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Pennell: 'Worcester tipped for top-six'

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Chris Pennell's bold prediction despite Worcester winning only 58 of 220 games in his 10 Premiership campaigns

Chris Pennell is fully aware of how fortunate he is to be facing into the new Gallagher Premiership campaign which starts for Worcester this Saturday at home to Leicester. A testimonial season usually means only one thing: that you are over the hill and after all the ‘thanks for memories’ celebrations, you are usually shipped into retirement and quickly forgotten about.

Pennell, though, is an exception to that rule. At the age of 32 and with a two-year contract extension signed just last January, this one-club man still has plenty to offer in a career where he first burst onto the scene in 2007. Recent experiences at Sixways have even opened his eyes to lasting well beyond the summer 2021 expiry of his latest deal.

Former team-mates Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer, Grand Slam winners with Ireland in 2009, were respectively aged 39 and 40 before they were eventually escorted into the rugby afterlife in summer 2018, Pennell soaking up all the little tricks which kept them in rude health for so long.

“Last season made me reflect an awful lot,” he told RugbyPass after his 13th pre-season gave way to a Premiership Cup campaign where he started two of Worcester’s four matches. “Not many people get the opportunity to have a testimonial year and I’d say fewer people still have the opportunity to still be playing for a few years after. 

“It’s certainly made me look back and reflect on everything, appreciate how fortunate I am to have had a career as long as I have had so far and to still be lucky enough to still be in a position to really positively contribute on and off the field in an environment where there are very few people who are as lucky as I have been. 

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“The testimonial year forced me in a way to be grateful that I’m still in the position I am in. I will savour every training day and every match day over the next few years because everything comes to an end at some stage.

“What I don’t want to do is blink and for it all to have come to an end without having had the opportunity to step back and appreciate where I am right now which is what the experiences last year have allowed me to do,” he continued before going onto weigh up for reasons for his longevity in a sport where early retirement is an occupational hazard. 

“Donncha and Peter Stringer were with us, both in their late 30s and still performing at a really good standard and physically in great shape. They give you hope in a way that you can still crack on as long as the body is good. 

“The lessons from the two of them is you look at how professional they were. It wasn’t just a case of miss some days but not others. Donncha’s professionalism shone through every day so stuff like that was pretty inspiring and it set the standard for a lot of our youngsters as well. 

“It’s something that has been clear to see over the last couple of seasons and because of the likes of Donncha, you look at the way that our young boys are looking after themselves and the extras they do in the recovery, their foam rolling after sessions and using the ice bath. It’s a really good legacy those guys have left behind.”

Keeping it all together upstairs is also of huge importance. “The mental health side of it is almost separate in a lot of ways. Even the likes of Donncha, who is obviously an incredibly, incredibly bubbly character, he would be the first to admit that it’s not been easy to transition away from the game and there have been some hard moments. 

“The mental health side of it, as Kearnan (Myall) has pointed out, is a huge area that is under appreciated. It’s just not given the due diligence it deserves. That will change. Ultimately we are incredibly fortunate to be doing what we are doing but it is not always easy to appreciate that because you do get some very tough times along the way.”

Tough is the apt description for Worcester’s fortunes with Pennell. Ten of his twelve seasons at the club has been spent in the Premiership but it hasn’t been a barrel of laughs rubbing shoulders with the English elite. 

Victory has been tasted on just 58 occasions in Warriors’ 220 matches, a meagre 26.3 per cent success rate, and the legacy of their 150 defeats (their remaining twelve games were drawn) is four 10th place finishes, four 11th place finished and two relegations for finishing 12th.   

Breaking that existence of only every being in or around the bottom would mean the world to Pennell, with last season’s effort giving rise to optimism for an even better campaign this term. 

Never before during the Pennell era had nine Premiership matches been won – two more their previous best of seven – and while it was only good enough to secure 10th spot last May, so competitive was the league that the reality was they were only 10 points off fourth place.

“It would mean a massive amount,” enthused Pennell about his desire to finally break a cycle of under-achievement. “It is difficult not to get drawn into the goal setting in terms of ‘this season isn’t successful if we don’t finish in the top six’. 

“You almost need to break away from that cycle and look at what we are doing within. A successful season this year will be to do with our performance and how many of the young guys starting to come through develop over the course of this season. 

“The two go hand and hand. If we push on in-house, if the youngsters can take strides in positive directions and if we can perform well week in week out and have some consistency, the league position kind of takes care of itself. 

“I love this time of year because it is a bit like the New Year is after Christmas for a lot of people. It’s a fresh slate and a clean start. There were a lot of positives towards the end of last season with the way we were playing and to finish with as many wins as we did. 

 

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The 2019/20 squad ?

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“A lot of positives can float through with us into this year and there is an awful lot of excitement and optimism about what this season could hold for us… if we can just nudge a couple of per cent ahead of the majority then it will stand us in really good stead to kick on up the league and break this cycle we have had of sitting in the bottom three.

“We are more than capable off it. We feel going into this year our squad has a very different look to it. When you sit down and write down all the names on paper for each position it’s really, really tough to pick out the strongest 23. It’s almost impossible. 

“There is some serious tosses of the coin over a lot of positions. It’s a very, very healthy place to be. I’m confident the coaches and the management will get things right and we will be able to utilise the squad that we are fortunate to have. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t be in the top half of the league this year.”

The curious thing about this weekend’s Premiership lift-off is that it will play second fiddle to the World Cup as England take on Australia in the quarter-finals on Saturday. Family life means Pennell doesn’t get much of a chance to keep tabs on rugby when at home but having been once capped by England on their 2014 tour to New Zealand, he tries to follow the action where possible. 

“I don’t actively avoid it but I don’t watch a huge amount of it,” he explained. “I love the game and I’m incredibly passionate about it – and I do try and catch up with the highlights and stuff but it’s more kind of justifying the two hours sitting on the sofa that I struggle to do with the kids charging around. 

“It’s more I like my family time as well but certainly when England are running out on the field I will definitely be watching for sure. Keeping an eye on the other sides as well, but rugby doesn’t feature a huge amount once I get home and drop the keys in the bowl.”

That said, he does have great pride that England’s Jack Singleton and Wales’ Josh Adams earned their stripes to gain selection for their tournament at Worcester before off-season club moves elsewhere. “Just because Jack is going to be playing his club rugby for another team doesn’t mean we don’t still see him as a very close friend. Jack will echo the fact that Worcester created the platform for him to showcase his talents. 

“We’re thrilled to have been a big part off his development. Likewise, Josh who is wearing a different colour jersey. We are unbelievably proud of the way these young guys have kicked on and the fact that we have had a hand to play in that is fantastic,” he said before wrapping up with a nod to Ben Te’o, another ex-Worcester who had the misfortune of being excluded by England at a late stage.

“It’s brutal for Ben, but that is the nature of the sport. He will be unbelievably disappointed but also understand the nature off pro sport as well as everyone else. It is very disappointing for him, no doubt.”

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Chris Pennell's bold prediction despite Worcester winning only 58 of 220 games in his 10 Premiership campaigns