Every fan of team sports is allowed to have two favourite teams – the one they actually love and follow and the one they love to hate. As a Harlequins supporter, the team in my latter category – the one whose every characteristic I despise; the one with the capacity to annoy me more than any other; the one whose fortunes I cannot help following in the media just as often as I seek out mentions of Quins, but only because I am hoping and praying that they fail; and the one whose every success I am probably most jealous of, is (of course) Saracens.
It is somehow easy and totally natural to hate Saracens, despite the fact that long-time owner-stroke-chairman Nigel Wray is an out-and-out rugby nut who has allegedly spent well north of £20 million of his own money supporting the club through thick and thin since the beginning of the professional era.
To adapt – with due apologies – the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43: ‘How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways …’
It’s something to do with the perceived arrogance of how they go about their business.
The ‘Seriously – how can they afford such a large squad filled with mercenary superstar players from around the globe and still yet stay within the salary cap?’ issue.
The all-too-obvious ‘We’ll buy our way to the top’ connection with South African money and business interests [down the Stoop they’re traditionally known as the ‘Saffra-cens’].
The fact that for year after year, with ruthless efficiency, they adopted a ‘results are all that count’ mentality and deliberately played the most boring percentage rugby imaginable with considerable success – this to the point where – to be fair – despite over the last three seasons playing with greater width and creativity, supporters of other Premiership clubs (not least me) will only ever give them give them credit for it through gritted teeth.
The fact that their fans wear fezzes in the stands and, whenever a Saracens kicker is addressing a conversion or penalty kick, hold their hands out horizontally in front of themselves and waggle their fingers.
And … er … well, that’s quite enough to be going on with.
Yesterday I need to confess that, after seventy-five minutes of ignoring the fact that Saracens’s game against Racing Metro in the senior European cup – now at its quarter-final (knock-out) stage – was being broadcast live on television at lunchtime, I finally switched to it solely and exclusively because (it being Easter weekend) the BBC had made the ridiculous decision to clear their normal politics-dominated Sunday schedule and there was nothing else on worth watching and I could take the boredom no longer.
It was a close and scrappy game, but naturally I was rooting for the French club to win.
Gradually, as the clock ran down in the Parisian wind and rain, to my considerable satisfaction, the home team gained a point or two’s ascendancy.
The last five minutes arrived. No effort was spared upon either side – they had virtually fought themselves to a stand-still. With about 90 seconds to the final whistle, Raving Metro won a scrum on the half-way line. Surely this was it – they’d close out the game from here … right?
The scrum was re-set twice. A commentator suggested that, as sure as eggs were eggs, this would be one of the longest scrums in history (a comment upon the gamesmanship that runs through every modern sport) – hopefully, I thought, he’s going to be right.
Racing Metro duly gained possession at the back of the scrum. Still about 40 seconds to go. They began recycling the ball, setting up repeated pods of large forwards about five metres from the backs of the maul … and simply trucking it up into contact and recycling again.
The game was effectively over. I began to stand up, still watching, ready to go and prepare myself a pre-lunch drink. 20 seconds to go.
TV pundit Stuart Barnes commented on-air “This is a bit naff, why don’t they just kick the ball way downfield … [so that, if Sarries even regained possession they’d have to at least advance 70 or 80 yards to even get a chance to score again and win the game] …”
At that point, well past ‘final whistle time’ and therefore on the last play of the game, as Racing Metro were recycling for perhaps the fifth or sixth time, referee Nigel Owens suddenly awarded a penalty to Saracens for a Racing Metro player being guilty of the offence of ‘sealing off the ball’ by going off his feet.
Pandemonium. Marcelo Bosch – the Sarries’ Argentinian centre with the siege-gun boot on him – stepped up and potted a goal from near the halfway line to win the game by a 12-11 margin and put Saracens through to the semi-finals.
Travesty! How the French team ‘gave away’ a victory that they had worked so hard to achieve will be a mystery forever. To them, and indeed to rugby fans all over the world.
… And yet Saracens go marching on.
[My mood did not improve when I later read in the weekly The Rugby Paper that Saracens have just posted a £5.2 million loss for 2013/2014, have accumulated losses of £40.5 million and that their auditors Baker Tilley have ‘identified the existence of material uncertainty which may cast doubt upon the company’s ability to continue as a going concern’.]