John Brain: Out to gain the whip hand with Worcester after suffering public flogging

The quiet man of Sixways is confident he can haul bottom club out of the Premiership mire, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Football has the chairman's vote of confidence, which never quite means what it says; rugby union has the owner's outburst, which tells it exactly how it is. When Worcester lost 41-11 to Bristol, at home, on the opening day of the Premiership campaign, Cecil Duckworth had plenty to say on the subject, none of it nice. "It was a disgraceful effort," fumed the financier-in-chief, flirting dangerously with spontaneous combustion. "One or two players performed exceptionally badly. To concede three tries in the last 10 minutes and hand them a bonus point was outrageous. I have certainly made my feelings clear. It was awful."

The moment Roman Abramovich feels driven to vent his spleen in so public a fashion, Jose Mourinho will pack his shaving kit, flounce out of London with a view to being "special" somewhere else. Sixways is not Stamford Bridge, happily, and John Brain has never been one for the theatrical gesture. He was, after all, a second-row forward raised in the Gloucester tradition, which for very good reasons prizes the phlegmatic above the choleric. The best Kingsholm packs are cold-bloodedly ruthless, not wildly hot-tempered. Were it the other way round, there would be mass arrests.

"Cecil was right," admitted the director of rugby this week. "I said pretty much the same things myself. Bristol out-thought us at the line-out and outmuscled us about the field. It was the first time we'd lost in such a manner in our own yard since we were promoted to the Premiership and it has taken us a while to get over it.

"In our first season in this league, Sale put 50 points on us at their place by running the ball around, but on no occasion had we been drilled up front at Sixways. I see Bristol as having one of the better packs in this competition, but still..."

Worcester are now bottom, having taken a solitary point from three matches. They lost at Newcastle six days after the Bristol calamity - they were 19-3 up and should have been even more comfortable, yet contrived to make a pig's ear of it - and then suffered a second home defeat to Sale, the champions.

This afternoon, it is Bath time: a full-metal-jacket mission at the Recreation Ground against one of the more physical teams in the tournament. If life is a box of chocolates, Brain might be forgiven for thinking that he picked out the one carrying a guarantee of emergency dental surgery.

There is no hint of panic in the Sixways air, however. Anxiety? A little. Alarm? Not that anyone would notice. "There is absolutely no point us sitting down together and staring at the league table, or wasting our energy worrying about what other teams are doing," Brain said.

"The very worst way to react to a losing run is to allow yourself to become preoccupied with the negatives of the situation. If there was much to concern us after the Bristol game, there was less to worry about following the Newcastle defeat and less again after Sale. We are now at the end of the first tranche of Premiership matches. We won't have hit our targets in respect of these four games, irrespective of what happens at Bath, but we'll do our analysis and move on, wiser and stronger, to the next block."

Few expect this season's relegation struggle to be anything less than desperate, but Brain does not anticipate his team being a part of it. If he believes passionately that Worcester belong in the Premiership - "We have created an identity for ourselves," he said, "and the fact that we are a city-based team in a prime geographical location means we have tremendous potential for growth" - he also takes the view that a rational, systematic approach to match preparation will protect the club from the fate that dare not speak its name.

A law graduate who ran a local authority trading standards department before moving into full-time coaching, he has a reputation for thoroughness. He is also renowned for keeping his counsel. Rarely, if ever, does Brain appear in the public prints.

Is he enjoying the job now as much as he was, say, a year ago, when Worcester won four of their opening half-dozen Premiership fixtures and drew another? "I don't enjoy losing," he replied. "You know it's bound to happen at certain times, but it doesn't stop you feeling terrible. It impacts on your family life, and that's pretty hard to take. But the people who do my kind of job are paid to be accountable. When you lose, you take responsibility. When you win, everyone assumes it was all down to the outside-half, so you just sneak off to the bar and drink a solitary pint."

Is it really so bad? "No," he said with a laugh. "The majority of us coaches understand that we're hugely privileged to work in professional rugby, particularly in this kind of competitive environment."

It is in the nature of such environments that some participants are more equal than others. Despite the salary cap - a small but significant island of egalitarianism in a sporting sea of increasingly merciless commercial activity - Brain knows he faces a considerable challenge in guiding Worcester to the next stage of development, from where they might realistically beat the likes of Wasps, Leicester and Sale on something better than an occasional basis. The fact that Sale are now frequently mentioned in the same sentence as the other two gives him hope. "They've shown us it can be done," he said - but it promises to be a long and difficult road.

"We play in the same league, but there are established forces in English rugby and others whose task it is to get where they are," he agreed. "If you look at the current transfer market, you can see the issues facing a club like Worcester. We're not widely considered to be a team capable of qualifying regularly for the Heineken Cup - not yet, at any rate - so it requires a leap of faith for an ambitious player to come here. Frequently, I find myself chasing the same players as Philippe Saint-André up at Sale, a club at the peak of their powers. I've had my little victories over Philippe, but he's had more. It's the way things are.

"How do we change it? It has to be an incremental thing, because sustainability is vital. Clearly, the next part of the plan is to move ourselves out of the bottom five, where we've finished in each of the last two years, and make a top-five team of ourselves.

"That's a pretty difficult thing to achieve, especially if you intend to keep on achieving it. Look at Harlequins. Look at Leeds. Both of them have been relegated, yet both played Heineken Cup rugby the year they went down. There is more to this game than having one good season."

Brain is one of the Premiership's arch-realists. He offers no apology for his team's modus operandi, which is based squarely on the line-out and the scrum; indeed, he will use next week's meeting between the directors of rugby and the élite referees, which just happens to be taking place at Sixways, to press for more authoritative and more knowledgeable officiating at the set-piece.

"There are issues to be discussed," he said. "To my mind, there is no point employing a tight-head prop of international class on pretty good money if, every time he gets the shoulder on his rival, the opposition flanker is allowed to get away with not binding. We all know that people will cheat if the other team gets on top in the front row. This is what we should be addressing.

"It's not easy, I know - the scrum is a unique aspect of rugby union, extremely specialised and technical. We have to protect it, because if it's emasculated our game will lose some of its heart and soul. To protect it, we need to have it refereed well."

Equally, Brain is unashamed in his view that the next two weeks of EDF Energy Cup rugby must be treated as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

"We'll approach those games with one eye on the next league match, against Gloucester in the middle of October," he confirmed. "We'll do what is best, both selectorially and in terms of preparation, in terms of that fixture. Success is measured against performance in the Premiership. It's a fact of life."

Facts are sacred to Brain, which explains his reluctance to indulge in idle comment. He would far sooner spend his working week in front of the computer, examining the way this opponent lifts his line-out jumper or that opponent positions himself under the high ball, than join the rent-a-quote brigade in talking a good game. He craves a quiet corner, not Speaker's Corner.

It is a deeply unromantic approach, but then, he spent his playing career entombed in the more sulphurous recesses of a West Country scrum. There isn't much romance to be found in there.

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