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Mark Darbon: A preseason message to Saints Supporters

With the start of the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership just around the corner, I wanted to provide an update on a number of recent Club matters, as well as address any concerns you may have in relation to recent developments at Worcester Warriors.

The situation at Sixways is truly saddening and we all hope that a quick solution is found to keep the Club afloat. Worcester is a great rugby club, an important part of the local community, and it would be huge loss to rugby in this country if they were to no longer exist. Our thoughts are with the players, staff, and the Club’s supporters during what must be an unsettling and distressing time.

Sadly, Warriors’ difficulties are a stark reminder of the challenging financial model for many Premiership clubs, and the sport more broadly. But I wanted to reassure you that while the economic climate is clearly extremely challenging, Saints continue to be financially resilient. We were pleased with our commercial performance in the 2021/22 season – the first full season of crowds since the pandemic – driven by progress both on and off the pitch. However, the Club remains extremely vigilant to the financial stresses we will all be facing during the cost-of-living crisis, and hope that you can continue to support Saints as best you can in the coming season.  

Work on Saints’ new High Performance Centre located to the South of cinch Stadium at Franklin Garden’s is now into its third month. The development is steadily progressing, with the groundworks largely complete and the steel frame to be erected soon, and we hope to be able to open the facility early in the new year. The ongoing building works have meant that the playing squad relocated to Northampton School for Boys for preseason training. While it has been unusual not to have the players and coaching staff on-site during the summer months, NSB has done a superb job hosting us. The school’s facilities are excellent, and I would like to thank everyone at NSB for helping us prepare for the new season and for making the coaches and players feel so welcome.

An important element of the preseason schedule, the Blakiston Challenge, was won for the second consecutive year by Alex Coles – an outstanding achievement. The gruelling annual fitness test, which takes place in the grounds of Castle Ashby, is named after Freddie Blakiston, a former Saint (#494) who received the Military Cross for bravery during the First World War. It’s difficult to convey in words just how tough the Blakiston Challenge is, so we have put together a short film about this unique yearly event which will be released shortly on Saints’ social channels and hosted on the Club website. This will be the third film we have released in recent months to try and give supporters a better understanding of what happens behind the scenes. In case you missed the other two, they can be found HERE.  

I’ve been pleased with the way the new coaching group have taken the reigns following the departure of Chris Boyd. We believe we have an extremely talented group of coaches, and they continue to be supported by a stable and high quality group of heads of department, plus their support staff, across all of our rugby activities.

Our new Director of Rugby, Phil Dowson, is excited with the progress made by the playing group over the summer. Our new recruits – such as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Scott-Young, Sam Graham and James Ramm – have integrated well, and after many got a run out at the Gardens in our preseason win over Bedford Blues, we look forward to seeing them make their full Saints debuts in the coming weeks. In recent days we have also welcomed our internationals back into training following summer tours to the Southern Hemisphere with their countries. Mandatory rest periods vary depending on how much game time each player had on tour, but we will integrate everyone back into Premiership action as soon as we are able to.

We were thrilled to announce over the last couple of weeks that both Emmanuel Iyogun and Tommy Freeman have extended their contracts and committed to the Club for the long-term. Both are graduates of our thriving Saints Academy system and have been regularly producing performances beyond their years for some time now, with Tommy earning his first international caps this summer for his efforts, and I’m sure you’ll agree they both have very bright futures ahead of them.

The Gallagher Premiership season may not have started yet, but the Club has already won its first piece of silverware. Saints Wheelchair Rugby claimed a spectacular maiden WR5s Premiership last Sunday with an extra-time try against defending champions Leicester Tigers at Stoke Mandeville Stadium. It is a phenomenal achievement considering the team was newly promoted from the Championship division just nine months ago, and I extend my warmest congratulations to everyone involved in the set-up. For those of you who haven’t watched wheelchair rugby before, I wholeheartedly recommend the experience. It is a magnificent sport to watch live and as you can imagine, the final against Tigers was particularly dramatic. The team continued their good form over the Bank Holiday weekend, winning the Midlands Development League, and now look forward to playing in Poland later this year having qualified for European competition for the first time. For more information about the Team, or about how you can get involved (playing or volunteering) in wheelchair rugby, please visit the Club website HERE.

