Bruises, stitches and the pain of a relegation fight

Pat Sanderson tells Chris Hewett that bottom-of-the-table Worcester can still rescue a punishing season – starting with victory over Wasps

It may be tough at the top, but it's a fair bit tougher at the bottom.

Ask Pat Sanderson, the one-time England back-row forward and occasional national captain, who in recent weeks has discovered the joys of playing high-level rugby while poking his tongue clean through a hole where part of his cheek had once been and experienced the pleasures of "triple stitching", a surgical technique that does what it says on the tin. "I cracked heads with Dale Rasmussen and the cut went right down to my skull," he reports, with a degree of gruesome relish. "I needed stitches on stitches ... on stitches. Still, I gave up on my face ages ago."

Some people think he should give up on Worcester as well, but they might as well whistle at the moon. Sanderson has been central to the Sixways project since joining the club from Harlequins in 2004, throwing himself heart and soul into the building, more or less from scratch, of a Premiership club. When he casts his eye over the stadium, which has been improved and extended year on year since promotion – when he surveys the superb training facilities, the thriving conference centre, the spanking new road complex that acts almost as a siren call to spectators from all over the West Midlands – he is damned if he is willing to admit defeat just yet. "Like everyone else here, I have every intention of not going down," he insists. "I am not thinking about relegation, or even the faint possibility of relegation." More fool him, you might say. Bankrolled to the tune of £20m-plus by the local businessman Cecil Duckworth and blessed with virtually every ingredient for Premiership success except a winning side, Worcester have three games in which to save their collective skin, and there are precious few punters prepared to gamble so much as a brass farthing on their survival. They play Wasps at home today, and while Wasps have never won a league game at Sixways, they are playing worryingly well at present. Then they travel to Leeds, who have three more points and two more wins to their name. By the time Gloucester make the short journey up the M5 for the final-day derby on 8 May, Sanderson and his colleagues could be dead and buried.

Yet Sanderson, deep in his 33rd year, will not budge. "We're still in touch, we're not playing bad rugby and as I've always believed in the constancy of the effort-reward ratio – that if you work hard enough, you'll get by – I think we can stave it off," he continues. "Which is not to say I don't appreciate the seriousness of the situation. It's incredibly serious and it's affecting my life in a huge way. The flipside, I suppose, is that it's good for the soul to test yourself in difficult circumstances. The pressure here is comparable to the pressure of playing at international level and it's difficult to deal with at times. The thing to understand is that no one deals with it alone. It can only be dealt with as a group, together.

"We have to ensure that we don't go into our shells: we can't afford to let the fear suffocate us. Fear can be a motivational force, but it can also be very disabling. If we take our performances into proper account, rather than look purely at our results, we can legitimately say that whatever we may be, we're not a bad side. We're always in contention, always in there with a chance of taking something from these games: I don't think there's a team in the country who can honestly say they've had an easy time of it at Sixways, and until fairly recently – the last three or four matches maybe – I honestly felt we had something to play for in terms of achievement. That's not the case now, though. What we're playing for now is something very different. We're playing for our livelihoods."

To the 10,000 or so who attend every Worcester home game – a decent number, given the Midlanders' failure to break out of the bottom third of the Premiership despite Duckworth's investment and the startling recruitment of southern hemisphere players as good as the Wallaby full-back Chris Latham and the All Black centre Sam Tuitupou – the captain is a reassuring figure, one of the few fixed points in an ever-changing world that never seems to change for the better.

Right now, they need all the continuity they can get. Latham is returning to Australia at the end of the season; there are rumours linking Tuitupou with the Swansea-based Ospreys club; Tom Wood, the highly-rated England Saxons flanker, will soon push off in the direction of Northampton. It may not be long before Mike Ruddock, the director of rugby, joins the exodus, albeit as a result of someone else's decision. Sanderson shrugs his shoulders. This is not, he says, his concern.

"I can't afford to think about any of that stuff," he says. "I can only affect what I can affect. I'm absolutely certain there are people here who continue to share my dreams and ambitions for the club, and that's important to me. But all this talk of what the future holds ... well, it's all moonshine, isn't it? The only thing that really registers with me at the moment is beating Wasps this weekend. It's the way I am, the only way I know how to be."

