As the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership season draws to a close on Saturday, I wanted to reflect on some of the key moments from this campaign and offer my thanks to everyone who has supported the Club this season.
It makes me incredibly proud to see how Saints touches so many people’s lives across Northamptonshire and beyond, and while it is impossible to thank everyone individually, I wanted my end of season message to convey how grateful we are for the huge contribution so many people make to ensure this great Club continues to thrive.
Firstly, I would like to thank anyone who bought a match ticket or hospitality package to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, not to mention our loyal Season Ticket Holders, box holders and seasonal hospitality guests for their unwavering commitment week in, week out. Your backing has been truly outstanding.
More than 220,000 of you have passed through the gates of Franklin’s Gardens this year and that has ensured that Saints has been one of only four Premiership Clubs this year to have seen attendances return to higher levels than they were pre pandemic. Not only does this create an incredible atmosphere for our playing group, but it’s also extremely important for the club’s finances as we look to emerge strongly from the impact of covid-19 and probably the most turbulent two years in the Club’s history.
It was truly humbling to see so many Saints shirts in amongst the Leicester crowd last weekend. At times it felt like we were the home crowd with chants of “Oh when the Saints…” ringing across Welford Road.
Despite falling short in the play-offs, we continue to be excited by the progress being made by our playing group. We believe the foundations are now in place for the Club to regularly compete for silverware in the years to come. Of course, this could not have been achieved without our departing Director of Rugby Chris Boyd who will be greatly missed. I am sure you will join me in thanking Chris for his dedication and hard work over the past four years. Chris has played an immeasurable role in growing this playing group and not only leaves us with the youngest squad in the league, with the highest proportion of home-grown players, but also a team that plays an exciting, free-flowing brand of rugby which entertains our supporters and attracts new fans to come and watch Saints at the Gardens every week.
He has also helped develop our highly talented group of coaches whom I would also like to thank. We are excited to see Phil Dowson, Sam Vesty, Matt Ferguson and Ian Vass, plus James Craig and Jake Sharp step up into next season. We’re blessed to have such a talented, English coaching group and I have been impressed with how they are already planning for next year and beyond.
"On a personal note, it has been wonderful to work with Chris and I would like to thank him for his leadership, support and guidance over the past four years."
He has really got under the skin of this great Club and we are therefore delighted that he will maintain a close relationship with Saints moving forwards.
Our playing squad will be the first to admit that they wouldn’t be able to reach the heights they do without the brilliant work of our wider rugby staff. The last couple of seasons have been more trying than most with the added complications posed by Covid. I can’t praise our support staff more highly. They work unbelievably hard in what is a long and unrelenting season these days, bringing a passion and quality to their work that we are very lucky to have.
In particular, I’d like to thank the medical teams led by Matt Lee – who have borne the brunt of the Covid regulations in recent times – but whether it’s the academy group, our strength and conditioning coaches, our analysts, and our wider management team, I know I speak on behalf of everyone associated with the Club when I say how thankful we are for their incredible efforts.
On the playing side, it has been fantastic to see Lewis Ludlam really step up in his captaincy role – his growth as a player and a leader is palpable and I congratulate him on his transition into that role supported, of course, by a very strong senior player group.
I congratulate our list of players who represented their countries over the course of the last 12 months and those touring this summer. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar who captained England and Wales in the Six Nations, in what was an incredibly proud moment for Saints. A special mention goes to Alex Waller too, who racked up 300 appearances in Black Green and Gold this term to become the most capped prop in league history and is now closing in on the all-time Premiership appearance record. How anyone could want to do what Alex does, let alone actually do it so well for so long, is a mystery to us mere mortals!
Now coming into its third year, our relationship with Bedford Rugby Club goes from strength to strength and it has been brilliant to see so many of our younger players donning a Blue shirt this season. It’s a great partnership, already the envy of many other Premiership clubs, and plays a big role in how we develop our players and optimise our squad.
Our Under-18s reached to the final of the Premiership Rugby U18 League this season. Sadly, they were unable to topple Bristol in the Final but had an excellent campaign, brilliantly led by Will Parkin and the other academy staff. Eight of the Under-18 group have signed senior contracts with the Club and we look forward to seeing them progress. On this front, Mark Hopley and the whole Academy team should be commended for the work they are doing to ensure the pipeline of talent at the Club remains strong, as well as Paul Shields for his efforts on the recruitment and retention front across the squad more broadly.
Elsewhere, our Wheelchair Rugby team won their league, the WR5s Championship, securing promotion into the Premiership, the top tier of the sport. Congratulations to coach Jamie Higgins and captain Gerry McCrory who have guided the team so brilliantly in recent years. As a reminder, the Wheelchair season begins in July so do please check the Club website for more information and give them your support – there are a couple of local fixtures planned for the 2022/23 season.
Following a successful Red Roses match here at cinch Stadium in the autumn, we hosted our first games at Franklin’s Gardens for Loughborough Lighting, our partner club for Women’s Rugby. Both games were brilliant – Lightning victories I should add – and we are hugely excited for how that relationship will continue develop into the future as the women’s game continues to explode.
Finally, to underpin our ambition for the future, the construction work on a new high-performance centre which is being built here at Franklin’s Gardens begins this month. In phase one this will deliver a half sized indoor training pitch to give us a genuine all-weather facility which really will transform our set-up and give us flexibility to expand and develop further over the next few years.
Away from sporting matters, our focus has been on bouncing back commercially from the pandemic. And, while the impact of the Covid has probably put our financial plan back by three years or so, I am pleased to say we have made excellent progress and are really optimistic for what’s to come.
In no small part, our strong year commercial has been underpinned by the ongoing support of our brilliant commercial partners. Without exception, our major partners have stood behind us amazingly through Covid, leaving us well positioned to bounce back strongly.
I must make special mention of Travis Perkins. This season has been the last year of their front of shirt sponsorship, one of the longest running relationships in all of sport. The Club would not be where it is today without their backing and we’re over the moon that they are maintaining their association with Saints, focused on our community activities moving forwards. In parallel, we’re delighted that cinch will be stepping up as lead partner from next season onwards, further enhancing the great relationship we have been building over the past couple of years.
It’s also been great to see a return to a full range of community activities. Back in 1880 this club was born out of a programme to enhance the lives of people in our community and we’re proud to continue those traditions today. Whether it’s coaching camps, educational programmes in schools, inclusion focused initiatives, mental health projects and, in particular, the growth of our women’s and girl’s rugby activities, we continue to create real community impact and have worked with over 20,000 people across the East Midlands and beyond this season. We also supported the Ukrainian refugee appeal, delivering 12 truckloads of items kindly donated by staff and supporters. Our charitable arm, the Northampton Saints Foundation too, goes from strength to strength, primarily focused on transforming the lives of young people who have fallen out of mainstream education
Alongside our community efforts, we have made good strides on the sustainability agenda. Led by our brilliant Finance and Operations Director, Julia Chapman, we have installed solar panels on the roof of three of our stands and have moved forward a broad suite of initiatives to underpin our strategy to ensure we are net zero in the not-too-distant future.
Are we perfect? Absolutely not, but I as I write this letter, I am incredibly proud of everyone associated with the organisation and I know I speak for the Barwell family, our other shareholders, and the Board when I thank each and every one of you for your efforts.
So, unless you’re joining us on Friday 24 June for Pete Tong & The Symphony Orchestra, enjoy the summer and we can’t wait to welcome you back again in September.