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Saracens' latest release not without fault but Allianz Park is bold and compelling enough to prove debut hit
A quest for home lasting almost two decades enters its ultimate climax as a hopeful rugby club (Saracens) settles into new surroundings in Barnet. Chief executive (Edward Griffiths) waits to see how his £24m project - including a debut rugby union appearance for an artificial pitch (4G) - goes down with a sell-out home crowd.
Starring: Edward Griffiths, Saracens Rugby Club, 10,000 supporters
Runtime: 80 minutes plus extras
Classification: U (suitable for all)
"I thought it would be chaos - but it's actually not at all bad," said one Saracens fan looking out over the pre-match festivities that saw hundreds of delighted children making use of a state of the art plastic pitch.
If one line were to describe the release of Allianz Park to an expectant - and largely it has to be said enthralled - 10,000 strong audience, a depiction of organised chaos would be as apt as any.
Set in the stoney suburbs of North London, Allianz Park delivered an adventurous, heart-warming - not always subtle - but charming spectacle that left you certainly looking forward to the next installment (Saracens v London Welsh, March 3).
The action-packed opening scenes were original and impressive as a handful of small-sided junior rugby matches set the communal tone with coaches, parents and supporters able to stroll around the plastic turf at will.
It's hard to remember a sporting occasion with such a laissez-faire attitude to its parameters and early evidence suggests Allianz Park may deliver on those taglines - "a stadium for everyone", "a community hub" - advertised on the poster. Chaos yes, but who says youngsters learning and enjoying the game has to be formal?
Away from the central action, more light-hearted sub-plots took their course as fez-donned supporters sampled the local props. Saracens ale - and the multi-cups it came in - went down a treat, and the pre-match, £2 a pint happy hour was also well-received. The cameo performance of Saracens Pie meanwhile was widely regarded to be excellent (tender, hot and an accurate logo encrusted) with the only fault being that there wasn't more of it.
Griffiths' stirring rallying cry before kick-off in which he pledged "gratitude and humility" for the home fans' loyalty after years of wandering hit all the right notes and the speech ended with a heartfelt plea to "make some noise". The supporters largely obliged, providing an in-match atmosphere that was cheerful, eager and enthusiastic. This wasn't Welford Road by any stretch of the imagination but it was a promising start nonetheless and one should reserve judgement til feistier, closer and more gripping matches are on display.
Indeed on the pitch the plastic turf backed up a faultless contribution to a B-side match against Cardiff Blues with a solid debut performance here. Like all strong supporting roles, the 4G was largely unnoticeable except for its noticeable strengths. Scrummaging was smooth, injuries non-existent and the flow of the action was quick, open, largely edge-of-your-seat stuff. When Saracens are playing 'Born to Run' after scoring a try, you know something must be going right.
The only question mark was the kicking of the Saracens fly-half (Charlie Hodgson) who was unusually wayward from the tee. Undoubtedly this was not Hodgson's strongest performance but only after further viewings can the contribution of the pitch be accurately analysed. Mark McCall said afterwards, "there is nothing to be negative about" with regards to the rubber crumb and - on this showing at least - it's hard to disagree.
The spectacle was certainly not without fault. The 'fat lady' opera singer dresssed in what can only be described as a drag Viking costume, singing Nessun Dorma over the PA system in the dying minutes of the match was at best bizarre and at worst utterly disrespectful to the opposition; the long and winding queue for the gents at half-time suggests more facilities are required; and the response to a pre-match attempt to learn the home fans a new song with words on the big screen was mildly awkward. But its producers made clear Allianz Park would not be the finished article at the first attempt and punters will be hoping some of the minor issues are addressed in the follow-ups. It may not actually be until its second season that this spectacle can be truly and fairly judged.
Not without imperfections but ultimately Allianz Park delivered on its central promises. Inclusive and yet innovative at the same time, this is well-staged, chaotic, but refreshing fun for all the family that should only get better with time.
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