Jon Sleightholme - Do not let the Gardens go

Milton Keynes Saints fans celebrate after their win: '01/05/11
Milton Keynes Saints fans celebrate after their win: '01/05/11

The news that Saints have managed to put up the house full signs next weekend for the trip down the M1 to stadium:mk will have been a huge sigh of relief for CEO Allan Robson.

After Saints’ poor early form in the Heineken Cup this season, there was every chance that the controversial decision to move the game could have been a real flop.

The club have been rescued to an extent by the players who have performed really well over the last few weeks.

They have given the game an extra edge by putting themselves in contention for qualification for the Amlin European Challenge Cup, which will provide a certain comfort after not qualifying from a pool that, in reality, they should have done.

The club will now quite rightly point out their decision to move the game to Milton Keynes has been vindicated.

Their major rationale was to give the opportunity for occasional Saints fans to have the chance to see the biggest games.

That in itself is not something I have too many issues with.

The sustainability of the club in the future will be very much down to the continuing growth of the fan base.

But that future must be here in Northampton and I still stand by my point that it was hypocritical to move the game to Milton Keynes in the first place.

The big question that worries me – and many Saints fans – is is this the thin end of the wedge?

Are further games and perhaps a more permanent move down the M1 on the cards?

I know the club have gone on the record to quash these rumours but it is still something that concerns me greatly.

Northampton is a rugby town with what I call a proper rugby club – one with history and heritage that goes back years and years.

I moved here from Bath almost 15 years ago and one of the major reasons that I did was that fact.

I wanted to play for a proper club in a town where rugby was valued and in front of a passionate group of fans that lifted you out of the ordinary when you had the privilege of playing in front of them.

That magic is something that still exists. Talk to the current players and they will all tell you that playing at Franklin’s Gardens is something special.

The roar of the Burrda Stand when the team are on the charge towards that try line is something which inspires the team and intimidates the opposition.

The Gardens is a special place and many other clubs are very envious of what the Saints have.

It is a fantastic facility with everything that you need on one site and with the ability, to a degree, of being masters of their own destiny with the majority of facilities owned by the club.

It is something to be proud of and is also a real selling point to attract new players and talent to the club.

So why this sentiment? Why reflect on all that is important to me about the Saints and playing at the Gardens?

Well the club would do well to remember this when considering the future development.

Everything should be done to develop here in Northampton and at the Gardens.

Look at the mistakes that other clubs have made with a nomadic existence. Wasps, Saracens and even London Irish to a degree have struggled to build the fan and commercial base away from their spiritual homes.

This is not American sport, and should never be, where clubs are franchised and moved around the country. It doesn’t work here.

I am sure it will be a great atmosphere at stadium:mk on Saturday – the previous visits there for the knockout stages have been occasions to savour.

It is positive from a spectator point of view that Saints have something tangible to play for, ridding themselves of the hurt of Thomond Park would have been enough but now there is more at stake.

In my opinion, Munster will not be progressing from the pool unbeaten.

I can see the Saints putting in a very big performance and fully expect them to return up the M1 with a big win in the bag.

You always have to respect a Munster team but this is not one of the greats.

They are still a formidable force but they will have more to worry about looking at Northampton than Northampton will looking at the threats Munster pose.

To bow out of this year’s competition by putting a rather large hole in the Munster boat will be some consolation to the players and coaches who will be gutted not to be progressing.