Rugby Union: Cusworth crafts club of the future

David Llewellyn finds today's potential giant-killers have ideas above their station
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No match could illustrate more graphically the new age of professional rugby than today's Tetley's Bitter Cup tie between Worcester and Bristol. The contrast is stark. Bristol, giants of the amateur era, have fallen on hard times; the paupers were even forced to shed half a dozen players last week.

Today they head into the Midlands to tackle the up and comers Worcester, riding high in the Jewson National League first division, in effect the game's third division. They are a self-made,self-sufficient, ambitious side with very real pretensions to join the modern game's elite.

Unlike Bristol, Worcester have no money worries. A millionaire businessman, Cecil Duckworth, has provided the balance of the pounds 3m (after a Lottery grant of pounds 1.2m), needed for their stand and indoor training facilities, which incorporate a full-sized pitch and are unrivalled in Europe, according to Les Cusworth, the director of rugby.

Duckworth also recently purchased an additional 20 acres to provide a further four pitches to go with the existing four - an expenditure which can easily be justified given that Worcester boast 17 teams, from minis through to the first XV. Three of the present pitches have floodlights and there is also a flourishing conference centre. In the next couple of years, provided planning permission is granted, work will begin on a second stand at a cost of around pounds 4m to turn Sixways into an all-seater stadium housing 11,000 spectators.

Bristol, on the other hand, are still seeking a wealthy backer, contemplating scrapping their second XV, and agonising over whether to sell their Memorial Ground and/or their nearby combination ground in order to ease debts estimated at pounds 3m.

But as financially secure as Worcester appear to be they are not prepared to throw money around. Cusworth is adamant. "We think this is the rugby club of the future," he said. "We don't think you can have one first-team squad, maybe a development squad, scrap everything else and throw the cheque-book at it. We don't think that is the answer.

"But because people think Worcester have money I have been bombarded with players' cvs for the last six months; 97 per cent of them go in the bin. We choose very carefully. I had the Bristol six on fax 48 hours before the announcement. We won't be approaching them."

Innovation and imagination appear to be two important ingredients at Worcester. On Saturdays the club have organised a shuttle bus service from the city centre more than five miles away, free to all spectators. And every other Thursday Cusworth, one of the players and a coach hold a seminar at which converts to rugby are given a grounding in the fundamentals.

"The crowd here is a bit strawberry and ice cream," Cusworth said. "It is a new culture for them, but they are enthusiastic. The thing is you have a lot of middle-aged women and men coming in from soccer who haven't a clue why a scrum is awarded, and offside... what the hell is that? So over the last five months we have been teaching the basics to 50 people at a time."

On the pitch things are also rosy. The club have been promoted five times in eight years, the last three on the trot and they are at present lying second in the league. Another promotion is a distinct possibility.

The appointment of Cusworth earlier this year to take overall control of affairs at the club, was with one thing in mind, joining the elite. "My brief is to get promotion," the former Leicester and England fly- half said. "The big game we've got is not Bristol on Sunday, it's Nottingham away in the league the weekend after." And if they did pull off the unlikely? "It would mean another Cup upset," said Cusworth flatly. "That's all."

Victory over Bristol would do Worcester no harm, but defeat would be no bad thing either. A glance at their respective league tables suggests that Worcester would probably have a couple of chances of revenge next season in Allied Dunbar Premiership Two.

Worcester rugby club was founded in 1871, 17 years before Bristol came into existence. On present evidence they look like being around for a lot longer too.