Saints Q&A: Every word from CEO Mark Darbon's press conference

With COVID-19 continuing to have a huge impact on sport, Saints chief executive Mark Darbon this week sat down for a question and answer session with the media.

Wednesday, 18th March 2020, 4:09 pm
Updated Wednesday, 18th March 2020, 4:10 pm
Saints CEO Mark Darbon

Here is every word he said...

Q: Can you give us any insight on how hard this could be for the club to cope with financially?

A: It's one of the things that's right at the top of our minds and I'd start by saying it depends because at the moment we're working on the basis of a postponement and there's a shared ambition to get our competition completed at an appropriate time. The number of games we can play versus the number of games we lose will have an impact on the financial implications. Where things become really challenging for us is when we begin to lose matches. For us at Saints, we probably make between £300,000 and £400,000 out of each game. We've got four home games this season and if you add those up, that's a material amount of money and that's before you think about the implication on our wider businesses. We have an attractive conferencing and events business, a retail business, we've got some big events in the summer so pretty quickly you get to a material number, and that's before the risk around central contributions, which the league can comment on in more detail. So it's a huge concern. You know Premiership clubs are losing £45million cumulatively and we're one of those loss-making clubs so a significant hit to our P&L (profit and loss) is a real challenge. By the same token, I can only speak from a Saints perspective, and we're in a decent position because we've got a strong balance sheet, we own our stadium, we own some land so we're planning for a major implication but we're confident we can get through this.

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Q: What is your preference - would you want to finish this season or draw a line under it and start again next year?

A: I think we're all working on the basis of a desire to try to get through this season. We're in the mix towards the top of the table and I'd like to see how that plays out. But also clearly from a commercial perspective at club level, hosting our games and finishing this season is a much better outcome all round. We're supportive of the stance that's been taken so far in postponing and clearly we're going to have to reassess that over the next few weeks. But our preference would absolutely be to finish the season.

Q: Players contracts run until the end of June so does that limit the window in which you could extend the season?

A: It's certainly one of the challenges and I think the league are doing a lot of thinking now about scenarios and what our options are to come back after a postponement and complete the competition with integrity. There's a number of things that will surround that, player contracts being one issue but not the only issue. There's a lot of work going on at the centre right now to help us find a way to navigate through that.

Q: We've seen football's European Championship moved back a year - could it be an option that international tours are moved so you can play club rugby further into the summer?

A: This is one it's difficult for me to comment on at club level. That will be about discussions the league are having with other stakeholders. I go back to my view from here, which is our strong preference is to try to find a way to get things finished this year and then move on to next season without damaging that season, too. Clearly it's all unexpected and unprecedented but that's our viewpoint.

Q: What are you doing with your players? Are you trying to use this as a mini off-season and trying to keep them fit? What is your thinking?

A: As of first thing on Tuesday morning we've stood the players down. I wouldn't say they are off but they're away from the club. They've all got individual training plans overseen by our medical and strength and conditioning teams. They've been unloading kit from the gym to take with them, but the performance end of our facility here will essentially be closed for the next three weeks. Clearly there is a necessity and a desire to keep the players fit and keep them ticking over, and that is exactly what we'll do. As we learn more about the postponement and whether we can come back in April and beyond, we'll shape a plan thereafter. We made the good call on Tuesday to prevent players travelling overseas so they're around and available but they will essentially be overseen by us doing their own training off-site.

Q: Have you had any players or staff affected by the virus?

A: We've got one player who is self-isolating, one member of our rugby staff self-isolating and three wider staff from the non-performance bit of the club who are in similar circumstances.

Q: Can you tell us who the player is?

A: No, but to be clear, there have been no positive tests for Coronavirus.

Q: In the event that the postponements continue and no more fixtures are able to be completed by May, what would the plan for that be?

A: I go back to what I said before, which is that the priority for us at the moment at league level is to try to find a way to get this season done in one shape or form. The league would be better placed to answer the more granular details of your question. But the priority at the moment is to work through the scenarios to enable us to try to play some more rugby. Clearly there is some uncertainty ahead.

Q: Are you confident that the leadership from Premiership Rugby is as it should be?

A: I think we've made the right decisions so far. The clubs are very supportive of the postponement. In some ways, it was helpful there was a round where there weren't any Premiership matches (last weekend) because it allowed the league and the clubs to be thoughtful about the decision. Clearly when the Government guidance came out, it became a decision that was the right one to make. We've got a good dialogue at the moment. I'd be lying if I said there weren't a lot of questions to answer, but we're not alone in that. All the other sports are grappling with similar questions. There has been a good dialogue between clubs and league, but we've clearly got some big questions ahead.

Q: Is there any reason why postponements will be for five weeks and why is the date April 20 to resume?

A: We didn't come up with it. We supported that proposal from the league and there's recognition that this is a really fluid situation and therefore there is an ongoing commitment between league and clubs to see how the situation evolves and to look at how we move along during this five weeks.

Q: What are the possibilities? Cancelling the European competitions, the play-offs?

A: At club level, we're very focused on our contingency plan. We've built what we think is the right plan with our players and our rugby staff to deal with the next five weeks. If there is an ability to return to play, we've got to manage that really carefully with our playing group. We can't stand players down for a set period of time and then expect them to come back in full bore and play a game of Premiership rugby or a European game the next weekend. We've got to, across league and clubs, be really proactive in our planning to preserve the integrity of the product and that's been our focus at club level. I would imagine at league level - and I haven't been involved in all of the conversations - there is a whole raft of things being considered but I'm not privy to all of those discussions at this stage.

Q: The playing squad are at home but have you given them any guarantee how long they will be kept on full pay for while their main activities are denied to them?

A: Not at the moment. We're working on the basis of this five weeks and we'll go from there.

Q: All being well, you'd like the final on June 20 at Twickenham and if you were to lose rounds of rugby to do that, would you want to do it?

A: If you offered me a place in the Prem final at the end of June right now I'd take it in a heartbeat. We'd love to find a way to bring this season to an appropriate conclusion and I think that's replicated among other clubs but I don't want to speak on their behalf.

Q: Could you play into July or August?

A: There are a number of considerations to get to that point. We touched on player contracts that go until the end of June and there will be a number of considerations, some really major around how to manage periods of rest, player welfare and other things. We've said to players you'll definitely be off for these weeks in the summer because some of them will have booked stuff. Some clubs in our league don't have a stadium through the summer months. We've got concerts and other activities planned at Franklin's Gardens so there will be discussions that would need to be had around those other events, but we're at the stage where there is a desire to at least explore those scenarios rather than writing it off at this stage.

Q: What are the players being sent home with from the gym?

A: It's a range and Chris Boyd summed it up nicely when he spoke to me. He said ' the skinny lads are taking home the weights, and the fat lads are taking home the cardio equipment'. I'm sure it's slightly more precise than that. Some guys have got home gyms, others haven't so there will be a specific plan in place with each player.

Q: What's happening with injured players? Are they getting home visits from physios?

A: We've got a couple of players who are coming back from recent surgery or in the midst of rehab from longer term injuries and our medical staff are working directly with them on plans. If they need to, they will come into the club. If they need specific treatment it happens here but where most of those players are in their rehab plans, it can happen off-site. There's flexibility there but our medical team have got good plans for each individual player.