Keast and Brain plot next stage of Project Worcester

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Worcester need to find a tighthead prop in the next two weeks, but the search for respect among their Premiership peers has been an unqualified success. "We have gained that and a little bit more," said Andy Keast, the coach of the upwardly mobile men from the Midlands who have given promoted clubs a long-overdue good name.

Worcester need to find a tighthead prop in the next two weeks, but the search for respect among their Premiership peers has been an unqualified success. "We have gained that and a little bit more," said Andy Keast, the coach of the upwardly mobile men from the Midlands who have given promoted clubs a long-overdue good name.

Injuries to the tightheads Neil Lyman, Chris Horsman and Lee Fortey mean Worcester are struggling to field a front row in their European Shield final against Auch on Saturday week, but it is unlikely to faze the Warriors too much at the end of a season they began as the bookmakers' favourites for relegation. Winning the Shield, unlike its senior partner the Challenge Cup, carries no extra reward, and Worcester already have the prize they wanted by finishing ninth in the Premiership. Little wonder they looked drained of energy in Friday night's wildcard semi-final defeat at Saracens.

"We hoped it wouldn't be a game too far, but it was," said Keast, who joined Worcester's director of rugby, John Brain, at Sixways at the start of 2002. National League One is rugby's Alcatraz in terms of ease of escape, but the pair made it at the third attempt last summer. The previous champions, Rotherham, failed to satisfy the Premiership's entry criteria in 2002, and did not win a match when they made it in 2003-04. Leeds finished bottom in 2002, as did Rotherham in 2001, and Bristol in 2000 were the last promoted team not to finish bottom. Brain put his trust in a restrained recruitment policy, adding a small pool of players to 20 from the existing squad, and Keast brought the attention to detail that had previously benefited, among others, Harlequins and the 1997 British and Irish Lions.

"The signing of [flanker] Pat Sanderson from Quins was a good one," said Keast. "He took over the mantle of captain on the field, led by example exceptionally well and worked hard with the club captain, Ben Hinshelwood. We got the front five right, too, though not immediately. We had to get in late to get Tim Collier in the second row from London Welsh, and that was a punt, if you like, but it worked out. Our set-piece was a major aspect. It's a cliché that you can't win games without a front five, but it's true. We won a fair share of our ball and attacked the opposition's. Craig Gillies has the best line-out statistics in the division."

Collier and Gillies, latterly with the back-up of Phil Murphy and the England Under-21 cap Richard Blaze, formed the heart of one of the Premiership's most fearsome scrums. Keast is dumbfounded that Gillies, the former Richmond and Llanelli lock whose baldness is not by choice but the consequence of alopecia, has been ignored by England for this summer's Churchill Cup.

But Sanderson will be on the trip, as captain, and in any case Keast admits that, during a punishing domestic campaign, international call-ups are a double-edged sword. "When you have continuity of selection, you are going to get better as a team. If you're fragmented for weeks on end in November and during the Six Nations' Championship, it is difficult, although of course if players get the call it means they're of a good quality."

Worcester's back-line, by and large, is doing more for global peace than England's cause but, again, the impressive part has been the sum of the parts. Thomas Lombard and Dale Rasmussen formed an unlikely Franco-Samoan pact to lock up the midfield, and the likes of Matt Powell and James Brown at half-back kicked on from their previously patchy Premiership experience.

Keast and Brain cut quiet figures on the touchline at Saracens - not that there was much to be animated about - but the genuine excitement came at Sixways six days earlier, when Northampton were beaten 21-19 on a nerve-racking afternoon. Did safety see Worcester's benefactor for a decade, Cecil Duckworth, spray champagne around the dressing room? "That's not really Cecil's style," said Keast. "He's been involved a long time, and taken the club from a playing field to where it is now. He didn't need to say too much, the money he's put in from his own pocket says it all."

The capacity of Worcester's neat stadium next to the M5 is being increased to more than 10,000 next season and 12,500 the year after. Lyman, the great survivor of those humble times in Midlands One, turned 35 on Friday with more ice on his dodgy knee than in a celebratory drink, but he will be fit for a casino evening as his testimonial continues. Duckworth, meanwhile, will spin the wheel with more cash to fund a squad whose next aim is to qualify for the Heineken Cup.

"We do believe in the salary cap," Keast quickly pointed out. "The Heineken Cup is achievable, if not next year then the one after. This year we finished 16 points behind Bath in fourth place, which is a gap of four wins or three and a few bonus points, so we are not a million miles away."

The remaining turnover of a third of the squad is in hand. Well though Powell and Brown have performed, the Warriors have already signed Andy Gomarsall and Shane Drahm from Gloucester and Northampton respectively. "John and I don't wait for people to turn up in faxes and emails from agents," said Keast. "We targeted Shane and Andy, and we've done it with a few others."

Drahm is believed to have got a pay rise; he has certainly joined a team who finished two spots above Northampton. "They have done a fantastic job to stay up," Drahm said of his new club.

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