Persistence and passion of the Worcester sorcerer

Cecil Duckworth is the driving force behind the Premiership's newest club. Chris Hewett hears how he is now prepared for a long stay in the top flight
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When unusually high winds swept off the Malvern Hills a week or so ago, sections of the roof of the south stand at Sixways disappeared in the general direction of Birmingham. This was a problem Worcester Rugby Football Club could well have done without, but it was as nothing compared to the damage - structural, financial, psychological - that would have occurred had the seers, sibyls and soothsayers of the Premiership fraternity read the runes correctly. Last September, there was scarcely a sporting prophet to be found who believed the newly promoted Midlanders would survive the campaign in one piece. They would be reduced to their component parts, stadium and all, and blown away like chaff on the breeze.

When unusually high winds swept off the Malvern Hills a week or so ago, sections of the roof of the south stand at Sixways disappeared in the general direction of Birmingham. This was a problem Worcester Rugby Football Club could well have done without, but it was as nothing compared to the damage - structural, financial, psychological - that would have occurred had the seers, sibyls and soothsayers of the Premiership fraternity read the runes correctly. Last September, there was scarcely a sporting prophet to be found who believed the newly promoted Midlanders would survive the campaign in one piece. They would be reduced to their component parts, stadium and all, and blown away like chaff on the breeze.

It is, then, with some amusement that Worcester's chairman, chief executive, investor- in-chief, business strategist, political negotiator, towering inspiration and life force spends a couple of hours considering the events of the last seven months, during which his club have beaten Wasps, Sale, London Irish, Northampton, Leeds and - not once, but twice - Harlequins, and put themselves within touching distance of the 37-point mark, which is generally presumed to signify safety. Victory over a dangerous Saracens team this afternoon will take them there, and the locals know it. The match was sold out inside 36 hours.

Cecil Duckworth, the man who plays the many and varied roles listed above with the easy versatility of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, shows no surprise at the scale of demand, for this is now a regular occurrence at Sixways.

"People can't get tickets for our matches," he says, serenely. "We've been overwhelmed by the level of interest. We're big news in Worcester itself, obviously, but we're also attracting a good deal of support from south-west Birmingham, which opens up a whole new area of potential business. We'll take our capacity from 8,300 to 9,500 next season, and to 12,000 the year after that. Then we'll draw breath, have a proper look at things and decide whether to expand to 15,000."

Who would have thought it? Not the Premiership ring-fencers who, driven by self-interest of the most naked variety, spent the early years of this decade exploring the darker corners of sporting behaviour in an effort to secure their own élite status, and rather lost their tempers when Worcester blew the whistle on their dubious nest-feathering antics. And certainly not those who assumed that a promoted club could only buy survival, rather than earn it through the sweat of their labour. In the previous few seasons, only Bristol had come up and stayed up as of right, and they had thrown horrible great wads of money at a battalion of foreign mercenaries - a policy that very nearly bankrupted them.

Quite what the Premiership owner-financiers of long standing - the Keith Barwells, the Nigel Wrays, the Andrew Brownswords - now think of Duckworth, who was once such a thorn in their sides, is anyone's guess. But this much is certain. In creating a top-flight professional club almost from scratch, the Worcester chairman has produced a model of sustainability; a secure, financially prudent organisation that could, in its own peculiar rugbyish way, mirror the success of the boiler-manufacturing company Duckworth launched in the early 1960s and sold a quarter of a century later for a substantial fortune, following a successful public flotation in 1986.

"There is no point doing this in a half-hearted way," he says, "but equally, it is important to plan carefully and think things through. We could, perhaps should, have been promoted in both 2002 and 2003, and it was disappointing to lose the matches that really mattered in those campaigns. But there was still a progression, because we knew we were bringing in players capable of forming the nucleus of a Premiership side - people who could lift their games a level and compete effectively in the top league. I didn't want a situation where a group of players saw us into the Premiership and then found themselves replaced en bloc. By and large, the strategy has worked. Eight or nine of last year's team are still in place, and are being sought by other clubs.

