Saracens rise to record-breaking occasion
Tom Hamilton at Wembley
March 22, 2014
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"Welcome one and all to Saracens, and to Wembley, Theatre of Dreams," was the greeting laid out by Saracens' chairman Nigel Wray in the matchday programme. Saracens have recently been at the forefront of stretching the sport to new limits and frontiers. Against Harlequins, they got everything they wanted, a five-point win and a world record crowd. Not bad for a club who drew 6,380 to this corresponding fixture 10 seasons ago.
As you walked down Wembley Way, a place steeped in nostalgia for a different sport, it did not feel like a rugby match. It didn't ooze the same aura as the stroll from Twickenham station to the stadium, it felt like rugby was encroaching on football's hallowed turf.
On approach to the stadium there were hints of a rugby match about to be played out, pictures of Steve Borthwick and Owen Farrell were wrapped around the ground and there were the usual programme and scarf sellers, alongside the inevitable touts, all attempting to attract your custom. But as you walked up to the ground, it was still a place for football. Seven five-a-side pitches flank the stadium while Bobby Moore's statue stands looming over the concourse.
Saracens did their best to turn it in to a festival atmosphere but there was not the same West Car Park feel as you get at Twickenham - one potential space for such a construction housed a lone burger van stationed next to a bar in name but which bore little resemblance to the fancy gazebos you get at Twickenham these days. When Wembley hosts two of the 2015 Rugby World Cup matches in a year's time, you imagine the organisers will want to address this and create a venue where people will flock to with a view to soaking up the pre-match atmosphere.
Every time Saracens venture to Wembley, there is a feeling of it becoming a bigger occasion year on year. This was their 11th jaunt to the stadium. When they first played here against Northampton back in September 2009, 44,832 people turned up to see them win 19-16. Much has changed since then.
Apart from their overplayed club songs which attempt to fill any voids in play, the numbers of people taking in the occasion have nearly doubled. The official attendance was 83,889, a full 228 more than their attendance here against Harlequins in 2012 - though as Austin Healey cheekily said during the half-time break on BT's coverage of the game, it seemed some supporters had come to the match wearing red and dressed as seats.
Such was the paucity of bars surrounding the stadium, many punters took to their seats a fair while before kick-off. They were 'treated' to numerous tribute bands before the start of the game - they kicked off with Noasis, followed by Elvis, Whitney Houston and then Elton John. Sponsor-branded cabs also flanked two corners of the ground. At half-time Olympian Greg Rutherford had a chance to win £1 million for a charity had he caught three high balls in a row, he clasped two and scooped £10,000 instead.
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And despite the presence of the added entertainment and a rock choir, of which its number was well into four figures, there was rugby on show. The game itself stuttered between a high tempo and walking pace. The crowd waited just five minutes for the Mexican Wave to spontaneously do a circuit of Wembley as David Strettle lay stricken on the turf.
Despite various forays from Harlequins into the Saracens' 22, the 'home' side always looked comfortable. They did not have to work hard for two of their tries, they were offered up via intercept passes and the sheer intensity of their hands and clever rugby saw them cross on another three occasions. Though Owen Farrell was named Man of the Match, Sarries' second-row George Kruis equally deserved the accolade. It never looked like it was going to be anything other than a Saracens win, a victory on their big day out.
Saracens have a network few can rival with the Moscow branch of their franchise sitting in the crowd while their contingent from Sao Paulo wished them well over the big screen prior to the match. But big days will count for little if it does not help them on their way to silverware this season. That has to be the ultimate goal for any sports team away from manufactured razzmatazz.
Prior to the match Edward Griffiths, Saracens' CEO, said he "didn't really care" how many true Saracens fans were in the crowd "as long as they become rugby fans". What each individual takes away from the game only they will know.
For Harlequins boss Conor O'Shea, despite seeing his team fall to defeat, he was full of praise for the day. "You play sport to be involved in these occasions. Obviously you want to win them because you go home happier, but the occasion itself was outstanding. It would be great to play in front of 80,000 every week ... Saracens put on a good show".
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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