Stadium size threatens Worcester promotion

Worcester's long-cherished hopes of reaching the Premiership have until now been based squarely on the coaching abilities of John Brain and Andy Keast, the ball-winning expertise of a gnarled forward pack and, most importantly, the unusually large and well-stocked wallet of their owner and chairman, Cecil Duckworth. Suddenly, they also require the help of Wychavon District Council, who have the power to kill the dream stone dead.

Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, confirmed yesterday that Worcester had fulfilled the criteria governing any club's move to fully professional top-flight rugby from the hotch-potch of the national leagues - or rather, all the criteria bar one, which is not in the club's gift to meet. Worcester must increase the capacity of their well-appointed Sixways stadium, situated just off the hard shoulder of the M5, to a minimum of 8,200. To do that, they need planning permission. They expect to discover whether or not the council's planning department intends to play ball by the middle of next week.

Failure to obtain the go-ahead for the necessary development work would be a grievous blow to Duckworth, who has fought long and hard to establish his club as an élite concern. It would also be a smack in the teeth for the Premiership hierarchy, who would have to reinstate Worcester's sworn enemies, Rotherham, should the promotion process be derailed at this late stage. The Yorkshiremen have not won a single league match this season - sadly, they are unlikely to break their duck over the closing two fixtures, a trip to Leicester and at home to Newcastle. Few in the corridors of Premiership power will be sorry to see them go.

The existing capacity at Sixways is 5,135, some way short of the necessary, but the independent auditors hired by the RFU to examine all aspects of the Worcester operation are happy that the proposed expansion is both environmentally realistic and properly financed. But planning officers have been known to see things differently to the rest of the human race, and while Baron said yesterday that he was confident of a positive outcome, Duckworth and company face an anxious few days.

Clive Woodward, who is currently preparing for England's demanding summer trip to New Zealand and Australia while keeping half an eye on developments surrounding next year's Lions tour of All Black country, may also be feeling some anxiety right now. Senior England players are still arguing with their various employers at both club and international levels over money - with match fees and so-called intellectual property rights the points at issue - and while RFU and Premier Rugby officials insist that agreement will be reached by the time the squad leaves for Auckland in early June, informed sources say there is considerable distance between the teams of negotiators.

Equally worrying for Woodward, whose reward for guiding England to the World Cup was his appointment as coach of the 2005 Lions, is the shape of next season's fixture list, which cuts him little slack in terms of preparation time before the British and Irish collective's 10-match, three-Test trek around New Zealand. It became clear yesterday that the bulk of the Lions party will fly south before the climax of the English domestic season, with those involved in the Premiership and wildcard finals travelling up to a week later - a delay that will almost certainly make them unavailable for the opening tour match.

Meanwhile, London Irish have signed Robbie Russell, the Scottish international hooker, from Saracens.


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