Season out of Champions Cup won't have a dramatic impact on Saints

Courtney Lawes will be hoping to help Saints get back to where they feel they belong next season (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
Courtney Lawes will be hoping to help Saints get back to where they feel they belong next season (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)

If Saints don’t beat Saracens on Saturday, next season’s absence from the Champions Cup will finally be confirmed.

It has been coming for some time, with the black, green and gold having been languishing towards the bottom of the Aviva Premiership since a dreadful run during the closing stages of 2017.

Saints lost 12 of their final 13 games of a tumultuous calendar year and they will not be able to look forward to mixing it with Europe’s elite next season.

Not that they particularly enjoyed doing so this time round, losing five of their six pool matches, predominantly in extremely heavy fashion.

But whether they will be relieved to have a break from the rigours of Champions Cup rugby or not, the fact remains that it will be the first time since the 2008/09 season, when they won the Challenge Cup, that they will not have started a campaign in the top tier competition.

And with financial demands increasing every year in the professional game, just how much will missing out hurt Saints?

“You can look at it in different ways,” said Saints CEO Mark Darbon. “Would we like to be playing in the top tier of European competition? Of course.

“Are we frustrated to be 10th in the league right now? Of course.

“On the flip side of that, one thought is that a season in the Challenge Cup, hopefully going on a really good cup run and hopefully building momentum through regular victories, and we can all see how vital that is, could be a benefit in the long term.

“We don’t want to be in the second tier of European competition for a long time, that’s obvious, but it is looking likely for next season.

“It doesn’t have a dramatic impact (on finances).

“Season ticket sales for next season are really strong right now, so we’re optimistic.

“While we’ve been through a really challenging year and it’s fair to say even though I wasn’t here, the prior two seasons have been challenging as well, despite that challenge, there is the sense of optimism and that we’ve made some good choices this year.

“Those choices are designed to set us up for future success, on and off the pitch.

“Hopefully that sense of optimism is shared by our supporters.”

Optimism among supporters was certainly in short supply earlier in the season, with attendances seemingly having dropped.

The Champions Cup defeat to Ospreys was one game in particular that was played to a backdrop of empty seats at the Gardens.

So have attendances been a concern for the Saints hierarchy?

“I wouldn’t say a concern,” Darbon says, in typically cool and collected fashion.

“There’s a few things in it. We’re being more honest about our actual attendance than we’ve been in the past so there’s a point in that.

“There has been a drop in the number of season ticket holders over the past two seasons but, on a match by match basis, we’re selling a significantly higher number of tickets.

“We’re confident about the future and with the optimism about (new director of rugby) Chris (Boyd) coming in and us hopefully climbing up the table next season, it’s not a significant concern of ours.

“Of course we’d like the stadium to be full week in, week out and we’re not there yet, but I think we will get there in due course.”

Darbon has been extremely keen to build a connection between the club and its supporters since taking over from the retired Allan Robson last July.

There have been big changes to the communications and marketing departments, with added investment in those areas.

The approach has changed, too, with fans now far more aware of injuries ahead of games and potential new signings and departures.

“It’s hard for me to comment on what’s gone before, but what was really apparent for me before I even joined, when I was in the interview process and trying to get under the skin of the club, was that it was clear that our supporters were saying they didn’t feel like they were getting enough from the club,” Darbon said.

“I also think it was fair to say we probably weren’t managing the media relationships as well as we could have been so one of the things I wanted to do straight off the bat was transform that.

“I see no reason for us to be an insular club. We’ve got such a loyal supporter base that we should be talking to them so one of the first decisions we made was to restructure our marketing and communications team. We brought in (former England communications manager) Tim Percival to run that.

“Are we perfect yet? No. But have we made good strides? Absolutely, and there’s more to come.

“Tim and the guys are doing a fantastic job and the nice thing is that’s been recognised by our supporters.

“There has been some positive feedback on that and hopefully we can continue that in future.”

One player the Saints supporters will certainly be looking forward to seeing back in action for their club next season is Courtney Lawes.

The England lock is currently out with a knee injury, which recently required surgery.

But Darbon has spoken to the player and is confident he will come back even better after an enforced rest that comes after a hugely attritional time for the Lions star.

“I saw Courtney last week as he was in having rehab after his operation,” Darbon said.

“I was chatting to him and he was saying it’s never a nice time to be injured, but actually he’s going to have the first chance for a number of years to have a proper pre-season and be prepared for Saints’ first game of next season.

“Do we want him out there right now? Of course we do.

“But we’re wishing him a swift recovery and he’ll absolutely be here fighting for us next season.”

And if Lawes and Co can pull in the right direction as one next season, Darbon and his fellow Saints chiefs will be confident that Boyd can lead the club back into the Champions Cup and return the good times to Franklin’s Gardens.