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Are Saracens losing their soul?

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Simon Austin | 10:25 UK time, Thursday, 3 September 2009

"I notice you're asking a lot of questions about South Africa," Richard Hill said wearily when I quizzed him about the changing face of Saracens a few weeks ago.

The back row legend is now part of the club's commercial department, having hung up his boots last season.

And in common with most other officials at Vicarage Road, Hill gets tetchy when you ask him about the growing South African influence at a club he served with such distinction as a player.

"If I didn't agree with the strategy the club has, I wouldn't be part of it," he says firmly.

Head coach Brendan Venter and captain Steve BorthwickCoach Venter and captain Borthwick will lead Sarries into the new season

It's hardly surprising that people talk about a "South African takeover" at Saracens though.

The club's majority shareholder is billionaire Johann Rupert - the man behind the Mont Blanc, Dunhill and Cartier brands - who bought a 50% stake from Nigel Wray last January.

Four years ago, the South African tried to buy Division Two side Wakefield. His plan was to staff the club mainly with his countrymen and to change their name to "London Tribe", but the takeover was blocked by the Rugby Football Union.

So there has inevitably been speculation that Rupert is trying to do the same thing with Saracens, only by different means.

These rumours intensified earlier this year, when the club announced that former Springbok Brendan Venter was to take over from Australian Eddie Jones as their coach.

Venter has appointed former Boks team-mate Cobus Visagie as one of his assistants, while seven of the 13 players he has signed are South African, taking the total number in the squad to 11.

Add in the fact that Sarries are negotiating to face the Springboks in London on 17 November and that their new shirt sponsor is Johannesburg-based USN and you get a distinctly South African flavour at the club, no matter what officials there may say to the contrary.

The club's open and articulate chief executive Edward Griffiths - who was South Africa's press officer when they won the 1995 World Cup - insists "the nature and character of the club remains" though.

First of all, he points out that Rupert does not own the club and that Britons Wray (20%), Nick Leslau (20%) and Dominic Silvester (10%) hold the rest of the shares.

He also insists it is only natural that Venter should sign a number of South African players, as well as an Italian, Fijian, Welshman and several Englishmen.

"Brendan has signed players from a market he knows well, where he can get good value. What's so bad about that? Arsene Wenger, for example, has done exactly the same thing by signing a number of French players at Arsenal."

Chief executive Edward GriffithsChief executive Edward Griffiths has ambitious plans for the club

He also points to Saracens' excellent academy, which is turning out a crop of promising young English players, such as Jackson Wray, Will Fraser, Jamie George and Noah Cato, who are being mentored by Hill in his second role with the club.

Griffiths admits, unashamedly, that Saracens are trying to attract London's ex-pat community of South Africans, many of whom are passionate about rugby but do not follow an English club.

"Saracens have made substantial losses over the last decade and we want to attract an audience far beyond our core support," Griffiths says.

"There are half a million South Africans in London so, of course, we are trying to bring them to Vicarage Road.

"Don't you think other clubs, like Harlequins, London Irish and Wasps, are trying to do the same thing?"

And the club seems to be having considerable success in expanding its supporter base.

Saracens have already sold 30% more season tickets than at the same stage last season and 25,000 tickets have been sold for their Wembley match against Northampton on 12 September.

Griffiths believes the total crowd for the game will be at least 40,000, doubling the previous record for a Saracens' "home" game, and there are plans for a second match at Wembley this season.

The match will be preceded by a performance from Britain's Got Talent winners Diversity and tickets for adults cost only £10.

On Saturday, Saracens kick off their league campaign against London Irish in the first leg of the annual "double header" at Twickenham.

It all adds to the impression of a club that's going places. But what do the fans think about the way they are getting there?

Schalk BritsSouth Africa international Schalk Brits is Sarries' "marquee signing"

Stuart Jones, chairman of the newly-formed Saracens supporters' association, says he "doesn't have a problem with the South African influence, as long as the team produces success" and adds that he has been impressed with the "energy and ideas" of Venter and Griffiths.

And what about the possibility of the club moving from Vicarage Road, which has been home since 1997, when they moved from Enfield?

The club has carried out research into the location of the South African population in the London area, discovering - somewhat unsurprisingly - that most are located in a strip running from Wimbledon to Shepherds Bush.

The club's contract to use Vicarage Road runs out at the end of the season, although they must give 12 months notice if they want to move, meaning a switch would take place in time for the 2011/12 season at the earliest.

Griffiths insists Sarries are keen to stay, although there are persistent rumours of a possible move to west London.

Jones admits: "I think there is an emotional attachment to Vicarage Road - it's been home since the start of the professional era, it's where Kris Chesney (Saracens' record appearance maker, who left at the end of last season) played his last game for the club and we won most of our home games there last season."

But he concedes: "If we moved we would lose some fans and gain others, just like Wasps did when they moved to High Wycombe and London Irish when they went to Reading."

What is beyond doubt is that these are eventful times for Sarries and perhaps the last word on their new era should go to Hill, who has been at the club for 16 years, experiencing both amateurism and the "Wray revolution", when the former owner signed foreign stars such as Francois Pienaar and Michael Lynagh.

"This is definitely an exciting period for the club," Hill says. "We have some excellent players here and I would just urge people to have faith in what the new owners are trying to do."

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