Rugby League: Visions of a boost for 'Woost'

Andrew Longmore reports on a sporting revival in the heart of rural Worcestershire; From bleak house to great expectations for the nouveau riche of rugby
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An estate agent would have fun with Worcester Rugby Club. Located in the heart of rural Worcestershire, with easy access to the M5 and excellent shopping facilities, the club has been rebuilt to high professional standards, including a new multi-million pound training complex, believed to be the biggest in Europe, a pristine stand, wall-to-wall mock-pine Formica, new noticeboard (with portico), six perfect pitches and three full-time chefs. This is the balance of the new model rugby club, it seems. Twelve full- time players, three full-time chefs.

Eight seasons ago, Worcester were blundering along in the North Midlands League, enjoying their drink-ups with the likes of Aston Old Edwardians and wondering whether the bar takings would finance the next away trip. Now they are atop the Jewsons First Division (Division Three to you and me), enjoy finance from a benevolent sugar daddy, guidance from Les Cusworth, the former England backs coach, and, yesterday, matching ambitions in the first round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup (the competition formerly known as the Pilkington Cup) with Leeds, another of professional rugby's wannabes and home of the new sponsors. Even for a sport transformed in the past two years, this is a tribute to what a dollop of cash and a touch of vision can do for dear old "Woost".

Both vision and cash belong to Cecil Duckworth, a local businessman, who recently sold his heating company to the German giants Bosch for pounds 73m and had ample enough change to invest in a permanent memorial to his generosity. From a bleak, windswept site at Sixways, north of Worcester, rose the Worcester Rugby Centre, pounds 1.3m Lottery funding matched by Duckworth himself, and ideas skyscraper high. "Imagine it. Worcester v Bath, top of the table clash," muses Simon Lloyd, the commercial manager, his head full of hospitality boxes, merchandising profits and four-course meals (with wine). "We've gone from four bar staff to 43 on match days."

More than mere money is being succoured by Duckworth's millions. "It's an exciting place to be right now," adds Bruce Fenley, former scrum-half for Moseley and Gloucester, who left his job as a chartered surveyor on 1 July to pursue a career as a full-time rugby professional. "I just didn't want to get to 45 and be telling my children I could have been a pro once. As long as I didn't lose out financially, I wanted to give it a go. I'm 29. Time was running out."

Instead of exotic continentals, players have been imported from as far afield as Gloucester. The shrewdest transfer was Cusworth, who buried his memory of a bleak evening fixture in the Worcester Floodlit Cup all of 22 years ago and embraced instead the attractive combination of ambition and realism.

"I asked Mr Duckworth what would happen if we didn't get into the Premiership in the first year. He said: 'We'll try hard to do it the next year'." And then what? "Well, we'll try even harder the year after that, won't we?" Cusworth, a prophet of the doom theory of modern rugby union, signed a five-year contract with a brief to "build a rugby club". A proper rugby club, that is, not a haven for well-paid foreign mercenaries.

"Rugby is struggling to wash its face at present and I can see only a few clubs surviving in the current climate. We've cut our cloth accordingly." Most of the first-team squad, a mixture of West Country lags and burgeoning youth, are professional, paid for out of Duckworth's deep pocket.

Long-term survival depends on the ability of the director of rugby to turn armies of small children into grown-up professionals. If the well- scrubbed new stadium hums with purpose on matchdays, the fields throbs with life on a Sunday morning. 300 children, from seven to 17, under the eyes of 32 coaches, a tapestry of talent in one part of the country not blanketed by football.

This is the heart of the investment, both financial and emotional. "Mr Duckworth's vision is get some of these lads playing for England," Cusworth says. "He'll do it too."

All is bright and beautiful so far. The lust for promotion brings its own pressures and fears. Defeat at Rosslyn Park last week, only the club's fourth in three years, was a timely reminder of sporting uncertainty. A handsome 28-11 victory over Leeds put a cup tie against Bath one step closer. There is still a long way to go before such exalted company is kept every week.

Plans for a 10,000-seater stand will have to wait until the present 700 seats can be regularly filled. The trick is to walk first and then run as Woost's wise old heads well know. "Scoreboard," intoned the PA halfway through the first half as the operators gleefully recorded a disallowed try. Pause. "Ever the optimists."