Chris Pennell: England’s hidden treasure
Pennell is a brilliant full-back. He is also the son of a former Test cricketer. But, as he tells Chris Hewett, staying loyal to Worcester means going unrecognised in the short term
Here are a few facts about Chris Pennell, things we should be able to state without fear of contradiction. The Worcester full-back has played every minute of every game in this season’s league campaign, which is no mean feat for a man who suffers from diabetes and has the injury record from hell; he has just signed a three-year extension to his contract at Worcester despite the imminent threat of relegation, thereby rubbishing the idea that there is no such thing as loyalty in professional sport; and as the son of the late Test cricketer Graham Dilley, with sporting blood coursing through his body he is, all things considered, the best-performing No 15 in Premiership rugby.
The fact that this last “fact” is not scientifically provable does not make it any less, er, factual, but for the sake of harmony, let’s call it a “truth” instead. Some people will argue against the notion of Pennell’s supremacy at club level – they will say that the England full-backs, Mike Brown of Harlequins and Alex Goode of Saracens, have an edge; that Mathew Tait of Leicester or Nick Abendanon of Bath are more potent.
But those with eyes to see will surely select the Worcester man in their end-of-season Premiership XVs, even if the Midlanders finish bottom and are consigned to a spell of out-of-sight, out-of-mind torment. After all, it is not every full-back who offers, in total adversity, a faultless defensive game and a long-range kicking option while simultaneously acting as his team’s attacking mother lode.
Dean Ryan, the rugby director at Sixways, is the first to make the case for Pennell, and while that may seem predictable enough, the Big Bad Wolf of the English game is not renowned for making unsubstantiated claims on behalf of his players. So when the boss makes a top-end valuation of one of the Premiership’s lesser-known treasures, his motives stand up to scrutiny.
“Chris has been magnificent for us and I’d like to think the rugby he’s playing will put him in the spotlight,” Ryan said ahead of today’s home game with Exeter – a match Worcester must win if they are to retain even the slightest hope of staying up. “As far as international rugby is concerned, I’ve said before that if he was at a top-six club he’d be in the England mix. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma attached to playing for Worcester. He isn’t in any representative squad and I haven’t had a phone call about him all season. That’s wrong. Fundamentally wrong.
“When I arrived at the club last year, it was easy to spot the defining players – the people around whom a new, more successful team could be built. They were staring me in the face and Chris was obviously one of them, although he didn’t know it himself.
“I think he has a greater understanding now of just how important he is to us, and when he re-signed it was a huge boost for the club and a massive testament to his qualities as a person, because there aren’t many people who face such a dilemma and decide to stay put. People might have read about him committing himself to Worcester and dismissed it as something run of the mill. It was anything but. I’ve been around this game a long time and it’s one of the boldest declarations of loyalty and commitment I can remember. It must have taken him a very long time to weigh up the pros and cons.”
Actually, the process was quicker and less agonising than Ryan imagines. According to Pennell, it fell into the “no-brainer” category after a brief period of intense reflection. “Once Dean told me he wanted to keep me, there were two good reasons to sign the new contract,” he explained. “The first was the security it gave me and my family. We had our first child, a daughter, six months ago and when something like that happens in your life continuity is a good thing. The second was the confidence I felt about our direction of travel as a club. I knew I’d be kicking myself if, four years down the line, I found myself looking at a successful Worcester team without being a part of it. That really would have hurt me. I’m a local bloke, I’ve played all my senior rugby here and I feel deeply connected. Apart from anything else, I’ve been treated superbly: Worcester have invested a lot of time and effort in me, stuck by me through long spells of injury.
“I wouldn’t say it was completely black and white when it came to decision time – I have ambitions to play international rugby and I want to give myself the best chance – but, since Dean has been at the club, I’ve become a different player. We’re in a transitional phase here and transitions are never easy, but with the right kind of buy-in from people who really want to be involved, we can make a real go of it. That’s an attractive proposition.”
It speaks volumes for Pennell’s attitude and ability this season that he should have remained so sure-footed while those around him have disappeared into the morass, but this gives him little satisfaction. Indeed, he is brutally honest about the consequences of relegation.
“Have I come to terms with the prospect? Quite the opposite,” he said. “Relegation is the worst thing I can envisage. Speaking from a purely personal perspective, I need to be playing in the top flight if I’m to achieve my aims; there is nothing good about the idea of spending a year in the Championship and I’d give anything not to find myself there.
“When Dean arrived, with all sorts of things bubbling away under the surface that needed addressing, it was clear that he saw his work here as a long-term project, and I understood that. But there was also a big part of me that wanted a quick fix. I can’t imagine there’s one player who likes scrapping away at the bottom of the league.
“On the other hand, I’m in a positive frame of mind. I’m absolutely confident that we can beat Exeter this weekend, beat Gloucester at home on the last day of the season, take something from one of our remaining away games and find a way to stay up. Also – and this seems weird, I suppose – I’ve enjoyed this campaign. I think I’ve learnt more about myself since September than in the last five years put together, and that knowledge has taken me a long way.
“There have been dark moments, definitely and it was then that I found myself relying on those closest to me to keep my spirits up. But there’s something about our current set-up that helps you put the bad stuff to one side. Even when we’ve lost a game in the final minute – a speciality of ours, sadly – you turn up on a Monday morning and see people genuinely excited about the thought of another week’s training. That hasn’t always been the case in the past, so as long as it continues, I’ll see this as a good place to be.”
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