Duckworth's grand plan takes off

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
The high and mighty clubs of the Allied Dunbar Premiership may be falling over themselves to pay top dollar for the biggest names in the game, but precious few are in the happy position of laughing all the way to the bank. Quite the opposite, in fact; one authoritative estimate puts the collective loss suffered by English rugby's top flight last season at pounds 15m.

Tears before bedtime? For some, perhaps. But those advocates of thrift and prudent financial husbandry who warned that the dash for cash triggered by professionalism would inevitably end in bankruptcy should not feel too smug just yet. Far away from the troubled boardrooms of the premiership elite, Worcester are quietly demonstrating how top-end investment can be used to build from the bottom.

Yesterday, the National League One club opened a pounds 3m state-of-the-art rugby centre housing the largest purpose-built indoor training facility in Europe, a 60m x 37m paddock specifically equipped to handle full-contact preparation work.

Outside, on a green field site almost perfectly situated for further substantial development, lies a first-team pitch of sufficient quality to meet whatever entry criteria the premiership organisers might care to impose. As Les Cusworth, the former England coach who has just signed a five-year contract as Worcester's director of rugby, said: "There is unlimited potential here and our ambitions include a place in the premiership."

Those ambitions may well be realised next year: having cruised through seven leagues in eight years and won last season's Division Four (North) title without dropping a game, Worcester are favourites to win promotion to Allied Dunbar Two at the first attempt. Yet unlike most nouveau riche investor clubs, Worcester are keeping faith with tradition by continuing to run mini, youth, development and women's teams rather than spending every last penny tarting up the shop window.

"We want to breed our own internationals, but as we move up we'll investigate the market," Cecil Duckworth, the financial driving force behind the club, said.

Duckworth made a personal fortune of pounds 35m when he sold his locally-based central heating business to an eager multi-national and when the Sports Council coughed up pounds 1.3m, their biggest grant to a rugby project, to support the training centre initiative, he was quick to make up the shortfall.

To date, he has pumped in some pounds 2m, underwriting the players' wages for the next five years. He also harbours a long-term vision of a 10,000-seater stadium. Not bad for a man whose only direct rugby experience came during national service 40-odd years ago. "I broke my wrist and gave it up as a bad job," he revealed.

"Although I am a major investor, the club is still member-run. The task now is to build up the interest in rugby in the Worcester area, which has no top soccer side and is far enough from Moseley and Gloucester to sustain an enthusiastic audience of its own.

"I'm doing it for the love of it, to be quite honest; some other investors see rugby as a vehicle for furthering their own wealth, but how much money does a man need in life?"

The new facilities are so advanced that England will almost certainly use them to prepare for this season's Five Nations' Championship. If and when they do pitch up, the players will renew their acquaintance with Cusworth, one of those who went down with the Good Ship Jack Rowell when the powerbrokers of Twickenham started their knife-wielding antics.

Cusworth has still not officially been informed of any change in the England coaching structure. He has, however, taken the bull by the horns and declared himself unavailable for work with the national side. "Worcester is a full-time job," he said.

"I'm not in the least bitter about things, but I feel Jack's contribution has been underestimated and I feel sad that certain people felt the need to malign him. There has not been much dignity about all this, has there?

"We made some mistakes - he who never made a mistake never made a decision - but people deserve to be treated with dignity and a degree of trust."