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Nick Cain: Pennell breaks Tier Two Test taboo

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Chris Pennell can be selected in the next England elite squad (EPS), despite playing in the Championship for Worcester.

Stuart Lancaster’s decision to be flexible, and cut through the red tape restricting him to Premiership players only, is potentially good news not only for the admirable Warriors full-back but for every talented player in England’s second tier.

Judging by Pennell’s outstanding form for Worcester last season and in his last sighting in an England shirt – 25 very impressive second half minutes against the Crusaders in Christchurch – he fully merits such consideration.

Good on Lancaster for getting rid of a ridiculous restrictive covenant on selection that he observed when he was given the England job, just as Martin Johnson did before him. It is absurd to say that a player is good enough to represent England before his club drop to the second tier, but when they are relegated instantly he becomes not good enough.

Pennell proved the point on the tour of New Zealand. The 27-year-old won his first cap in the opening Test against New Zealand in Auckland, coming on for the last minute. He then went on to score his first England try in the 38-7 midweek victory over the Crusaders, and created another with a short pass to Anthony Watson.

He reflects: “My thinking was that I had nothing to lose, just to give it a good crack. It was one of the best 25 minutes of rugby I’ve played. It was great to get my first try for England – although I would have loved for that to have been against the All Blacks. The goalposts keep on shifting. First my goal was a first cap, and a first try. Now it’s about more caps and more tries, and getting up the pecking order to push for the 2015 World Cup.”

Yet, despite plenty of offers to move, Pennell has stayed loyal to Worcester, and he explained why: “I had a conversation with Stuart Lancaster when I first arrived in camp at Lensbury and he said that being in the Championship wouldn’t impact on his view of me as a player. I think his experience at Leeds makes him aware that there are very strong players in the Championship who can make big progress given the opportunity.

He continues: “We were relegated, and as players we have to take responsibility for that. I believe in what Dean Ryan is doing and the shape the club is taking, and it bodes well for the future. Something needed doing, and for the first time in eight years at the club I can see it happening now. The Worcester Academy is back up and running, and I know how important it is. At the moment there are just three former Academy players in the squad – me, Alex Grove and Jonny Arr – which has to change. However, I believe the guys coming through now like Max Stelling (centre), Ben Howard (full-back) and Jack Cosgrove (loosehead prop) will form the nucleus for the future.”

Pennell concludes, “My view was that if an opportunity arose for me to go elsewhere there were no guarantees anyway. So, fingers crossed, as long as I’m doing all I can with Worcester, I can retain a place in the squad. I’d love to, although I’m well aware it will take a huge amount of hard work.”

Pennell gives a cogent argument why he could benefit from a season in the Championship – which he knows from Worcester’s last stint there in 2011 – while making some acute observations on the New Zealand backs England faced last month.

“International level is a step up in speed, but funnily I didn’t feel that the Premiership was any faster than the Championship. The physicality up front is greater in the Premiership, but in many ways it is more expansive in the Championship, and the demands on the outside backs are very similar.

He adds: “I will be rotated more this season and that may give me the chance to train to run faster. My intention is to increase top end speed, becoming a better athlete. I’m not electric like Jason Robinson, but I’m certainly not slow. However, my aim is to put another couple of yards on over 100 metres, and another yard over 40 metres.”

Pennell says conditioning is the key. “We knew before we went to New Zealand that top end performance for 80 minutes is what we wanted – but the Test series confirmed that we need to sustain that level for longer to win the World Cup. To do that we need to get fitter. Where most teams start lagging in the third quarter, New Zealand go up a gear. That’s what we have to to do, because the best teams have that ability.”

As for pure sprinting speed, his view is that England are not lagging behind the All Blacks. “If you were to line them all up on a track I don’t think there’s anyone quicker in the New Zealand backs than in the England backs. If you put Ben Smith against Marland Yarde or Chris Ashton he’d probably finish behind them, but on the pitch his brain is incredibly quick. Speed of thought gives Smith an extra three yards sometimes.”

As well as being principled, Pennell is a thinker with an eye for the bigger picture. Here’s hoping he retains his place in the England elite squad, the announcement of which may be delayed until October.

Let’s hope that the new flexibility promised by Lancaster extends to giving Steffon Armitage a chance, because, like sustained backline speed, the New Zealand tour revealed that openside flanker also needs urgent attention.

*This article was published in The Rugby Paper on July 13

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