Pat Sanderson missed the single most calamitous night in English rugby history - the 76-0 defeat by the Wallabies in Brisbane that launched the 1998 "tour from hell" - on account of his tonsils. "The best bout of tonsillitis ever," he says now. It appeared to many that he missed out on something else when he moved from Harlequins to newly-promoted Worcester during the summer, that something being the rest of his career. By common consent, he had made the wrong call with the wrong club at the wrong time.
By tea-time last Saturday, things looked different - so different, in fact, that the only wrong aspect of the move was everyone else's initial opinion of it. Worcester had beaten the Londoners 33-7 - their first Premiership victory in five attempts - and scored five tries in the process, one of them through Sanderson, who had captained the team with his customary vigour from the open-side flank. Suddenly, the 27-year-old forward from Chester was enjoying a sunny stroll down Vindication Street, with a "told you so" expression on his beaten-up face.
And Sanderson had indeed told us so, right from the beginning. "I'm being honest when I tell you that I never saw this as a such a big move," he said this week. "I certainly didn't see it as a risky one in terms of my future prospects. This is the most professional set-up I've ever been involved with, and I knew that would be the case when I decided to come here. The coaches are Premiership coaches who know what it is to operate in a high-pressure environment, the players are quality players who joined for all the right reasons, the commitment from Cecil Duckworth [the club's chairman and resident moneybags] is huge. This feels like a Premiership club: ambitious, confident, pro-active. And now we have a win behind us, the place is buzzing."
As is Sanderson himself. It is reasonable to argue that of all the breakaway specialists available to England as they move towards an autumn Test series positively fraught with danger, Worcester's lone red-rose international is putting himself about to greatest effect. Richard Hill, an occasional open-side flanker at the highest level, is out for the season; Lewis Moody of Leicester is scratching around for fitness; Andy Hazell of Gloucester - a favourite of the acting national coach, Andy Robinson - is in and out of his club's starting formation; Michael Lipman of Bath was blown out of the élite squad after winning caps on the last summer tour. Sanderson has an opportunity here, and he knows it.
"It's often said that I was close to selection for the trip to New Zealand and Australia last June," he said. "I'd have loved to have gone. But I wasn't playing at No 7 for Harlequins - I spent most of my time on the blind-side flank, for one reason or another - and whenever I've talked things through with Andy Robinson, he's made it clear that he sees me as an open-side. It's my favourite position, my best position, and here at Worcester it's where I'm playing. So it's down to me, isn't it? If I play well enough, I'll be noticed. That would be wonderful. I'm still massively ambitious as far as playing international rugby is concerned."
The depth of Sanderson's ambition was evident back in '98, when he played three Tests as a 20-year-old, two of them against the All Blacks in Dunedin and Auckland, the other against the Springboks in a swamp passing itself off as the Newlands stadium in Cape Town. Here was a rookie from the Sale club, via Kirkham Grammar School and Preston Grasshoppers, mixing it manfully with a clenched fistful of 24-carat legends - Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld, Andre Venter and Gary Teichmann - and refusing to take the count, despite the knock-out blows raining around his ears. He was bruised and cut, rucked and rumbled, but he played 238 minutes of the 240 available to him and cherished every last one of them.
Had Robinson, a career open-side flanker with an instinctive affection for players of the heart-and-soul variety, been on the England coaching staff at the time, Sanderson would not have been cast aside as abruptly as he was. But Robinson was still two years distant. Clive Woodward cut him adrift, preferring to fast-track the likes of Joe Worsley and Moody behind the ubiquitous Neil Back. Apart from three caps off the bench on the 2001 tour of North America, when the likes of Hill and Back were on Lions duty in Australia, Sanderson has since been restricted to some white-shirted activity on the International Rugby Board's seven-a-side circuit.
But what goes around, comes around. During the dead years, Sanderson's brother Alex was the more prosperous of the two, picking up five caps between November 2001 and August 2003 on the back of his rugged, crash-tackling, piano-shifting style. But Alex, more injury-prone than a professional sportsman of his age should be, has broken down again, while Pat, 23 months older, is as fit as a butcher's dog and twice as hungry. In the sibling rivalry stakes, the Sanderson Major has his nose in front once more.
Tomorrow, Worcester take on Leeds at Headingley with their spirits high and their most significant signing still in captaincy mode. Ben Hinshelwood, the Scotland centre, is the club captain, and it was generally assumed at the start of the season that he would lead the side on the field. But Hinshelwood missed a couple of early matches through injury, and Sanderson has performed so influentially in his stead that the director of rugby, John Brain, and the head coach, Andy Keast, are reluctant to interfere.
"I suppose it's useful to have a captain who operates close to the action and is in a position to communicate with the referee," said Sanderson with a knowing grin. He is not quite as "helpful" as Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio or Matt Dawson when it comes to aiding an official in the decision-making process - in other words, refereeing the game for him - but he is learning all the time. If a dodgy penalty call here and there enables Worcester to stay in the Premiership, few people at Sixways will feel overly guilty about it.
There again, Sanderson is not thinking in terms of a relegation scrap. "At the start of the season, people were forever asking if we would settle for 11th place," he said. "I can honestly say now that we wouldn't settle for 11th. Why? Because we're better than that. We're new to the Premiership - only five games in, although it feels like 50 - and the goals we're setting ourselves are short-term ones. The final picture is a long way off. But I believe we can say already that we feel a part of this league, that we belong here.
"In the four matches before Quins, we beat ourselves up pretty badly as we analysed the video. And after last week's success, we beat ourselves up again. If you don't kid yourselves into thinking everything was brilliant just because you won, you'll learn at least as much about where you stand after a victory as after a defeat. We could and should have registered a win before Quins. Newcastle caught us for pace, which was understandable first time out, but we might easily have won at Saracens and should definitely have beaten Bath, who scored two tries off our mistakes and then pinched two of our throws on their own line in the last couple of minutes. How did that happen? Bad calls. Who made the calls? Me. I've apologised. It won't happen again."
He certainly makes no apologies for turning his back on Quins, where he spent five seasons. Last week, the Londoners' chief executive, Mark Evans, said he could not even begin to match Worcester's financial package, but Sanderson - a thoroughly good-humoured sort, not easily riled - took considerable offence at the suggestion that he simply followed the money. "That's not my way, never has been," he insisted. "I came here because it got me out of London, because the challenge was exciting and because the club meant business."
Did he not feel even the tiniest bit sorry for his former colleagues as the fifth try went in at Sixways? "There was a part of me that felt sad," he admitted. "I have a lot of mates at Quins, and I know what they're going through. I happen to think they'll put it right soon enough, but a run of defeats like they've had is a depressing thing."
Then he paused for a few seconds, before adding: "Mind you, I didn't feel that sad." And off he went, grinning from ear to ear.Reuse content