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Mark Darbon: A Letter to Saints Supporters

As Christmas approaches, I wanted to provide an update from the Club, and also highlight some important recent news that will affect supporters attending upcoming matches at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.

Unfortunately, coronavirus infections caused by the Omicron variant are rising rapidly and we will all face some uncertainty over the next few months. As a result, the Government has introduced a number of new Covid-19 protocols for sporting events with more than 10,000 attendees. In short, the new protocols require Saints supporters to provide proof of either double vaccination, or a negative Covid-19 test, to legally enter the stadium. Supporters are also now required to wear face coverings in all indoor areas of the stadium, unless eating or drinking.

If you are planning to attend our next home fixture against Saracens on Sunday 2 January 2022, please take the time to familiarise yourself with the new protocols by CLICKING HERE. Furthermore, if you are in any doubt about the protocols, or you have a query that is not covered on the Club website, please email [email protected].

The Saracens fixture will be very busy, so I urge supporters to arrive at cinch Stadium in plenty of time before the game to help our stewards implement the new protocols and prevent large queues at the turnstiles as kick-off approaches. Also, for those supporters making their way down the Twickenham Stadium on Monday 27 December for the Big Game against Harlequins, please CLICK HERE for some essential information.

Please note, if Government guidance does change again after Christmas, we’ll try and communicate how this might impact you as soon as possible.  

On the field, the first half of the season has been encouraging. Home wins against Gloucester, London Irish, Worcester Warriors and Bath, an excellent second successive victory at Sandy Park against Exeter Chiefs, and a rare triumph at Ashton Gate over Bristol Bears sees us sitting third in the Gallagher Premiership table. Despite a disappointing start to our Heineken Champions Cup campaign, Chris Boyd and his coaching team believe there is still plenty more to come from our squad of players and everyone remains focussed on our goal of lifting silverware come June. As we saw last year, momentum is everything, and if we remain in contention for knock-out rugby we can beat anyone on our day.

In the Autumn, we were extremely proud to see several of our squad winning international honours, including Courtney Lawes, Dan Biggar, Sam Matavesi, Api Ratuniyarawa, Frank Lomani, George Furbank and Alex Mitchell. A special mention must go to Courtney who joined an exclusive list of Saints players to have captained England.

Meanwhile our Club captain, Lewis Ludlam, has led the team by example in his first season at the helm with some incredible individual performances. He really does give absolutely everything when he pulls on the Black Green and Gold jersey and is also a wonderful role model off the field. It was no surprise that he was called into Eddie Jones’ squad again even though he was not capped this autumn, and in his absence, I was thrilled to see 22-year-old Senior Academy product Alex Coles captain the Club for the first time during the opening rounds of the Premiership Rugby Cup. 

Our Academy continues to go from strength to strength, consistently producing players like Alex who are able to make the step up to Premiership level. Five more Academy players in Geordie Irvine, Kayde Sylvester, Tom Lockett, George Hendy, and Ethan Grayson all made their senior debuts in the Premiership Rugby Cup, while five members of our Under-18s squad were selected for the most-recent England development camp, and Saints Under-18s got their season underway with a bang on Friday evening by beating our old rivals Leicester Tigers 36-22 at Bedford Athletic.

It is very encouraging to see our matchday squads littered with home-grown talent from the Academy, a strategy we place heavy emphasis on. However, we also recognise the need to enhance the squad where appropriate, and as such we are actively looking to strengthen the squad in a number of key areas, details of which will be announced in due course.

To attract the best players in the world, we must continue to invest in our facilities, which is one of the reasons we have submitted a planning application to West Northamptonshire Council Planning Authority for the construction of a new indoor training centre. The development would be located to the south of cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens on a section of one of the Club’s existing outdoor pitches, will provide year-round training facilities, and also be available for community use. So far, our discussions with the council have been very positive and we are hopeful our application will be fully supported.

Our new relationship with Loughborough Lightning also continues to develop positively. In October, the squad trained at the Gardens for the first time ever, before watching Saints vs Worcester Warriors in the evening. We will announce Lightning’s first fixture to be played at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens early in the new year. Our plan is for a ‘double header’ event, combining a Saints Premiership fixture with one of Lightning’s Premier 15s fixtures, so do look out for that.

Staying with Women’s Rugby, in November the Club was delighted to welcome a crowd of just under 10,000 to watch England Women beat New Zealand’s Black Ferns 56-15. As part of the day, Saints’ community team hosted a girls-specific rugby festival where over 1,000 girls and their families enjoyed a taste of rugby on our training pitches, followed by the international match. We hope the Red Roses’ resounding victory inspired many young female rugby players in our region to fall in love with our game – and there are plenty more opportunities with Lightning’s fixture at the Gardens firmly on the horizon, plus Loughborough have now teamed up with our community team again for 2022, delivering more girls-only rugby camps in February and then in the summer at Stowe School.

In the community, Northampton Saints continue to deliver a range of important and impactful programmes across our region. Despite ongoing restrictions and ever-changing guidance, our team have delivered to over 2,300 students across 44 schools during the 2021/22 academic year so far. It has been a record-breaking year once again for rugby camps, with more participants than ever before at our flagship Stowe Residential Camps and October half-term camps, while Saints Community have also found time to launch three new programmes in 2021 – Streetfit, Shred 7s, and Mencap’s All Move – to help promote the game of rugby and the importance of both physical fitness and mental wellbeing to people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Last month, Saints Wheelchair Rugby collected the Club’s first piece of silverware of the season when they topped the WR5s Championship division. The team won 11 out of their 12 matches over three weekends, and have been promoted back into the Premiership. We are delighted with their achievement and huge congratulations must go to head coach Jamie Higgins, team captain Gerry McCrory, and the entire squad of players and support staff for their efforts.

Financially, I am delighted the Club is back moving in the right direction. Our multi-year partnership with cinch is thriving, and in recent months we have renewed a number of key commercial partnerships (including Travis Perkins, GRS Roadstone, Michael Jones Jeweller, Nutrition X and Triad) as well as agreeing brand-new deals with SPOKE, BMI Three Shires, and 2XU. Attendances this season have been pleasing – meaning income from ticketing, hospitality and retail has been strong – while our conferencing and event business has also bounced back well. Predictably the omicron variant has slowed business recently, but we remain hopeful that further Government restrictions are not necessary. A return to playing matches behind closed doors, or partial crowds, would again have a significant impact on the Club’s finances.

Lastly, I wanted to encourage as many supporters as possible to apply be part of our newly-launched Supporter Engagement Group. The Group will meet representatives from Saints’ Board and Executive to discuss ideas for how the Club can better engage with our followers, and deliver a best-in-class matchday experience at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens. The idea was born out of a recognition that we could continue do better to connect with our supporters on a number of key fan-facing aspects of our delivery around the Club. We hope the Group will both hold us to account and work alongside us, to get the best for our supporters and for Northampton Saints. To apply to join Saints’ Supporter Engagement Group, please complete the application form found HERE before the deadline (11.59pm on Saturday 8 January 2022).

We look forward to welcoming you to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens again soon, but until then have a Merry Christmas and happy and healthy New Year.

Mark Darbon signature

Mark Darbon
Chief Executive

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