Saracens switch can kick-start rugby revival

SARACENS’ plans to build a 10,000 seater multi-purpose sports venue at Barnet Copthall should invigorate local interest in rugby, according to several notable figures in the sport.

The Premiership rugby giants have been eyeing a move to the Mill Hill venue since last year, when their landlords at Watford’s Vicarage Road reportedly activated a break clause in their ground share agreement.

Saracens have since held consultations to allay fears relating to the proposed �10m stadium on the ground that currently houses Hendon and Mill Hill rugby clubs, Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers Athletics Club and Kentish Town FC.

Saracens had an earlier bid to move to Copthall refused at the turn of the millennium when Hendon RFC opposed the move, citing a lack of consultation.

But news that the club have submitted a planning application to Barnet Council has been welcomed by David Gershlick, the president of Hendon RFC, who believes the move will have wide-ranging benefits to local sports.

“The prime reason Hendon opposed the first move was the simple fact that Saracens tried to steamroller their way in, without consultation with either Hendon or Mill Hill,” Gershlick told Ham&High Sport.

“These were the early days of professional rugby and it seemed to both local clubs that Saracens’ presence would wipe out our existence by staging a spectator game on their doorstep, with players opting to watch and not play every Saturday afternoon.

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“This time both have been consulted throughout. Fears of games every Saturday have been put to bed with Saracens only playing approximately 12 home games in the stadium. The other home matches will be played at Wembley Stadium and Twickenham.

“Furthermore, with television coverage, Saracens have agreed that games will be played Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday.

“To Copthall itself, it will bring a long overdue facelift to a very run-down stadium. It was built as the major north London venue for athletics in around 1968, but over the last 10 years no major athletics event has been held in the stadium.

“We envisage that the local community programme being set up by Saracens to encourage the playing of rugby in all the local schools will help boost numbers.

“It is this hopeful recruitment of youngsters that will ensure amateur rugby continues to flourish in north London, not only for Hendon but the many other local clubs that will all benefit from the Saracens’ presence.”

Alex Airey, the chairman of Mill Hill RFC, agreed, saying: “I think there will be a big increase in interest and will raise the profile of rugby in this area.

“I do think we will get a few more kids [joining Mill Hill RFC] but what smaller clubs like us have to deal with is that young players are keen to sign with the big clubs. If they don’t make the grade when they are 16 or 17 years old they can be lost to the game.

“What we have to focus on is the youth level. If the young players do get an interest [at local level], they may stay with the sport.”

Geoff Boxer, the chairman of the Middlesex Rugby Development Partnership, who represent the RFU’s vision for developing youth rugby in the UK, is another who sees benefits from Saracens’ arrival.

“Should Saracens’ proposed move to Copthall be confirmed, then I would expect it to have many positive effects,” Boxer said. “It is likely that it would invigorate the area both in terms of rugby and the local economy.

“In showcasing the game to the neighbouring densely populated community, there may well be many young people who are exposed to the game for the first time, and who then decide to take it up.

“If that was the case, the county, through the Middlesex Rugby Development Partnership and its many resources, would be ready to support them.

“In line with our vision for the whole county, we see young people who are newly attracted to rugby as the future players, coaches, referees, administrators and volunteers for our game.”

Shaftesbury Barnet AC will be another beneficiary from Saracens’ arrival after it was confirmed that they will be remaining at Copthall if the plans go ahead.

Not all clubs are so content, though, with the news coming as a hammer blow to Spartan League outfit Kentish Town FC, who will be forced to find a new home.

Franco Zanre, Kentish Town’s director of football, said: “It leaves us pretty hopeless to be honest, that’s the bottom line. It could be the end for the club.

“It seems Saracens just don’t want to entertain the idea of football on the pitch.”