Rugby Union: Cusworth on the cusp of a breakthrough

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When Worcester play Bristol in Sunday's Tetley Cup it is likely to be the prelude to a couple of meetings in the Allied Dunbar Premiership next season - even though the clubs are two leagues apart at the moment.

Worcester are high-fliers in Jewson National One (effectively Premiership Three), while Bristol look doomed to be relegated to Premiership Two.

Les Cusworth, the former England stand-off and national coach, believes his Worcester team are well prepared for the step up.

"There is half the season to go yet, but we are four points clear in second place. We made a big step when we won at Leeds last weekend," Cusworth said.

Worcester are accustomed to being promoted, too. "When we went up unbeaten last season before I joined the club it was our fourth promotion in seven years," he added. "But we are not getting carried away. Only a few months ago we were playing low-grade rugby."

Worcester have the money, the resources and a huge catchment area west of Birmingham in previously untapped territory as far as first-class rugby goes. There has been speculation about which will be the next club to taste top-flight rugby for the first time.

In 1998, though, it will not be the Premiership Two teams, Rotherham, Exeter or one of Cusworth's old clubs, Wakefield. They linger below half- way.

So the tempting prospect remains that Worcester could jump into Premiership Two and, if still successful, be playing Premiership One in 1999.

Cusworth joined on 1 August, having made the decision when on tour with England in Argentina. "Jack Rowell has visited me and said that I've got the best job in rugby. We have a five-year plan, and Worcester now reminds me of Leicester 20 years ago," Cusworth said.

Two decades ago Leicester were poised to become England's top team in a spell when Cusworth masterminded a hat-trick of cup wins as an unorthodox free spirit in midfield. Leicester also won the first league title in 1988 with Cusworth as leader.

The Yorkshireman has been given a free hand to galvanise Worcester by local businessman Cecil Duckworth, whose investment has already amounted to pounds 1.3m, a sum matched by a Lottery grant to improve facilities. "But this club is not about facilities, though we are proud of our development. It is about people," Cusworth said.

Bristol, meanwhile, have put six of their senior squad on the transfer list as part of their radical restructuring plans. The England Under-21 prop Andy Collins, South-west hooker Jim Dickin, former Welsh youth full- back Steffan Jones, hooker Simon Gully, wing Nathan Millet and Combined Services back row Chris Moore are all available.

Bristol have gleaned one victory from their eight league outings this season. Last Saturday they suffered their heaviest home defeat at the hands of league leaders Newcastle and today face a tough task against Harlequins at The Stoop.