For Chris Pennell, it has been a season of real contrasts. Shortlisted for Player of the Season in the Premiership, his individual star has done nothing but shine and it is virtually impossible to think of a game in which he hasn’t been one of the best players on the pitch.
The Worcester Warriors, however, have had a woeful campaign, playing well below their potential given some of the names in their squad. Pennell is as brutally honest as anyone about their shortcomings.
“On the surface we’ve got everything at Worcester; the facilities, a really good quality coaching set-up and a fairly competitive squad,” admits the fullback. “Over the last few years at Worcester there’ve been a number of issues that have been creeping in behind the scenes, and unfortunately it’s taken us longer than we thought to start stamping those things out.”
It is something that Director of Rugby Dean Ryan has mentioned in passing, too – everything has seemingly not been quite right at the club. Ryan has been taking steps to change that, and during the last few months of the season those changes have started to take effect. They may have only won two games, but their performances have been vastly more encouraging.
“It takes time to change,” notes Pennell. “The last couple of months we’ve felt as a group that we’ve been taking steps in the right direction. We’ve shown that from our performances on the field – unfortunately it’s happened too late. But it’s the start of something – something positive I hope.”
This has clearly been the message around the club. Relegation has been on their radar for some time now, even if it was only confirmed just over a week ago after their loss to Saracens, but the club is taking this as a chance to start afresh. After all, just look at Harlequins and Northampton Saints now.
“Obviously everyone’s gutted that the season’s gone the way it has,” he says. “At the same time it’s good that we know where we are now, and what we’ve got ahead of us. It feels now like it’s the start of something, as opposed to the end.”
It is an admirable sentiment, but there’s no denying that it is not where they would have wanted to be at the beginning of the season. They will be expected to bounce straight back up, but Pennell insists no-one will be taking anything for granted in the Championship.
“It’s a much more competitive league now than it was three, four or five years ago,” he points out. “The standard of rugby is much higher, and we’ll be labeled as the favourites so every week is going to be a cup final for us. We know the teams we’ll play against will be at the top of their game.
“We’re well aware that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do to change the things that I alluded to earlier. We’ve got a tough journey ahead of us, but I’m confident that we’re up for it.”
While this is all true, and it will not just be a cakewalk back into the top division, there is something an elephant in the room. Pennell has been comfortably Worcester’s best player this season – so much so, in fact, that many are calling for him to get a look in with England. Pennell admits it will always be a dream of his.
“It’ll always be an aspiration, certainly. Regardless of where I am or what age I am, I’m always going to want to play for England with a home World Cup looming – that’s a huge driving force. If I can keep improving the way I am, then fingers crossed my efforts will get recognised.”
And with just a season to go until that World Cup on home soil, spending it playing in the Championship is far from ideal preparation. Pennell is 27 and unlikely to be in the frame for another one. He only signed a new contract with Worcester in December but they were firmly rooted to the bottom of the table by then – was the thought of leaving ever a serious temptation?
“No, it wasn’t, to be honest,” he says. “I truly believe that the coaching staff that we’ve got are right for the club. The people who are in charge now will get us there – having been at the club for a number of years, and having been close to taking the next step but never actually having done it, for the first time I feel confident that these guys will get us there.
“I would have been kicking myself in four or five years’ time if it was a Worcester team that were settled and competing at the top of the Premiership and I hadn’t been a part of it. It’s something I feel quite passionately about.”
It is an admirable sentiment from a man who has only ever known rugby as a Warrior. The sad thing is that he is comfortably too good a player to ply his trade in England’s second division. There have been whispers that he may go on loan for a season to a Premiership club, but he and the club have denied any such idea.
Worcester fans will hope things stay that way – England fans may not. What is Worcester’s gain could well be England’s loss.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Chris Pennell was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, who are partner to HITZ, a Premiership Rugby programme which tackles some of the greatest challenges facing young people today. www.Jaguarlandrover.com
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images