Northampton Saints chief executive Mark Darbon is relishing the return of Heineken Champions Cup action to Franklin's Gardens after a year away from the top flight.
Read Mark’s welcome and more in today’s official matchday programme, on sale for £3.50...
Good afternoon and welcome back to Franklin’s Gardens for our first Heineken Champions Cup fixture of the season.
It’s fantastic to be hosting Europe’s top tier competition back at the Gardens after a year away – and what a match we have in store! We welcome Lyon OU; a side who are in sparkling form in the Top14 having won eight of their nine league games so far this season. They boast some of the most dangerous players in Europe, but indeed, so do Northampton Saints! The stats suggest that Europe’s two most potent attacks are going toe to toe here this afternoon – so fireworks are almost guaranteed.
Today is also our Remembrance Day match, where we remember those who have lost their lives fighting on behalf of their country around the world. Northampton RFC has always had close links with the British Armed Forces – from when the Club was founded back in 1880, all the way through to today, active servicemen have represented Saints with distinction both in combat and on the field of play. Five wreaths will be laid at our war memorial in the north west corner of the ground today; our chairman John White will represent the Club, alongside David Lowrence from the Saints Supporters Club, Heather Parr from the Saints Foundation’s Mobbs Own project, David Williams from the Army Benevolent Fund, and Judith Room on behalf of the Powell family.
"The stats suggest that Europe’s two most potent attacks are going toe to toe here this afternoon – so fireworks are almost guaranteed."Mark Darbon
We will also observe a minute’s silence prior to kick-off and stadium announcer Geoff Allen – to whom we are extremely grateful for briefly coming out of retirement for this occasion – will read ‘For the Fallen’. It is always a moment in the season which has great poignancy, so I ask for you to ensure that you are settled in your seats with plenty of time to spare before kick-off.
The Club’s major piece of news last week was unfortunately another retirement, and I know the announcement that Dylan Hartley is hanging up his boots will have disappointed many Saints supporters. He has been a central figure for English rugby, Saints and the town of Northampton for over a decade now, amassing over 250 appearances in Black, Green and Gold and guaranteeing himself a place amongst the likes of Edgar Mobbs, Ron Jacobs and Tim Rodber in the pantheon of the Club’s legends. Dylan has not only been an outstanding representative for the Club within our community in Northampton, but has also made a significant impact via his involvement with Movember and other charitable foundations, and become a role model for countless young people. We will no doubt miss him on the field at Saints, but he will remain an important figure around the Club and continue to make a meaningful contribution towards the Club’s success.
As is often the case in professional sport, as soon as one career at the Gardens finishes, others immediately begin and today we’re delighted to welcome two new faces to the matchday squad. Owen Franks and Matt Proctor both could make their Saints debuts off the bench today and they are two players I am really excited to see pull on a Northampton jersey. Owen needs no introduction; he is one of only 20 people in history (alongside his brother Ben!) to have won the Rugby World Cup twice, and has been capped over 100 times for the All Blacks. Matt meanwhile is another New Zealand international who might not be as well known to some of you, but he worked closely with Chris Boyd at the Hurricanes for a number of years, and last season Chris was desperate to get him over to Northampton to play for Saints – which speaks volumes to his ability. Please give them both a huge Franklin’s Gardens welcome if they enter the action this afternoon!
"Dylan has been an outstanding representative for the Club within our community in Northampton."Mark Darbon
It’s also fantastic to see our contingent of World Cup stars back in Black, Green and Gold – all of whom represented the Club superbly during the tournament over the last month. I’m sure you are all very proud of them, so be sure to give them the reception they deserve. I know Courtney Lawes, Piers Francis, Lewis Ludlam, Dan Biggar, Api Ratuniyarawa and Ahsee Tuala are all really excited to get back to work here in Northampton, and we are delighted to be able to boast a World Cup winner amongst our ranks in Cobus Reinach. My particular congratulations go out to Cobus who worked so hard last season to fight his way into South Africa’s squad. Let’s hope he can produce more of the same superb play in a Saints jersey in the coming months!
Beyond the World Cup, no doubt you will have seen that English club rugby has been in the spotlight for the last two weeks – and this time, for the wrong reasons. Whatever the outcome of Saracens’ alleged breaches into the salary cap, and whatever your personal view is on the subject, it is vitally important that the Premiership’s clubs now come together to prevent a situation like this from ever happening again. All 13 stakeholder clubs need to work collectively to continue to grow the appeal of the league and attract new audiences. Controversy, bitterness and ill-feeling does not help us achieve this objective.
My personal hope is that the matter is dealt with swiftly so the black cloud which currently hangs over the Premiership is removed, and we are able to get back to focusing on how to grow the game we all love.
With that in mind, today’s game is crucial for us in the context of our Champions Cup aspirations. It’s a well-known fact that for any side to be successful in this competition, you have to win your home matches. So, make sure you shout yourselves hoarse this afternoon and get behind the lads wearing Black, Green and Gold!
Come on you Saints!