In the community, Saints recently hosted what we believe to be the largest girls rugby camp ever held in the UK at Stowe School. The Club’s Community Department have been running residential camps at Stowe for over a decade, introducing the first four-day girls camp back in 2018. Since then, female participation has increased rapidly – with a total of 140 girls attending this year’s camp to make it one of the largest girl’s rugby camps in the world. It was a proud moment to see so many players taking part, and goes to show how much appetite there is for women’s and girls’ rugby in our region. This year’s camp also marked another first as Loughborough Lightning’s players and coaches helped deliver a day of coaching. Without doubt, the Club’s partnership with Lightning is helping to harness that excitement around girl’s rugby and we are incredibly excited for what the future holds.

Our partnership with Lightning continues to grow on the field too. Following the success of last year’s double header, a number of Loughborough’s fixtures will be played at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens this season – with further details on the games to be announced in the coming weeks. With the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand on the horizon, a big few months lie ahead for the women’s game. We wish the Red Roses the very best of luck with their campaign, and hope we can host more of their matches here in Northampton in the not-too-distant future.

Elsewhere, the Club is proud to have created a Benevolent Fund which aims to provide direct support to past and current players and staff members – as well as their immediate dependents – during times of need. Sitting as part of the Northampton Saints Foundation, the Fund is underpinned by dedicated fundraising activity, the first of which took place last weekend when a group of 15 former Saints embarked on a 100-mile Tour of Northamptonshire, passing through eleven grassroots rugby clubs before returning to the Gardens. Well done to all involved on an excellent first fundraising event – it was fantastic to see all the exhausted former players roll through the stadium’s gates before heading into the ground to watch our match against Bedford. They raised just over £5,000 (and counting!) so their hard work was certainly worth it! If you would be interested in helping to fundraise for the Benevolent Fund, please contact Paul Shields at [email protected]. Alternatively, if you would like more information about the Fund, please click HERE.

You all will have seen over the weekend the Club launched our new away kit for the 2022/23 season, to go along with the new home strip and training wear collection which were released earlier in the summer. It’s been very exciting to see our partnership with cinch progress to the next level, with their branding appearing on the front of our jerseys for the first time. It would be remiss of me not to mention Travis Perkins at this point following the conclusion of their stint as our principal partner, but TP remains an integral part of the Club as our headline community partner, and we look forward to our relationship continuing for many more years to come. The away kit in particular has been flying off the shelves since its launch, with the striking new purple colourway clearly very popular! Our kit continues to be amongst the most competitively priced in the Premiership, but stock is limited so don’t delay if you’re thinking of getting your hands on one!

While our new Supporter Engagement Group is now up and running (with a couple of highly productive meetings under our belts so far), we also pledged on its launch to continue to give our supporters the platform to provide direct feedback to the Club. To that end, we will be hosting the first Season Ticket Holder Forum of the campaign before Christmas – with a precise date to be announced in the coming weeks. Keep your eyes peeled for that one, as it is an event which always fills up fast. After listening to the Supporter Engagement Group’s feedback, we’ll also be hosting an Open Day during the second half of the season to give you all a chance to get a look at our new training facility once it is completed.

But for now, we’re looking forward to welcoming you all back to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens for our first home game of the season on Thursday 8 September, when we take on Saracens in the Premiership Rugby Cup. The start of a new season is always a time for optimism and opportunity, and of course we’ll be hoping to go even further in 2022/23 than we did last term in the race for the Premiership title. So, be sure to get along to the ground as often as possible and show the team the same incredible support we felt throughout last year.

Come on you Saints!

Mark Darbon Signature

Mark Darbon
Chief Executive

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