As the Worcester and England full-back starts a testimonial year, Chris Pennell discusses the new season, career highlights and coming to terms with diabetes
Chris Pennell: “Worcester has everything it needs for long-term success”
CHRIS PENNELL will play his 202nd match for Worcester on Saturday when Wasps visit Sixways on the opening weekend of the Gallagher Premiership.
Eleven years on from his Premiership debut, the England full-back is enjoying a richly deserved testimonial season that will raise funds for his three chosen charities: Diabetes UK, Acorns Children’s Hospice and the Grace Kelly Ladybird Trust.
Married to Jo, and a father to Harla, four, and Tristan, two, Pennell has become a Warriors legend, being an outstanding player and ambassador for the club. With 134 top-flight games under his belt, this season could see the 31-year-old eclipse Craig Gillies’s club record of 149 Premiership appearances.
Rugby World caught up with Pennell ahead of the new season for an article that features in our October 2018 edition. Here’s what he had to say…
RW: You were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 19. So initially you were physically impeded without understanding why?
CP: It’s a really interesting one because I felt physically able to do everything I wanted to do pre-diagnosis. The beauty of rugby is that it does fit all shapes and sizes but for me as a full-back, in the Premiership… there are very few Peter Stringer-sized players. So I was just very, very skinny and very light. So that’s one of the hidden things that was lurking in the background pre-diagnosis.
I was also exceptionally thirsty all the time. And I was eating enough food for about three people. I was doing all these extra weights and training really hard to try to put on some bulk. And yet my weight never went up, it would only ever slowly creep down. It was only really that side of things that concerned me.
I’d never touched a weight until I started in the academy at Worcester at 18, so I was a very different shape. But having spent a full year in the programme without changing shape, from that schoolboy physique, that did concern me.
Once the diagnosis was made, it fell into place and made sense. Why I wasn’t physically doing the same things that my peers were doing, putting on some size, putting on some muscle. I guess whilst I was changing I didn’t notice a huge amount, but it was my life around training that did suffer.
RW: Was the club blood test that revealed your diabetes a random discovery or did people already suspect something was wrong?
CP: When I was at the club I functioned, it was more when I got home (that was the problem). I was living with my mum at the time, eating all this food, drinking all this water, but I was basically passing out. I was just crashed out on the sofa for the rest of the day. So my mum thought there was something up.
The pre-season blood test is just a standard thing, you do it every year. It’s more of a general check to make sure your cholesterol isn’t too high, that you’re basically healthy. So it wasn’t specifically to see if there was a scientific reason as to why I wasn’t gaining muscle mass, or any kind of mass, given the amount of food I was eating. But the results made everything else fall into place. It became apparent as to why I had been having these issues.
RW: Has diabetes been a minor hindrance to your career or has it been a bit more than that?
CP: I think about this a lot. I wonder what could have been had I not been diagnosed with diabetes. But the flip side of that is that diabetes has taught me so much about looking after myself and about discipline. Without a doubt, it’s made me a better professional player.
I’m incredibly lucky to have had a career as long as I have to date, and still feel like I’ve got a good few years left to offer at the highest level. The discipline that having diabetes has taught me has brought it up to the level that it needs to be in order to have a career of this length.
RW: You set up a diabetes rugby academy last year. Can you tell us more about that?
CP: It’s a weekly club, on Tuesday afternoons. The pilot we ran last year was the age of five through to 16. And basically we’ve just extended the invite out to kids with type 1 diabetes who want to come to play some rugby. It’s been really well received. We get between 20 and 25 kids every week.
The main thing I wanted to do was to give kids somewhere they can go where they’re around people that understand; they’re around people in the same position they’re in, somewhere where they’re not the odd one out like they are at school. And where they don’t have to be ashamed if they need to take five minutes to go and test their blood glucose or treat their diabetes. And without fear of being ridiculed, teased or judged in any shape or form.
The other element to it that is fantastic is that kids need the opportunity just to be kids, to charge around and go a bit crazy. That’s one thing they do and, trust me, they have a great time, they fly about the place, which is lovely to see. And the community we’ve created amongst the parents is one of the biggest unforeseen benefits to come from it.
RW: You won an England cap in New Zealand in 2014. Were you playing your best rugby at that time?
CP: I’d like to think I’ve still got my best rugby in me. But I was playing really well at that point, in a team that was struggling. I felt that I deserved my opportunity with England, but there were an awful lot of things that fell into place to end up on that plane.
It was a whirlwind few weeks really because I finished the season having been relegated and with no conversations with any England coaches. Dean Ryan, my director of rugby at the time, was in charge of the Barbarians side that was playing England. And he had said he wanted me to play for the Barbarians, so I was going to be the uncapped player against England at Twickenham.
That was the most exciting thing I could possibly think about at that time. I was going to get my taste of what it would be like to play at that level, albeit that it would be bittersweet to play against England.
And very quickly it went from that to England wanting me to play for them against the Barbarians, which is a step up because it’s one step closer to the ultimate dream. But the way the fixtures fell at that time of year, if I’d played against the Barbarians that would have ruled me out of going on tour.
As so often happens in rugby, it was someone else’s misfortune that created the opportunity. Anthony Watson had pulled his hamstring, which meant I was taken out of the squad to play against the Barbarians and added to the training squad to tour New Zealand. It was made clear to me that ‘you’re here just in case, don’t get your hopes up too much’.
