Hinshelwood gives Worcester real hope

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The Independent Online

His handicap has risen from a respectable three, which made him the best golfer in the Premiership, but then Ben Hinshelwood has more important business to attend to, like survival. As the newly elected captain of Worcester, the received wisdom is that Hinshelwood has drawn the shortest of short straws.

Winning National League One is one thing; keeping your head above water in the Premiership, with an abbreviated straw for oxygen, is quite another. For Rotherham read Worcester? The acid test arrives on Sunday when Jonny Wilkinson, restored to rude health after an eight-month absence, and the Newcastle Falcons visit Sixways. It promises to be the most momentous occasion since Parliamentary troops desecrated Worcester during the civil war 362 years ago.

Worcester Warriors, as they are called (cavaliers might have had a more historic ring) are 500-1 to win the league. Judging by the case histories, those are not generous odds.

Winning promotion to the Premiership can seriously damage the health of a club. Look at Richmond, London Scottish, West Hartlepool, Bedford and Bristol. Rotherham, who always managed to get the better of Worcester in National One, did not win a single game in the Premiership last season, and relegation has left them in disarray.

Having won 26 out of 26 in the Bridesmaid League, scoring 160 tries, more than 1,000 points and setting all manner of records, it is Worcester's turn to pick up the bouquet. It was probably their last chance. Cecil Duckworth, their benefactor, had already introduced a pay cut at the beginning of last season.

"We know we're taking a big step up and we know it will be more difficult to score tries, but there's no reason why we can't be competitive,'' Hinshel-wood said. "Rotherham didn't have as much time to prepare as we've had.'' That is debatable, but Hinshelwood says there are other reasons for optimism, not least the experienced coaching partnership of the highly rated John Brain and Andy Keast.

"We've capped 20 of our squad and recruited 12 others who have already fitted in with the club ethos," Hinshelwood said. "We've got players and coaches with Premiership experience. We're going to take the opposition on.

"We've also got excellent facilities and support, and geographically we're in a great spot. Everybody has been looking forward to this moment, and we're not going to be overawed. The whole approach has been profess-ional and the training exceptional. It's the hardest pre- season work I've done.'' Tom Bowman, for one, did not survive it. The Wallaby, recruited as a lock, failed a medical, but they have still got Craig Gillies and Mark Gabey, who have seen Premiership action elsewhere. Pat Sanderson has joined from Harlequins, Clive Stuart-Smith and Phil Murphy from Leeds, Ben Gollings from Newcastle andThinus Delport from Gloucester.

It is as well that Hinshelwood knows all about the slings and arrows. It's in his genes. His father is Sandy Hinshelwood, the London Scottish, Scotland and Lions wing of the Sixties. He toured New Zealand with the Lions in 1966 and South Africa in 1968.

Sandy, a pharmacist, emigrated to Australia in 1970, married a New Zealander and had three sons: Sam, James and Ben.

Ben was born in Melbourne and grew up in Sydney, where he played rugby for Mosman and Sydney University. He moved to London, worked at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and played for Bedford for £15,000 a season. In the past four seasons he has become a full-time professional with Worcester and broken into Test rugby as first-choice centre for Scotland after they had played him out of position at full-back. Aged 27, he made his international debut two years ago, and at 6ft 3in and 16st he could pass for a back-row forward.

Hinshelwood was reunited with his family Down Under during the World Cup and again when Scotland visited Australia in the summer. There will be another reunion when the Wallabies play two Tests at Murrayfield, giving Sandy the opportunity to renew auld acquaintances.

"I've seen videos of my dad playing rugby,'' Ben said. "It's fascinating. I'm probably not as fast as he was. I have one of his jerseys hanging on my bedroom wall. He didn't have many. Scotland only issued him with one, and if he needed another he had to pay.

"I'm honoured to be follow-ing in his footsteps. I wasn't a great player at school and I suppose I'm a late developer. When Worcester gave me the chance I decided to give up my job and put everything into it. It's turned out all right and my career is progressing. It would be fantastic to emulate dad and become a Lion, but that would be a big ask.''

For Worcester to prosper in the Premiership will be an even bigger ask. Pat Sanderson, as well as being an impressive flanker, is chairman of the Professional Players' Association, and this season has the support of Jason Reilly, the PRA's first player career advisor. "A priority,'' Sanderson said, "is to get dedicated career and education advice for the membership.'' It could be argued that the players with first call are those who have been promoted, relegated and then left in no-man's-land.

Hinshelwood maintains that Worcester will be different. The Warriors defeated Cardiff 12-10 in a pre-season friendly and their unbeaten record, which had spanned more than a year, only came to an end, 16-13, after a late penalty to Leinster in Ireland.

Sixways, leaving aside its vulnerability to flooding, has two new temporary stands, increasing the capacity of the ground from 5,000 to 8,500. Rotherham claimed that planning permission was not obtained in time for Worcester to meet the RFU's deadline on fulfilling the criteria for membership of the Premiership.

Nice try, but on Sunday at Sixways there are no two ways about it - Hinshelwood and his Warriors take on Wilkinson and the Falcons before a sell-out crowd.