"We've grown together, and we'll keep growing. Of course, we've had our difficult times this season. When we played Newcastle at home in the first game, at the height of all the Wilkinson-mania, we were like rabbits in the headlights; when we travelled to Sale on a Friday night and found their big players, the Charlie Hodgsons and Jason Robinsons, on fire, we couldn't handle it. But we have good coaches here, coaches who think and analyse and come up with answers. Since that Sale game, we've won seven out of 14 matches. If we stay up - and we're almost there, aren't we? - we'll keep a large proportion of our current squad, recruit in positions of weakness and look for a solid improvement next season."

So much for Worcester. But where does Duckworth stand on club rugby's affairs of state - relegation, the structured season and the rest of the political caboodle - now that he is inside the royal tent, staring out at the hoi polloi lurking in the shadows?

"You do look at life differently from the inside," he admits, without a moment's prevarication. "It's like driving the car yourself, rather than sitting in the passenger seat. You find yourself around a table with people who have direct experience of putting together a Premiership team, of developing stadium facilities, of building a proper support base. But actually, I don't think my views have changed in any fundamental way since we moved up.

"In Premiership terms, I'm an expansionist. Interest in the game is expanding - the World Cup victory accelerated it, but it was happening anyway - so why not expand the league to 13 or 14? I understand the argument about keeping things meaningful, and I'm not in favour of a cosy little arrangement under which winning and losing cease to matter, but at this stage of the sport's development, I'm not in favour of death either. So I would have some stability for two or three years - promotion, but no relegation - and attempt to move the game into areas where the Premiership is under-represented, or not represented at all.

"This would mean a smaller slice of the cake, admittedly, but there would be two extra home games to sell and we would save the parachute payment we currently give to clubs dropping out of the league. We might coax some more money out of the broadcasters and sponsors, too. I also think it would be good for English rugby at international level, because clubs would feel much happier about rotating their squads and giving chances to academy players.

"To underpin this, I would impose minimum standards on the teams in National Division One. I said this when we were in the division, chasing promotion. When the Premiership brought in minimum standards they were accused of preparing the ground for a closed shop, but it's not unreasonable to move the game forward in this way, and I think it should apply to the second division as well. With due respect to some of the ND1 clubs, they seem to think it fun to play their rugby on some sloping bog of a pitch. I believe they should get their house in order, that there should be a system of conditional funding under which clubs either meet agreed standards over a period of time or get out of the league. The carrot for those meeting the standards is automatic promotion, should they win the title.

"By raising the bar at ND1 level, it would make it more practical to reintroduce relegation, perhaps three years down the road. A side going down could operate more effectively in an improved environment, amongst clubs who were serious about their futures. They might then keep the majority of their supporters and avoid economic disaster, which is the threat inherent in the current system."

As recently as a couple of years ago, Duckworth was at loggerheads with the walking wallets at the top end of the professional club game. "There were periods of exasperation," he acknowledges. Now, he is singing at least some of the verses from the Premiership hymn sheet, wholeheartedly agreeing with calls to limit the autumn international window to two weekends and shift the Six Nations Championship to the end of the season.

"It's about playing the long game, isn't it?" he says. "I did enough of that during my business career to understand its value, and I see no reason to change my habits. Call it a mission, an obsession. Call it what you like. In the end, I'm interested in sustainability, in building something that will last. That's what I'm engaged in here, and I'll go about it in the best way, as circumstances dictate."

Duckworth has his romantic streak - no rugby enthusiast, however driven, splashes out the best part of £10m without being just a little starry-eyed about the sport he loves - but he is 95 per cent realist. Even the most established Premiership clubs, the likes of Bath and Gloucester, know what it is to find themselves deep in the financial mire, sinking fast in a quicksand of salary cuts and unpaid wages. Worcester, it seems, stand on firmer ground; 40 acres of it, just off the M5, with England's second largest conurbation on their doorstep. Thanks almost entirely to their chairman, the future is as bright as can be.

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