DESPITE being written off as a dying breed in the professional era, plenty of examples of the ‘One-Club Man’ still inhabit the Premiership.
From the likes of England duo Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw at Harlequins, Brad Barritt and Alex Goode at Saracens, to Charlie Sharples at Gloucester, there is at least a matchday squad’s worth of players who have worn one badge and one badge only even after a decade or more of service.
Few, however, could have had their loyalty tested as much over the years as Chris Pennell who has stuck with Worcester through thick and thin, including two relegations, and is currently in the midst of a thoroughly- deserved testimonial season, which he is using as a vehicle to support three charities – The Grace Kelly Ladybird Trust, Diabetes UK and Acorns Children’s Hospice.
Late last year, the 31-year-old agreed a new two-year deal which will extend his commitment to the cause to 14 years, having first broken through from the academy in 2007.
“There’s a big part of me that was pleased they just wanted to keep me! I’m no spring chicken anymore and I’m glad the coaches still have faith in me as a player,” is Pennell’s modest assessment.
“It was interesting this time around because, for the first time in something like seven years, I was due to be out of contract at the end of the season whereas before I’ve always had another year left to run. It was nice in a way to feel, right I really need to prove myself here. Not that I have ever felt my spot was guaranteed.”
A Warriors man to his boot-straps, Pennell has played 147 Premiership games for his hometown club, a tally that would have been higher had it not been for two seasons in the Championship, the second coming after he won his only England cap the summer before, and injuries.
Ask Pennell for his reasons for staying all these years and you quickly get an idea of his devotion to the club.
“It is hard to put into words, there are so many factors to it. I could probably reel off one hundred reasons why I am here, and if you combine them altogether, I suppose that kind of comes close to explaining what the club means to me.”
Pennell has never forgotten how the club supported him in his late teens when a broken leg and dislocated ankle threatened to end his professional dream. The club was also there for him after he discovered, aged 19, he was living with type one diabetes, a condition that also affects Exeter’s Henry Slade and Newcastle hooker Kyle Cooper.
Diabetes has never held Pennell back and he hopes that the kids and parents who attend his weekly diabetes rugby academy training sessions share the same outlook. A trustee of the Warriors Community Foundation, Pennell set up the academy in November 2017. “The benefits of exercise both physically and mentally are huge for diabetes.”
With his consistently high level of performance on the pitch and his award-winning community work off it, Pennell and Worcester make the perfect pair – or pear, the fruit long associated with the city’s sporting teams.
“I was born in the area; my kids are growing up here and we love it around Worcester … it is so many things,” he says, attempting to explain the bond that exists between himself and the club.
“There’s obviously the loyalty side to it, and I also think it is an awful lot to do with people. You look at someone like (executive chairman) Cecil Duckworth and how much passion and how much emotional and financial investment he has put in, it is people like that – and the supporters, who always stay positive even though they haven’t had that much to cheer about – that you want to pay back.
“I guess on the bigger picture side of it, I’ve had a vision of what I want the club to look like for a long time now. I want it to be successful, and I’d be pretty crazy to move on to other pastures and watch it happen from the outside after all the blood, sweat and tears.”
Success to Pennell does not necessarily come in the form of an elusive top half of the table finish or silverware.
“I think it is less tangible than that, although silverware would be fantastic. Success for me would be looking on from the sidelines in a few years and seeing the team in a good place, built around the youngsters who I’ve helped to progress. I’d be pretty proud of that.”
Pennell is reassured, too, by the number of team-mates following his lead and pledging their futures to the club. “It would be no good if it was one or two of us that felt that way; the only way we’ll get close to achieving what we want to achieve is by collective buy-in. It’s nice to see the younger boys come in and commit to the cause; in five or six years from now, the team will be built around them. If we have that strong inner core, everything else will be made a lot easier.”
With player retention augmented by recruitment from outside – Auckland Blues winger Melani Nanai is the latest to sign – the future of the club is much more promising, if the Warriors can avoid the dreaded drop.
A win in next Sunday’s bottom-two clash at Newcastle will go a long way to ensuring their survival, and a fifth consecutive season in the top flight. It not only has the potential to be a landmark game for the club but also for Pennell on a personal level, as he’ll equal Craig Gillies’ club record for Premiership appearances if selected.
“Long term, our ambition is to be a sustainable top six club, and I think we are all frustrated that we haven’t been able to kick on in the same way as we’d like,” he said.
“In years gone by, we’ve had a really good squad on paper but lacked consistency; we’d not turn up in certain games but, this season, you have had to be on top of your game every minute.
“The difference between competing for the play-off places or battling against relegation is a couple of wins.”
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