of them are devoted rugby followers with no appetite for football. Until now, this significant group has not attached itself to any particular professional rugby…
Now, they have SAracens… the clue is in the name.
Founded in 1876, this established north London club played in a public park; for more than a century, before every match, a club official needed to clear up what the local dogs had carelessly left behind.
At the dawn of professionalism in rugby union, in 1996, a former player and property millionaire named Nigel Wray took over the club and his investment prompted the recruitment of international star players such as Michael Lynagh, Francois Pienaar and Philippe Sella. In 1998, the club won it’s only major title – the Tetley Bitter Cup – and all seemed well.
More big names arrived in the years that followed, recruited by a total of nine coaches in nine seasons, but the team continued to languish in mid-table and home crowds flat-lined at an average of 8,000 spectators.
In February 2009, Wray and his fellow shareholders were approached by the South African company Venfin, chaired by Johann Rupert. A deal was done and the investors duly bought 50% of Premier Team Holdings, the company owning Saracens and three other sports-related businesses.
News of this major SA investment has begun to filter though the SA community in London, and local ‘Saffers’ are starting to wonder if they have found not only a rugby club, but an institution, to hold them together.
“There is certainly a need for something,” says Johan van Rensburg, a banker working in the City and living in Fulham for the past five years. “Some ventures have addressed the community, but nothing is so well suited to pull everybody together and create a genuine gees as a rugby club.”
The SAracens adventure is underway. Building on its traditional base in north London and Hertfordshire, the club is keenly seeking the support of ex-patriate South Africans – staging ‘high profile’ matches at Wembley, complete with SA beer, food and entertainment, creating a Kings Park- style pre and post game atmosphere at its home ground in Watford, and recruiting a number of South African players to contribute towards a winning team.
The prospects are excellent – a focal point for the SA community, a winning team and an outstanding social vibe on match days.