It was a bit of a whirlwind of emotions: playing for the Barbarians, then playing for England, then training with the touring squad but not going on tour. And it wasn’t until the night before we left that I was told that I was on the plane. Even to the point that we were sat alphabetically on the plane and I was with the W’s – I was literally in Anthony’s seat.
RW: Is that England Test in Auckland (lost 20-15) the highlight of your career?
CP: From a personal perspective, I don’t think you could ever top that first time you play for your country. And given the journey I’ve been on, it’s not something I ever thought would be tangible; even as a kid, I didn’t ever truly believe that I would get the opportunity.
So from that point of view, from the experience and being able to say that I’ve done it, it’s massive and something I’m incredibly proud of.
But the team element of sport and some of the things I’ve done at Worcester will always outweigh the emotional side of things when it comes to that effort that you put in as a team and the elation that you have together; that togetherness is slightly more powerful.
I think the England cap is a bit of a nod and a thank you to my mum and my family and the people who’ve supported me over the years. But in terms of highlights, the ones I will always remember, at this stage, are the Championship final against Bristol – getting promotion then – and last season winning at Welford Road and Sandy Park, two places that I’d been desperate to win at over the years. Those three things stand out for me personally.
RW: That play-off v Bristol was crazy, wasn’t it? One of the most amazing games we’ve seen…
CP: It remains the most common thing that people bring up, if I bump into someone in the street or meet someone at a social event. So many people have seen it and I guess been touched by the story, the comeback. That final had everything. To be on the winning team at the end of it was just crazy. That roller coaster of emotion, and yet the calmness we felt at the time to win the game, is something I’ll never forget.
RW: Some people have questioned why you’ve stayed at a struggling Premiership club for so long. How do you respond to that?
CP: I was a 17-year-old still in school playing in the A League and I fractured my leg and dislocated my ankle in one of these games. I wasn’t contracted, I just turned up and played, and it would have been very easy for Worcester to have said, “We’re really sorry about your injury, best of luck at university next year.”
But they actually offered me an academy contract. It was a show of faith and that theme continued for three or four years, where I struggled with long-term injuries. The club was always there to give me that security, and say, “We believe in you, we believe in your ability, and we’ll stick by you because we want to see it come to fruition.”
It’s those kind of human elements, they didn’t have to do that. I’ve always been incredibly grateful that they allowed me to continue doing what I loved doing.
RW: In 2014, you said that another reason for staying with Worcester was the confidence you had in where the club was heading. Are you still confident?
CP: The same principles still apply in that Worcester has everything that it needs for long-term success. And I believe that as strongly as I did back in 2014. The disappointing thing for me is that it hasn’t happened as quickly as I would have liked. But if you do have a lot of change, the probability of you being able to create success is less.
You need to have stability over a number of years to generate that success. The likes of Exeter and Saracens were able to create a base to build round for five years and then the success comes. I truly believe that that is very achievable at Worcester.
We have a phenomenal supporter base so if we were able to have a bit more success, Sixways would be bouncing every week. The place would sell out. But in order to do so you do have to have longevity and stability. Back in 2014, that was with Dean Ryan and his team of coaches and his five-year vision.
We’re sort of taking a few steps, not backwards because we’re on the same footing, it’s just with different people now. The guys who have come in will have the same plans; my wish is that we get to see it out, and it’s not all change after two years. Because I truly believe that if we can see it through, the probability of us being successful will increase significantly.
RW: You haven’t captained Worcester much over the years. Has that not appealed to you?
CP: I was made captain when Richard Hill took over as head coach (in 2010) and a month later I had another fractured dislocation of my ankle. So I missed seven months of the season, having just been named club captain, which was very frustrating.
And I had some complications post surgery, which really hampered my return. It took me two years to properly recover; although I was playing, I was nowhere near the level that I wanted or needed to be at. And to try to captain the side, and to try to play the way I wanted to play, it was all too much at that time.
To be a captain of a club is all-encompassing; for me to do it I would have to immerse myself in it 100%, and to do that I would need to be really comfortable with where my game was at and I just wasn’t at that time. So it was really frustrating because I really enjoyed the responsibility and I still enjoy being a senior player in the club and I feel I add a lot of value.
RW: How are things shaping up under new head coach Rory Duncan and the management team?
CP: Rory and the guys have settled in incredibly well. Obviously, a new coaching team brings slightly different philosophies and ways of communicating. It’s really pleasing to see the level of detail and the ambition they’ve got towards the game, the passion they’ve got towards the Warriors and their vision. It’s a really exciting time.
RW: The squad went to Spain in pre-season?
CP: Yes, we were on mainland Spain, just south of Valencia at a training camp called Oliva Nova. It’s a golf resort mainly but they host quite a few sports teams. They’ve got some really good-quality training pitches and a gym and everything. It was a very good camp, five days over there, trained really hard but had plenty of downtime to relax.
It’s those kinds of environments that you start to bond as a squad. You’re forced to spend time with each other, which is good because it means you have conversations you wouldn’t normally have. Welcoming all the new guys to the club and getting to know each other a bit more personally can only be a good thing going into the season.
RW: Any thoughts about what you’ll do after hanging up your boots?
CP: One of the things that the testimonial year has already started to bring is a few opportunities post rugby. The key thing for me is to get out and meet as many people as possible in different industries, and learn and understand what it is they do.
I’m studying for a degree in sports business management, so that’s nearly all done. I don’t know right now (about his life after rugby) but I’m doing all the right things to make sure that when the time comes for me to hang up the boots, I can make that transition away from rugby as smooth as possible.
It’s daunting but quite an exciting prospect as well. Right now, though, I need to concentrate on the day job.