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Mark Darbon: New Year Letter to Saints Supporters

The beginning of a new year always feels like a time for optimism and opportunity – and while the Club has not enjoyed the start to 2021 that we had hoped for, I wanted to write to you all again to offer some thoughts ahead of the next 12 months.

First and foremost, I want to recognise on behalf of everyone at Northampton Saints, those supporters who are still enduring hardship as a consequence of this wretched pandemic. Many of you may be fighting the virus itself or mourning loved ones you have lost in recent months, while others will be facing financial difficulties as the fallout continues to affect businesses of all sizes. I know that some of our supporters meanwhile are still seeing family members who are key workers, carers or NHS staff go out bravely into the firing line, and the incredible work of those groups continues to humble us all at the Club.

In the context of the wider struggles that COVID-19 has created for so many, it is important for us to keep the Club’s specific challenges in perspective. However, nine months into this pandemic, the Club continues to face a significant operational and financial battle. I remain incredibly proud of the work that our staff have done to date. But, certainly with the implications of growing community prevalence and the latest lockdown fresh in our minds, we are acutely aware that we still have a long way before we can emerge from this crisis.

The decision to cancel this weekend’s match against Leicester Tigers was unbelievably frustrating. The East Midlands Derby at Franklin’s Gardens is one of the highlights of the year for everyone involved with Northampton Saints, and to be advised to not play the game by Public Health England due to positive tests at the Club really hurt us. While we of course respect and accepted the advice we were given, this cancellation was particularly hard to take because it came on the heels of London Irish being required to make a similar decision ahead of our match against them last week, meaning we are still yet to take to the field in 2021.

Five matches have now been cancelled across the last three rounds of the Gallagher Premiership, and as maddening as this is for everyone involved, it is important to remember that these cancellations are not the fault of anyone. Our staff and players are doing a phenomenal job in ensuring we have a safe environment to work and train in at Franklin’s Gardens, and demonstrating extreme responsibility in maintaining the integrity of our ‘bubble’. Before last week, we had seen no positive COVID-19 results at the Club for just shy of two months, and the increased number of positive tests reflect the wider community challenge we are all facing at present. All the individuals at Saints impacted by COVID-19 have been isolating and are recovering well, and Chris Boyd and the remainder of his squad will return to training next week, subject to our next round of testing.

There is clearly no perfect solution for Premiership Rugby regarding what to do when matches are cancelled; as we have seen, you cannot lay positive test results at the door of the sides involved, as they are not necessarily down to any irresponsibility or negligence on the part of players and staff. Awarding four and two league points (and a 0-0 scoreline) has stimulated much debate, but I do believe this is the most pragmatic solution we have – particularly after we had to take a 28-0 loss against Gloucester on the chin back in October, for a game we had to forfeit as a result of an outbreak at another club.

Seeing back-to-back matches cancelled was particularly irritating as, on the pitch, we were extremely optimistic of building some momentum after getting an important win on Boxing Day. We all recognise that performances throughout 2020 were not in line with what we have come to expect at Franklin’s Gardens, but believe me when I say we are absolutely determined to turn things around in the coming months. We have seen encouraging signs in recent matches, but we’re under no illusions that there is still a lot of work to do to get back to playing our very best rugby, which has marked us out as one of the most exciting sides in the Premiership.

This latest national lockdown has been a further blow to the Club as we continue to fight for our financial survival. It is remarkable to think how much the picture has changed in only a month, since we had 2,000 supporters return to the ground for the first time for the match against Bordeaux. We loved having so many of you back through our gates, and despite the limited number, those in attendance delivered a poignant reminder of the unique atmosphere generated by a Franklin’s Gardens flooded by supporters wearing Black, Green and Gold. It now looks as though we will be playing matches behind closed doors again for a couple of months at least, which not only impacts the atmosphere inside the ground for our players, but also places further significant pressure on our cash reserves.

This makes all the donations we received from supporters, box holders and hospitality clients last summer even more vital, and we remain extremely grateful for those today. We are also incredibly appreciative of the support our Rollover Plan received from Season Ticket Holders, with almost every supporter opting to transfer their 2020/21 memberships over to the 2021/22 season – and actually a large number of supporters who had not yet renewed for this campaign also took the opportunity to purchase their tickets for next season. This has had a really positive impact on the Club’s financial position as we look ahead to whatever further uncertainties 2021 may bring.

Not only are we thankful to our supporters for standing by us, but also to our sponsors and partners who continue to play a critical role for the Club. Our existing collection of sponsors have been extremely pragmatic and flexible throughout the pandemic. And, we are proud of the way in which we have been able to support their evolving priorities and needs, in the same way that they have worked with us differently over the last few months. It’s also been fantastic to introduce three new partners to our roster too in cinch, Barclaycard and Warner’s Distillery – securing new relationships with diverse and well-established brands is yet another example of the excellent work from the team at Saints, and provides further validation of the Club’s ability to deliver a fantastic platform to help local, national and international businesses achieve their goals, irrespective of the current climate. The limited edition Warner’s gin we released to celebrate the new partnership was extremely popular (if you were not lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle in this limited run, watch this space for further exciting news on that front), and we look forward to launching new initiatives with our partners in the coming months.

Finally, despite the ongoing challenges we face, we are continuing to do our utmost to support our community here in Northamptonshire and beyond. Our Foundation and Community department have been rocked again this month by the closure of schools, but are working hard on remote learning tools they can deliver online to hundreds of students, as well as providing rugby and education programmes to those limited numbers of key workers’ children who remain in schools. We have had to put camps scheduled for February and our Wheelchair Rugby programme on hold for now, but are optimistic about getting both up and running again safely as soon as possible, and in the meantime the Shape Up With Saints programme has returned to online physical activity sessions. Northampton General Hospital’s midwives remain based at Franklin’s Gardens to offer expectant mothers appropriate and safe care, while alongside ExpressTest we also recently opened a brand new COVID-19 screening service centre in our car parks.

I thank you once again for your backing and for the patience you have shown throughout the pandemic. At the Club we remain extremely diligent and continue to make tough choices to ensure our long-term sustainability, but we also remain optimistic that brighter days are on the horizon. We are in the process of applying for part of the government’s Sport Winter Survival Package, which the Government have indicated will see major spectator sports in England receive a combined £300 million cash injection. The timing and eligibility criteria for receiving funds are not yet confirmed, and we will update you on our progress in due course.

We miss you all desperately at Franklin’s Gardens and will also provide any update concerning when we will be able to welcome crowds again as soon as we can, but for the time being, make sure you get behind the team from afar, as your unparalleled support is still felt around the ground.

WE MARCH TOGETHER.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Darbon signature

Mark Darbon
Chief Executive, Northampton Saints

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