Wednesday 19 June 2019

Surpassing Lynagh era the aim as Sarries bid for glory

David Kelly

David Kelly

DESPITE its relative infancy, professional rugby union still harbours memories of which a vast swathe of its modern -- mercifully ever increasing -- followers are mostly ignorant.

Thirteen years ago, the IRB in Paris confirmed what most of the southern hemisphere had assumed for years and the amateur game in the north lurched frantically into the modern era.

Except in Ireland, where the IRFU blazers lowered their newspapers and tutted as a parent might at a chocolate-covered infant pawing their creamy white golf shoes.

The Irish provinces stumbled bleary-eyed into the new era with little guidance from their slumbering overlords -- Munster coach Declan Kidney still smiles at the memory of the couple of hundred hardy souls who used to brave interprovincial clashes in Dooradoyle.


In England, things proceeded a tad more manically. The starting gun left some -- former giants Coventry, for example, -- floundering while others -- Newcastle -- took advantage of the dithering of their own collection of old farts and drove the revolution themselves.

Where Newcastle had John Hall, Saracens had Nigel Wray, who spent the first of an estimated £20m persuading the crusading 'galacticos' to pitch up for England's rugby revolution.

Australia's record points scorer Michael Lynagh was the first name on the list.

"I remember getting a letter -- that shows you how long ago this is -- and I was immediately transfixed by what Nigel and the club were trying to do," recalled the former out-half and Sky Sports analyst for tomorrow's clash.

Lynagh had retired from international rugby after Australia's World Cup defence was ended by England in 1995 and went to Treviso for a season, picking up a decent wedge along with an Italian wife. Sydney beckoned for the newlyweds until Wray's missive popped through his letterbox.

"It was a bit wetter and colder than I'd planned," Lynagh continued. "And we were still amateur, for that first season anyway. We trained at night, two or three times, the facilities weren't great. Not that they were great in Australia -- we were amateurs, we didn't know any better."

The side didn't hit their straps during that first season as their form tapered dramatically after Christmas. Having ditched Bramley Road for Enfield, Wray then took his boldest step yet.

Becoming the only man to suspect that the Watford Gap was vast enough to accommodate rugby union, Wray carted the club to Vicarage Road. It was an inspired decision.

"The formula was set in stone," offered Lynagh, who became a pied piper for world giants of the game to arrive in the unlikely rugby heartland of Hertfordshire. The tabloids lapped it up. The ponytails in marketing dreamed up a wheeze which saw their supporters transformed into fez-wearing disciples. Saracens were a professional phenomenon.

The 1997/98 season was magic. The twin big spenders of Newcastle and Saracens went toe to toe for League honours; the former edged a terrific season-long tussle but Saracens destroyed Wasps to claim Cup glory.

Lynagh and Sella bade farewell, confident they had helped lay the foundations for a perennially successful outfit. "At that stage where rugby was at, we thought that we'd cracked it," recalled Lynagh. "That seemed to be the template and the personalities worked brilliantly together."

Saracens haven't won a trophy since. In this tale of hare and tortoise, Munster have developed into one of the most formidable of Heineken Cup participants, an unlikely scenario to witnesses of that uncertain late-1990s period.

Even though the stars kept coming -- Ireland's first two Lions representatives from the Wallace family, Paul and Richie, among them -- and Wray kept signing the cheques, the results didn't reflect the vaulting ambition.

Finishes of fourth, fifth, 10th, eighth and 10th were clearly underwhelming. Sandwiched in the middle were those epic clashes with Munster in the Heineken Cup in the 1999-2000 campaign -- Munster won both by a point but the gap between the sides was growing wider.

Saracens have been on the outside looking in at Europe's elite more often than not and, when Eddie Jones arrives this summer to replace Leinster-bound Alan Gaffney, he will be their 12th coach of the open era.

"I think the fact that players were becoming coaches without experience was a problem," admitted Lynagh. Pienaar had been appointed coach and when made chief executive, he named Wayne Shelford as his successor.

With stronger personalities than Lynagh and Sella in the dressing-room, unity was a problem and underpinned much of the club's underachievement. The fans started to drift away and 3,000 crowds were soon the norm at dour relegation struggles.

Even Pienaar's departure in 2002 failed to stop the rot. Another Australian aided the redressing of the balance. Gaffney's arrival consolidated a policy of ignoring high-profile 'stars', instead concentrating on intelligent recruitment and judicious use of the club's youth system. Ironically, the one-time glamour boys hadn't even one member of England's international or 'A' squad this spring.

"Alan has definitely settled the ship. The perception of the club as city slickers trying to buys success has changed radically. Unlike Munster, they couldn't trade on parochialism, so they've had to adapt and they're doing much better now."

Nevertheless, their only trophy remains that Tetley's Bitter Cup success. Fans Supporters still recall Lynagh's stunning last-minute drop goal to beat Newcastle in a top of the table clash watched by over 20,000.

"It was nice to get one over on Rob Andrew because he'd taken our World Cup crown with a similar effort," Lynagh smiled. "Saracens have never had a better day at home, before or since."

Tomorrow, despite moving 'home' to Coventry, they will be attempting to change that particular perception.

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