It’s not often that a back stands out in a side that hasn’t performed, but Chris Pennell has done so for Worcester from start to finish in this Premiership campaign. He has truly earned his call-up into the England training squad announced this week for the game against the Barbarians.
Full-back is not the easiest position from which to captain a struggling side, but Pennell has been a pillar of strength by showing that he is a player of international quality and setting standards for his Worcester team-mates.
Full-back is a position that the opposition will always look to test, and Pennell came through it with flying colours despite Worcester being relegated. If you consider the quality of the defences in the top six Premiership teams, for him to make the most yards in the league from full-back is very impressive.
What makes Pennell stand out is his ability to make very good decisions, and an exceptional sense of timing. He has the ability to see, and do as a dangerous finisher – and he also brings others into the game. By the end of the season he also topped the full-back charts for beating defenders, and was high up on the list of clean breaks and assists.
His inclusion in the England squad for the Barbarians is a great reward, and bless him for thinking that playing for Worcester in the Championship will not affect his England chances – however, it will.
The Championship and the Premiership is a world apart. Pennell has to be admired for putting his personal ambition behind that of his club, but if he was playing for one of the top six clubs in the
Premiership he would be more in the eyeline of Stuart Lancaster and pushing for honours.
Alex Goode, Mike Brown and Nick Abendanon have all been standout performers, with Brown just voted Aviva Premiership Player of the Year, and Abendanon pushing him hard. However, Pennell is right up there as a main contender.
The only slight blip in his stats is a 73 per cent tackle success rate, whereas Brown’s is 90 per cent. When Billy Twelvetrees was pushing hard for England inclusion, but not getting ahead of Brad Barritt, it was because his tackle success was poor by comparison. You cannot have any player in an England team who misses his tackles – it has to be in the high 80s and into the 90s in terms of success rate. That is the standard you must set yourself.
Alex Goode cannot be happy with 73 percent either. Even in a two-on-one you should always make a tackle, rather than not making one – witness the dummy that Goode took from Gael Fickou for England against France in the Six Nations. Full-back is such an exposed position, but Brown’s tackle count sets the standard.
Pennell is one of the most gifted runners in the Premiership, a multi-skilled and talented English back- three player who performs consistently despite being targeted by the opposition in every match as Worcester’s main threat. Despite that he has scored five tries in a side under the cosh throughout the season.
It is hard to say when you are in your prime as a player but, at 27, Pennell must be close. He doesn’t play many poor games because his skill-set is very good, and so is his self belief. I also think that he is quick enough, and probably versatile enough, to play outside-centre. It will be interesting to see if he manages to get on the plane to New Zealand. The reality is that Lancaster is spoilt for choice at No.15 because Brown has been outstanding, Goode has done well in a strong Saracens side, Ben Foden is back in form and at times Abendanon has been sensational for Bath.
Goode is one of the most multi-skilled players in the Premiership, and I saw Abendanon score a try with an exquisite chip kick and gather earlier this season that was sheer class. If anyone else had done it you would have said it was a fluke, but with him you thought, ‘that’s what he does’.
Yet, Pennell is in the running. The issue that he has to resolve is that he cannot play for England from the Championship. There have been suggestions that to further his England ambitions he could go on loan next season to a Premiership club – and in my view if he has that ambition then that is what he has to do.
He has been loyal to Worcester over a number of seasons, and while they will not want their captain and outstanding player to go on loan when they are looking to win promotion, if Pennell wants to play for England he has little choice. And there isn’t a side in the Premiership that wouldn’t want him.
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