Ahead of the Club’s opening Gallagher Premiership clash against Gloucester Rugby, I wanted to write to you all to share my thoughts before the new season gets into full swing.
During the off-season there has been a real flurry of activity around the Club, as we prepare to welcome an unrestricted crowd to a league match for the first time in almost 18 months. I’ve been writing in my programme notes and letters for most of that time about how we have been counting down the days until our supporters can return to the stadium – and now the moment is finally upon us, I have no doubt emotions will be running high tomorrow afternoon. Make no mistake; the Club is still feeling the incredibly substantial impact of the pandemic, and we are not out of the woods yet. But we are pleased with the actions we have taken to weather the storm, and full of optimism about the future, with tomorrow’s game against Gloucester marking a big step forward on that journey.
I am also extremely optimistic about the position we find ourselves in off the pitch, heading into a brand-new season. Our Season Tickets sales have been very positive while our new home and away kits continue to fly off the shelves in record numbers inside the Saints Store – of course, I am in no way surprised given the incredible loyalty shown to the Club by our supporters during the pandemic for which I wholeheartedly thank you, again.
There is a clear feeling that many of you cannot wait to get back to the Gardens, and to be decked out from head to toe in Black, Green and Gold when they do. At this point I would like to acknowledge the small number of Season Ticket Holders who have had issues receiving and using their new cards, and sincerely apologise for the teething issues we have faced with our new system. Our team has worked tooth and nail this week to rectify these problems, so I hope this afternoon all you have to focus on is enjoying yourselves at the Gardens. Rest assured, if you are experiencing any lingering issues, we will act swiftly to rectify them.
While it feels like we are almost back to normal, there are still a few hurdles for us to clear. Frustratingly, there remains a nationwide shortage of catering and hospitality staff which is significantly impacting sporting venues across the country, meaning we will be operating with fewer numbers of staff than we would prefer tomorrow. We hope this is a short-term issue, and the Club and our catering partner Levy/Compass UK are leaving no stone unturned to rectify this and fill any gaps we have. But whilst we fully appreciate that long queues and slower service in our bars and Village is very frustrating, please remain patient with our staff who are here and working as hard as they can to deliver the top-class matchday experience you are used to.
You may have seen three very significant announcements made by the Club this week – all of which again highlight our determination to bounce back from the pandemic stronger than ever before. First of all, we announced an extension of our partnership with Travis Perkins, a relationship which already stretches back 20 years. We are delighted they have decided to renew their commitment to the Club until at least 2025, and while they remain as our Principal and front-of-shirt partner for this 20th anniversary season, it is testament to our superb connection with TP that they have looked to evolve our partnership. From next season onwards, TP will become Saints’ Headline Community Partner, focusing on driving a positive community impact through a series of exciting programmes, and using the power of rugby to make the game we all love more accessible across our region. TP continue as an Elite Partner of the Club and we look forward to many more years working together as our unique relationship continues to develop.
With Travis Perkins deciding to focus on the community game, this of course left room for a new Principal Partner for the Club, and we were also delighted to reveal this week that we have agreed a genuinely transformational deal with cinch. While they are one of our relatively new partners, coming on board late last year, our relationship with cinch has already blossomed into something very special. They have committed their support for the long term, with a new six year deal, and – having created thousands of jobs across Northamptonshire in recent years – they are relishing the prospect of helping to drive Saints towards success on the pitch.
As part of this new Principal Partnership agreement, cinch will take pride of place on the front of our home and away jerseys next season, and our iconic ground has been renamed ‘cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens’. This was a decision we did not take lightly. Franklin’s Gardens is as much a part of Northampton Saints as the Black, Green and Gold hoops on the jersey. We understand it may take some time for some of our supporters to get used to, but this naming rights agreement retains the heritage of the Franklin’s Gardens name, and, of course, the one-of-a-kind atmosphere around the stadium on matchday will never change. After an incredibly challenging 18 months, the partnership we have agreed with cinch – undoubtedly one of the most significant deals ever completed in domestic club rugby – represented a fantastic opportunity for the Club, which we hope in turn will create many more opportunities for growth on and off the pitch.
Speaking of growth on the pitch, we also were thrilled to announce a new partnership with Loughborough Lightning. This has been a long time in the making, and in joining up Saints with Loughborough University’s women’s team – who regularly challenge for honours at the top of the Allianz Premier 15s table – we have been able to enter the women’s game at the elite level. We are also firmly focused on using our expertise to ensure this new joint Lightning / Saints team cultivates the most-effective player pathway and academy system in the country, so we can identify the stars of the future and nurture them to ensure that our elite team is primarily home-grown for the long term.
Underpinning those two aims is the ambition to continue to develop the women’s game at grassroots level. We have seen women’s rugby grow at an incredible rate and we have a number of excellent local teams across our region already. We want to work with those clubs, alongside Loughborough and our two new Women’s Rugby Ambassadors – former world players of the year Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt – to grow interest and excitement around the game. This is a development that many of you have been waiting for, and I’m sure you agree that this is an incredibly significant moment in the history of the Club, so we can’t wait to start working hand-in-hand with Loughborough. Alongside hosting a Red Roses fixture here at the Gardens later this year (tickets are already on sale for the clash with New Zealand!), this partnership will significantly help to grow the audience for women’s and girls’ rugby in the East Midlands and beyond.
Despite everything else on the agenda this week, most importantly there is a crucial Premiership opener to play tomorrow, and I hope – whether it will be your first time back at the Gardens or not – you create some fantastic memories with your friends and loved ones. Gloucester showed towards the end of last season that they are very much a side on the up, but I have seen first-hand the unbelievable level of effort and preparation that our players and staff have been putting in over the last couple of months to get ready for the start of the season.
I’m really optimistic about our chances domestically and in Europe this year. The squad are incredibly focused on developing from a side seen to be ‘inexperienced’ and ‘inconsistent’, to a top-class side which challenges for major honours. We believe all the right building blocks are in place for this, and that making very small improvements across the board this term will enable us to realise that ambition. Of the ten matches we played and lost last term, we were either leading or within a score inside the last 20 minutes, showing how fine the margins are between success and failure in the Premiership – which remains the most competitive league in world rugby. We are confident that coming out on the wrong side of these tight matches was not down to a lack of fitness or playing ability. We still boast the youngest squad across the league (as well as the highest proportion of home-grown players), so while we continue to gain experience, our decision-making in these key moments of matches will also continue to improve. We have retained the core of our squad for this season, while adding some really exciting new talent who we believe can make an impact, which sets us up fantastically well for the year ahead.
I know after so long away you will be in fine voice tomorrow, but make sure you warm-up your vocal chords and blow the roof off the Gardens, as it means the world to everyone at the Club – players, coaches and staff – to have you back with us.
Come on you Saints!