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Mark Darbon: A Letter to Saints Supporters

With the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season drawing to a close at the end of May, I wanted to briefly reflect on some of the key moments from this campaign, offer my thanks to everyone who has supported the Club this season, and provide an update on what’s happening around cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens over the next few months.

Watching the Premiership final felt more bitter than sweet. It was an entertaining match, and I want to congratulate Saracens on a well-earned title, as well as Sale Sharks for making it an event to remember and for representing the north of England so strongly in our competition’s showpiece game.

However, seeing Saints reach the Premiership semi-finals for the third time in five seasons, but not progress further, really hurts for everyone at the Club, just as I am sure it hurts for our supporters. We know we have to improve throughout the season; standalone play-off matches are where the title is won and lost, but across the year Saints need to be more consistent on the pitch to put ourselves in the best possible position to secure a top-two finish and an all-important home semi-final. The stats tell you only once in the last 16 semi-finals have the away side progressed, so if we are to lift the trophy we all crave, that has to be where we start. The game at Saracens was hugely frustrating for a number of reasons, and we subsequently raised several questions with the RFU relating to the officiating of the match via the appropriate channels. But, putting that to one side, the following Monday the Club’s staff all gathered together to reflect on the season and enthusiastically begin to plan how we can improve both on and off the pitch in 2023/24.

The Premiership final brought to a close a turbulent campaign which saw both Wasps and Worcester Warriors exit the league, but this week the disruption continued and London Irish’s suspension has now been confirmed. A proposed takeover of the club failed to materialise, which meant Irish could not pay its staff or provide the necessary financial assurances that they could complete next season. This is incredibly sad for their players, staff and for the whole league, but perhaps most of all for their supporters, for whom following London Irish through thick and thin has been a lifelong commitment – and so I must express my deepest sympathy and best wishes for everyone associated with the Exiles.

Clearly, the exit of Irish from the Premiership will have an impact on our own schedule for the 2023/24 season. Rest assured, as soon as we have the finalised schedule for the competitions in which we participate, we will take the appropriate steps to ensure that all of our Season Ticket Holders, Box Holders and Seasonal Hospitality Guests continue to get fantastic value for money at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens. We will share more information on this front as soon as we are able to do so.

There’s no doubt we are operating in an extremely challenging financial environment, both in the wider economic context and more specifically within the Premiership, with some clubs across the league struggling to make ends meet. I am incredibly proud of how Northampton Saints has continued to react to these challenges and plan for the future – our last set of annual financial results were encouraging, but despite very strong commercial performance, in reality the pandemic put Saints’ financial plan back by approximately three plus years. We are in a resilient position, have a track record of responsible financial management, and a clear plan for the future, which fills us with optimism. But we need you all to continue to stand by our side in the months and years ahead. We have to become a cash-generative operation as soon as possible, to ensure we avoid the challenges that other Premiership clubs have faced this season. That is difficult in this challenging environment, but we have every confidence in our approach.

The London Irish news also highlighted the importance of remodelling the Professional Game Agreement and ensuring the league’s next broadcast rights deal is attractive to create a more sustainable world for elite rugby in England. We will be working with PRL, its investors, the RFU and the RPA over the months ahead to ensure that when both current agreements expire at the end of the 2023/24 campaign, we are in a position for the league, its clubs and its players to prosper and evolve in the seasons ahead to match the demands of modern professionalism.

Returning to on field matters, you always have to look to the future, and we are confident we have the squad in place to challenge for silverware during 2023/24. Saints continue to play the some of the most exciting rugby in the Premiership, topping the stats charts once again in 2022/23 for points and tries scored, clean breaks, metres made, line breaks, defenders beaten, gainline success and more. We qualified for the Premiership semi-finals for the third time in five seasons with the youngest squad in the league, containing the most home-grown players (over 70%) of any team.

Our squad will return for preseason training in mid-June and planning is already well underway to ensure we make progress over the next campaign. Phil Dowson and his team of coaches are restless to get going again. We will have a long preseason in a Rugby World Cup year, have re-signed several key players (including Courtney Lawes, Juarno Augustus, Tommy Freeman, Ollie Sleightholme, Emmanuel Iyogun and Alex Waller), and will welcome some very exciting new faces to our group such as Burger Odendaal, Curtis Langdon, Temo Mayanavanua and Tom Seabrook. Our recruitment for next season is not yet complete, and with a few spaces in our squad still to fill, we are working around the clock to find top-class players who can make a big impact in a Black, Green and Gold jersey.

The completion of our High Performance Centre in March has been a really welcome addition, and no doubt we will reap the rewards both on and off the pitch moving forwards. During the off-season, we are continuing to invest in our facility, and you will notice a number of improvements to the stadium when you return for our first matches in September. On that note, we have just received the results from our End of Season survey, and we were delighted to see our customer satisfaction scores grow again for the third year in succession. The survey highlights a lot of areas where we can make further progress, but our scores are amongst the very highest within the sports industry which is a fantastic reflection of the effort we have made to make the matchday experience at the Gardens the best in the business. My thanks go to everyone who submitted an entry – we are reviewing the responses in detail to learn how we can be even better next season.

