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Mark Darbon: A New Year’s letter from the Chief Executive

It was wonderful to see so many of you in person for the New Year’s Day fixture against Harlequins five days ago. I don’t know about you, but I thought watching us beat one of our closest league rivals in front of a packed cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens was an excellent way to start 2023.

The victory saw us move to fifth in the Gallagher Premiership table, just one point from the play-offs and two points from third. While there has been some turbulence in the league this season, the rugby continues to deliver week in, week out. Every round, right across the league, we are consistently blessed with exciting, high-scoring games where any team can beat anyone, regardless of league position or form. With nine matches still to go, we are acutely aware we need to bring more consistency to our performances – but the squad learned a lot from the run we went on during the second half of last season, and we remain very much in touching distance of the top four and optimistic about what’s to come in the months ahead.

This week, London Irish beat Bath Rugby in the Premiership Rugby Cup, confirming our semi-final in that competition this season will be played against the Exiles. Watching the Club’s up-and-coming stars thrive in the Cup, under the watchful eye of Matt Ferguson, has been a real delight. I hope we can go all the way and claim a trophy we last won back in 2019. However, that victory over Bath does mean that London Irish will have the home advantage, and Saints will be travelling down to the Gtech Community Stadium in Brentford on the weekend of February 10-12th. As fourth seeds in the semi-finals, neither the last four match or Cup final will be played on home soil in Northampton, so we are continuing to actively explore options for a match at the Gardens to replace our cancelled home fixture against Wasps – and of course we will provide an update as soon as we are able.

This is always a busy time of the year in the recruitment and retention space, and Phil Dowson, Paul Shields and the wider coaching group are working around the clock to ensure we enter the 2023/24 season with a squad which is as strong and balanced as possible. There has been some movement already; as you will have seen, Ollie Sleightholme signed a contract extension in December to remain in Northampton, while the Club was delighted to confirm the signing of England international hooker Curtis Langdon yesterday. There will be more to follow in the weeks ahead, so keep your eyes peeled for more good news on this front.

The sad demise of Wasps and Worcester Warriors earlier in the season has left Premiership Rugby with a number of challenges to contend with, and, as it stands, it feels like there are currently as many questions as there are answers. However, I am able to update on a few details of what the 2023/24 season structure will look like, which I wanted to share with you.

A Cup competition will kick the 2023/24 campaign off during the first half of the September, with the Gallagher Premiership following a few weeks later to minimise any disruption caused by the Rugby World Cup in France. It is still unclear how many teams will play in the Premiership next season, but we are optimistic there will be more clarity and a finalised season structure confirmed over the next month or so. Rest assured, the Club will ensure all Season Tickets are priced appropriately based on any confirmed changes to the structure – but, as demonstrated by the organisation of the exhibition fixture against the Barbarians in November, we’ll also continue be proactive to deliver a fantastic experience for our loyal supporters if we are faced with ongoing uncertainty or late changes.

One thing we are in favour of at Saints, particularly after everything that has gone on at Worcester and Wasps, is Premiership Rugby having a greater visibility over the finances of its clubs. To make good, sustainable financial decisions across the league, you need to have all the information in front of you. If we are to build a sustainable model that works for everyone, it requires collaboration. This will of course present some challenges but – if we are to make the Gallagher Premiership as successful off the pitch as the on-field product is compelling – now is the time for the league to evolve and improve the financial visibility of all clubs. Encouragingly there are positive steps being taken at league level on this front, as well as some planned improvements to the overarching governance and decision-making structures which will streamline the way the league and clubs work.

At Saints, our model has always been very clear; we operate within the envelope of our own resources – and at a time where everyone has felt the squeeze on their finances, we were extremely proud to announce our annual results for the 2021/22 season a month or so ago. We continue to operate in a challenging environment, but have recovered strongly after a difficult two years during the pandemic, and are in a resilient position with a clear plan to ensure the Club is financially sustainable in the long term.

Elsewhere, I’m pleased to update that the building work on the new High-Performance Centre located at the south of cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens continues apace, and save for any last-minute hiccups, should be ready for use in March. We are very excited to finally be able to open the doors to our brand-new facility, both to our playing squad and the local community.

At the end of last year, I was delighted to receive news from the RFU that the Club’s women’s team, Loughborough Lightning, had been offered a place in the next cycle of the Allianz Premier 15s competition from the 2023/24 season onwards. Since we first joined forces, our partnership with Loughborough has continued to thrive and we are looking forward to being one of eight teams taking its place in the most competitive, progressive, and sustainable women’s competition in the world.

Over the last two years, we have seen first-hand how our partnership with Loughborough has inspired thousands of women and girls across the region to pick up a rugby ball, so this decision is crucial for our objective of accelerating the growth of the game in Northamptonshire and beyond. Lightning are back at the Gardens this Sunday afternoon, kicking off 2023 at 3pm in the stadium after our Under-18 side plays on Pitch 2 at 1pm – I look forward to seeing many of you there!

Thank you for your continued support and Happy New Year.

Mark Darbon signature

Mark Darbon
Chief Executive

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