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Neither Middle England nor rugby union is generally associated with revolution, for all that Che Guevara was a scrum-half in his Argentine youth. But the spectacle at Sixways when tickets went on sale for the Boxing Day clash with Bath was the latest proof that something very close to revolutionary is taking place at Worcester.
“Tickets were due on sale at 9am. The car park was half-full by 6.30,” says Cecil Duckworth, the club’s chairman and owner.
The extent of Worcester’s achievement is underlined by a look at the tables from 1987-88, England’s first season of league rugby. While much else has changed in 18 years, the game’s class structure is remarkably stable. In that first season, Leicester and Wasps led the league, six of the 12 current Premiership clubs were in Division One, five more in Division Two. The 12th, Worcester, finished seventh in Midlands Two, level six of the new structure, trailing Dixonians, Tamworth and Bromsgrove among others.
Not the least remarkable part of their subsequent rise to fame – if not yet precisely fortune – has been the past 12 months. They went into Christmas last year pretty much where new Premiership teams are expected to be, bottom of the table. A year on they are fourth – six places above Bath and in line for the Championship play-offs and next year’s Heineken Cup.
They have shown Heineken-qualifying form across the whole of 2005, winning 12 of 19 Premiership matches and drawing another. Director of rugby John Brain’s feet are firmly on the Sixways turf. “There’s a long way to go and anyone can beat anyone in this league,” he says. But his team threaten to outstrip not only their own ambition – to do better than last season’s ninth place – but also Premiership structures designed to stifle the ambitious and cushion the established.
They receive some £400,000 a year less from central funds than most Premiership clubs and will not attain parity for several years. Duckworth recognises the strength of the competition: “Clubs like Leicester, Wasps and Sale have history, good support and high-quality structures. We need to be extra smart to compete with them, but they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.”
And Worcester have done some smart thinking. Duckworth says: “We don’t sign superstars, but we’re making a few.” Prop Chris Horsman (Wales) and flanker Pat Sanderson (England) have broken into international teams. Brain adds: “One reason we’ve done well is that we’ve got a good group of players who wanted to prove themselves and win respect at this level.”
That respect has been earned by attention to basics. “We can play a pretty physical brand of rugby based around pressurising the opposition set-piece, in particular the scrum where Tony Windo and Chris Horsman plus a big hooker gives us a real edge,” Brain says. “We’re difficult to play against.” Wasps coach Ian McGeechan has likened it to playing South Africa.
To maintain momentum Worcester will need to attract good young players. Duckworth says: “We can offer the best training facilities in the country, quality coaching and a growing club with ambition.”
Crowds are straining at Sixways’ 9,700 capacity. Most “We’ve created an audience that didn’t previously exist,” says Duckworth, who is planning expansion to 12,000, with potential to rise to 15,000 and eventually 20,000, “although that final stage would be very expensive”.
Their great asset from the start has been the Sixways site, on an M5 junction. The club began with a 28-acre site, which is now 40 acres with plans to expand to 70, creating more pitches, carparking and money-making facilities.
“Off-field activities like conferences are generating more income now, while we’re in talks with the local council about using the car park during the week as a park and ride,” explains Duckworth.
This year Worcester will break even for the first time, with turnover somewhere between £7m and £8m. On the pitch they look likely to do much better than break even, but the pragmatic Brain is making no assumptions. “Relax for a moment, and that’s when you start losing matches,” he says. Che Guevara would have been impressed.