Our Academy pathway continues to bear fruit with six players moving onto full-time senior contracts ahead of the new season, and our Under-18s side reaching their second consecutive Premiership final in 2022/23. Now at the end of its third year, our relationship with Bedford Blues goes from strength to strength with many of our young players regularly turning out at Goldington Road. It’s a fantastic partnership and the envy of many other Premiership clubs, which plays a big role in how we develop our players and optimise our squad.

Our partnership with Loughborough Lightning also continues to progress; six matches for our elite women’s side were played in Northampton this term, and I’m delighted to confirm that all of Lightning’s league matches will be played at the Gardens during the 2023/24 season. In addition, more work was done in the community than ever before to grow the sport – with thousands of women and girls engaged via camps, school visits and other events including hosting the Red Roses again here in Northampton. We are well on our way to creating an incredible legacy in our region for women’s rugby, and remain committed to our long-term ambition of building an elite player pathway system which will generate a high proportion of home-grown female players.

Wheelchair Rugby is also now firmly on the horizon again, with our WR5s Premiership champion Saints side looking to regain their crown over the coming months, and a new Wanderers team entering Division 2. The squad have been training hard over the winter, and begin their campaign in mid-June, so be sure to follow their progress and get over to Stoke Mandeville Stadium to support them if you can. No doubt you’ll be amazed by the fast and physical nature of the sport. Head coach Jamie Higgins has also begun to lead a new national programme for junior Wheelchair Rugby players, which has seen the Club partner with Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby – an incredibly strong indictment of the quality of our own junior delivery in the game.

With the men’s Rugby World Cup beginning in France at the start of September, we have an exciting few months ahead. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate our players who have represented the Club at international level over the last season – Courtney Lawes, Alex Mitchell, Lewis Ludlam, Tommy Freeman, Alex Coles, and Sam Matavesi – and wish them and our other international hopefuls luck in the selection process for the World Cup.

Saints’ season will begin in September with several rounds of the new Premiership Rugby Cup competition, before the Gallagher Premiership resumes in mid-October. Keep your eyes peeled for an announcement in the not-too-distant future on our preseason schedule, but before the rugby starts again, we do have a very busy summer ahead at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.

We’re now less than a month away from Sir Rod Stewart’s first-ever appearance in Northampton, supported by the equally brilliant Boy George and Culture Club – tickets for what is set to be a spectacular night at the stadium are still available HERE. Moreover, comedians Al Murray and Milton Jones will grace our stage tomorrow (last-minute tickets HERE), Bite Street (Northampton’s best street food pop-up) is returning to the Supporter Village throughout July and August, and Bo$$ Bingo lands at the Gardens on Friday 25 August (tickets HERE) for a special ‘Back to the 90s’ evening of party bingo. Our first corporate Touch Rugby tournament also takes place on Thursday 15 June on the main pitch. Some places for teams are still available, so to secure your spot at a day of interaction, bonding and networking with colleagues, friends and other businesses, email [email protected].

The diversity of these events demonstrates that cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens remains one of the leading multi-purpose venues in the country, and are crucial for us to continue to drive much-needed revenue into the Club over the summer months – so please do come along with your family and friends to enjoy them if you can.

Finally, I want to finish my end-of-season message by expressing how grateful we are for the huge contribution so many people make to ensure this great Club continues to thrive. I would like to thank our loyal Season Ticket Holders, Box Holders and Seasonal Hospitality Guests for their unwavering commitment week in, week out, as well as anyone who bought a match ticket or hospitality package at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens. Your backing has been truly outstanding with more than 95,000 of you passing through our gates this year, making up a total attendance of just over 200,000 people across all our home first-team matches. Not only does this create an incredible atmosphere for our playing group, which made a significant impact on our fantastic playing record on home soil this season, but it’s also extremely important for the club’s finances.

Our strong commercial year has also been underpinned by the ongoing support of our brilliant partners. Without exception, all of our partners have stood behind us amazingly, but I must make special mention of cinch after their first season as the Club’s Principal Partner. Their backing helps to drive Northampton Saints forwards, and we would not be where we are without them. I would also like to thank the whole team at Saints. I feel very fortunate to work with such talented and committed group of players, performance staff and commercial colleagues. Are we perfect? Certainly not, but as I write this letter, I am incredibly proud of everyone associated with the organisation, and I speak for the Barwell family, our other shareholders, and the Board when I thank everyone for your efforts.

I hope you all enjoy the summer months ahead of us. We can’t wait to welcome you all back to the ground for our first matches of the 2023/24 season in September, if not before for one of the fantastic summer events we have in store.

Mark Darbon signature

Mark Darbon
Chief Executive

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