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
Saturday 17 April 2010
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.
*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)
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