It was this time last year that Bristol, widely expected to make an immediate return to the Premiership after another of their all-too-regular flirtations with second-tier rugby, found themselves being stripped bare by Exeter, whose clever planning for the play-off stage of the campaign allowed them to beat their West Country rivals home and away just when it mattered most.
Worcester, the current promotion "certainties", have no intention of being mugged in the same way. "There were lessons to be learnt from what happened to Bristol," says Richard Hill, the head coach at Sixways. "Believe me, we've learnt them."
Hill is by no means complacent: of all the professional coaches earning a crust from the game in these islands, he is the least prone to the sins of presumption, arrogance and smug self-satisfaction. Indeed, he is approaching the remaining 33 days of the season as a spirited spinster might approach a speed-dating session at the local boozer – a tingle of excitement, counterbalanced by a profound sense of caution – and with good reason.
Assuming Worcester make the final by beating either Bedford or Doncaster in a home semi, as they undoubtedly should, they will find themselves facing Cornish Pirates or London Welsh over two legs. The Pirates won at Sixways in a league match back in October, and lost the return in Penzance by the grand total of three points. And the Exiles? We'll let the man himself talk us through that one.
"We played them in London last weekend and won 22-20," he says. "In actual fact, I was quite pleased with some aspects of our game. But they're a dangerous side, particularly in the back division, and like everyone else in the league, they've thought long and hard about how best to counter us. That's the thing with starting a competition as clear favourites: each week, you come up against a team who have spent a hell of a lot of time trying to work you out. We've played London Welsh twice in the league and twice more in the play-offs. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that we'll play them twice more before this is over.
"There's a lot of familiarity there, and that can make life difficult – especially when it's knock-out rugby and the adrenaline is pumping, there's not an inch of space anywhere on the field, and no one misses a tackle."
The former England captain does not waste too much nervous energy thinking about this possibility, but he is fully aware of the potential irony of Worcester losing in the final to opponents whose facilities are so far short of Premiership criteria, they have not even requested an audit ahead of a promotion application. Both the Pirates and London Welsh fall into this category. Should the worst come to the worst for Worcester – if no one goes up and the top flight remains embarrassingly intact – it will serve the Rugby Football Union right for foisting such a half-arsed, ill-considered format on the Second Division clubs in the first place. "It's a strange competition," Hill acknowledges, with extreme diplomacy.
Today, Worcester face Bristol in one last play-off game before the semi-final stage, for which they qualified with matches to spare. Is he resting players for the more meaningful contests to come? Not a bit of it. Indeed, he has made only two changes to the strong side he fielded last weekend, recalling the Tongan hooker Aleki Lutui – one of the outstanding front-rowers at the last World Cup – and an All Black lock in the elongated shape of Greg Rawlinson. He could not have made a clearer statement of intent had he sent a note to Bristol saying: "We're coming to get you."
The fact that Hill's previous job in English rugby was at Bristol, who dispensed with his services in a particularly ruthless and unseemly manner, has nothing to do with his selection policy. He is a long way past that episode now and is reluctant to revisit it. His thinking ahead of today's match has more to do with preparations for what lies ahead.
"Last season, Bristol made the mistake of tapering off, just when Exeter were doing the opposite," he explains. "If you ease off too much at the wrong time, you tend to get caught... When you look at what Exeter did last year, it was well thought through. They took players out of the first team midway through the league campaign, worked them in the gym and made sure they were well conditioned for the run-in. Yes, they lost three or four games because of it, but as the expectation on them wasn't huge, I'm not sure it mattered that much, even to their board. We've never been in that position. We set our stall out last summer, saying that we intended to go straight back up into the Premiership. Once we did that, we couldn't hide from it. I've had to pick a side to win every game, all the way along. We've lost once in this competition, and that was bad enough. If we'd lost four on the trot, I'd have had Cecil asking me what was going on."
By Cecil, he meant the club's principal benefactor and indefatigable chairman, Cecil Duckworth, who has not only spent many years and untold millions turning Sixways into one of the best-equipped stadiums in English rugby, but made it possible for Worcester to retain most of the leading players who might have been tempted to jump ship when they heard the dread tolling of the relegation bell. He also persuaded Hill to cut short a planned three-year coaching stint in France – after the unpleasantness of Bristol, he had resurfaced, very quietly, with Chalon-sur-Saône, a third-tier club from the Burgundy region – and handed him the keys to the West Midlands castle.
"This is the first time I've worked at a club operating on this kind of budget," says Hill, whose employment record includes spells with Gloucester, Harlequins, Ebbw Vale and Newport. "Recruitment for next season hasn't been too much of a problem – I started before Christmas and had it done by the end of February; 11 players out, 11 in – and the facilities here are second to none. We're also expecting some big crowds for our remaining home games. There's a lot of interest in this area, a lot of support.
"I'd genuinely committed myself to giving it a really good go in France, but when the chance of being part of this project came along, I knew it was right up my street. Different coaches have different ambitions, different needs. For me, the opportunity to start from scratch and build something up is very attractive. Worcester spent six years in the Premiership before my arrival, and never finished better than eighth.
"I'd like to think I can take them higher. During my time at Bristol, we managed a top-three finish. That was incredibly rewarding, and I'd love to do something similar here. But it may be that I lay the foundations and someone else carries on with the construction work. I signed for two years only, because I won't stay anywhere if I'm not doing a good job. It's the way I am."
Here's another example of the way Hill is. When he arrived at Sixways, he was surprised – not to say alarmed – at the lack of communication between the players and the support staff: the cooks, the cleaners, the people running the ticket office. "People in the squad didn't have the faintest idea who it was working on their behalf, and I was determined to change the culture," he says. "I made the players learn exactly who was who, by name. They were given cards containing all the information, and I tested them. Now, we have a meal together every other Monday. I like the idea of us all being in it together."
Haven't we heard that line before, somewhere? That's right: from the coalition government. Hill frowns, shakes his head, and says: "We're a bit more harmonious than them, I hope."Reuse content