Is he seriously suggesting that at this late point in his career, he gives no thought to what he might do with himself once he packs it in? After all, there are only so many dents to the ego and so many triple-stitch ordeals a thirtysomething flanker can stand. There are many among the Worcester regulars who assume he will take on a coaching role the moment he stops playing; indeed, they wonder whether he shouldn't combine both roles without further ado. These things must occur to him occasionally, surely?

"As things stand, I''l be playing for another two years," he says. "I'll give what I can give and then think about what I do next. While I'm a rugby player, I'll think and act like a rugby player. The moment I allow myself to be distracted is the moment I become a poor player, and believe me, that's the last thing I want to happen. I've seen too many great players finish their careers poorly because they've started worrying about what happens once they stop.

"When I look at my brother Alex [a fellow England international whose career was cut short by injury] I realise how important it is to keep thinking the way I'm thinking, because when all is said and done, this is an amazing way to earn a living. Playing rugby at the elite level runs counter to all your senses: let's face it, there's no logic in wanting to make that tackle or hit that ruck, in willingly putting your head in that particular place. But to share those experiences with the people you play with ... how do I replicate that? I can't. I have business interests outside of the game and I'll develop those in the years to come, but it sure as hell won't give me the satisfaction I take from doing what I do now."

There speaks a true rugby man – a man who did not have to leave an established club like Harlequins for a newly-promoted side armed with nothing more than hopes and dreams but responded to the romantic lure of the unknown. Does he feel now that he has been banging that head of his against a brick wall?

He thinks for a second. "I suppose so," he replies, eventually. "I didn't come to Worcester to be involved in this kind of thing and the lack of progress has been bitterly frustrating. But I'd put it another way. I'd prefer to say I'm knocking chips out of the wall with my head. And if you remove enough chips, you know what happens to the wall."

Basement battle Clubs in danger

*One Premiership side will be relegated unless the winners of the second-tier Championship play-offs fail to meet promotion criteria – most unlikely in the case of the two favourites, Bristol and Exeter. If teams are level after the final round, the split will be based on matches won, followed by points difference. Should Worcester lose to Wasps this afternoon and again at Leeds a week tomorrow, only a freak of mathematics will stop them finishing bottom.

Fixtures

*Newcastle 9th (32 points, 5 wins): Leicester (home, tomorrow) Sale (away, 23 April) Wasps (home, 8 May)

*Sale 10th (31 pts, 6 wins): Bath (away, today) Newcastle (home, 23 April) Harlequins (away, 8 May)

*Leeds 11th (28 pts, 5 wins): London Irish (away, tomorrow) Worcester (home, 25 April) Bath (away, 8 May)

*Worcester 12th (25 pts, 3 wins): Wasps (home, today) Leeds (away, 25 April) Gloucester (home, 8 May)

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
healthMeet the volunteer users helping to see if the banned drug can help cure depression and addiction
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Life and Style
tech
News
i100
News
Foo Fighters lead man Dave Grohl talks about the band's forthcoming HBO documentary series
people
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

Caught in the web of legal imperialism

The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
Bruce Robinson: Creator of Withnail and I on his new book about Jack the Ripper

'Jack the Ripper has accrued a heroic aura. But I'm going after the bastard'

The deaths of London prostitutes are commonly pinned on a toff in a top hat. But Bruce Robinson, creator of Withnail and I, has a new theory about the killer's identity
Simon Stephens interview: The playwright on red-blooded rehearsals, disappointing his children - and why plays are like turtles

Simon Stephens interview

The playwright on red-blooded rehearsals, disappointing his children - and why plays are like turtles
Holidaying with a bike nut: Cycling obsessive Rob Penn convinces his wife to saddle up

Holidaying with a bike nut

Cycling obsessive Rob Penn convinces his wife to saddle up
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef pays homage to South-east Asia's palate-refreshing desserts

Bill Granger's fruity Asian desserts

Our chef's refreshing desserts are a perfect ending to a spicy, soy-rich meal
Fifa presidential election: What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison