By Simon Jackson
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Saracens will unveil their new £24million Allianz Park stadium at Barnet Copthall to the public for the first time when they play Exeter Chiefs in a league match on February 16.
The 2010-11 Aviva Premiership champions are making history as the first professional rugby union club in the world to play on a wholly artificial pitch.
They looked right at home on Sunday as they beat Cardiff Blues in an LV Cup pool match, which doubled as the second of two test events for the new ground and was restricted to season ticket holders.
The grand opening against Exeter is the first of five league games scheduled for the 10,000-seat stadium at the back end of this season, and it brings to an end an itinerant period for Saracens, who were founded in 1876 and played their first match at Primrose Hill.
Based for the past 16 years at Watford FC’s Vicarage Road, the men in black were forced to seek a new home when their landlords activated a break clause in their ground share agreement in 2010.
Saracens have been patient in the construction of the multi-purpose sports venue and have expressed their satisfaction as the finishing touches are completed on their new home, which offers permanent seating for 3,000 – and that can be increased to 10,000 by dismountable stands around the £500,000 artificial pitch.
“From a rugby perspective it [the construction] has gone well,” Saracens’ finance director Jon Hall told Ham&High Sport.
“Everything structural will be in place for February 16 and the only thing that won’t be ready is one of the car parks, which will have capacity for 700 cars.”
Sarries are to share the impressive complex with Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers Athletics Club as well as local schools, who will have regular access to the vastly-improved athletics venue.
The largest building is the East Stand which, along with the smaller West Stand, includes a section of dismountable seating.
The East Stand boasts facilities including a dining room that seats 500 people, a bar that runs the length of the stand and caters for 1,000, and a premier lounge bar called the Tulip Club. There are 16 boxes which can each seat 30 people and will double as meeting rooms.
Both stands offer excellent views of the pitch and the surrounding running track, while the East Stand houses a large indoor running track and a training area.
“There are four lanes around the track that Shaftesbury Barnet can use all the time, and eight during the summer,” said Hall. “There will be 4,000 seats there to watch athletics.
“The players will still train at St Albans but will come in to train here twice a week, and the pitch will be available for 30 hours a week for schools to use.”
The pitch has aroused significant interest from rugby officials, who were offered the chance to view the new facility last week.
“We have invited all sorts of people – other clubs, Premiership Rugby and the RFU [Rugby Football Union] – to come here to discuss the artificial pitch,” said Saracens’ high performance director Scott Murphy.
“The idea is to discuss its impact on rugby, safety, player concerns and to get as much information as we can out to all parties who will be involved with playing on this pitch.
“I think people are very surprised when they come in and see the quality of the installation and the quality of the product, and I think it is significantly better than most people had been exposed to previously with artificial turf.”
Hendon RFC’s clubhouse and pitches are within the Copthall playing fields complex, and their president David Gershlick believes his club will benefit from the new facilities.
“We have already discussed the possibility of Hendon playing matches at the ground and we are also hoping to use the ground for the next Middlesex County meeting as there are offices above the bar area under the East Stand,” Gershlick said.
“The first of the test games was a school match and the second was Saracens’ LV Cup game against Cardiff.
“The arrival of Saracens will be hugely influential in the community, it is a family inspired club. I am looking forward to going along and hosting other rugby clubs and going along with them to the game.
“I think Saracens have been getting average gates of five to six thousand. There is no reason for them not to sell out the full capacity here.”