In the mild Worcestershire afternoon sun, they did their best to keep the faith. Yes, the Warriors had just been beaten by a team from Exeter who now start the season with two successive victories. Yes, the club is in debt up to its eyebrows. But as they cheered and applauded their team’s resolve in the face of adversity at the final whistle, even Worcester’s most loyal supporters could feel the clock ticking fast.
Tuesday now feels like D-Day, with the club currently unable to even afford the £45-a-head registration fee to cover the loan players needed to complete Wednesday’s Premiership Cup tie against Gloucester. After that? Despite all the swirling talk about signing an imminent deal that would keep the club going and not involve the administration, these remain the most troubling days.
It was summed up when, after 65 minutes, there was a round of applause to respect these employees who have still received only 65% of their August salary. It is only thanks to the admirable willingness of unpaid staff to offer their services free of charge that this arrangement has taken place. But as Worcester’s director of rugby Steve Diamond put it bluntly: “I think they should have cheered zero minutes for those with no money.”
What a sad mess it all is. At least the local contractors also did the right thing and emptied the overflowing bins to meet health and safety requirements. And 4,999 spectators, the maximum number allowed, made more noise than we had the right to expect under the circumstances. You learn more about people in adversity and the strength of community spirit locally over the past few days has been remarkable.
Outside before kickoff, three longtime Warriors fans in fancy dress certainly did their best to look optimistic. “I’m a Worcester fan, we’ve always had desperate wishful thinking,” said Henry Appleby, flanked by his father Jim and their friend Adam. “There was no chance that we would miss this game today. It was more important than ever to donate our ticket money.
Even the revenue generated from this match does not yet guarantee that everyone will be able to return for the next home game against Newcastle on Saturday. Worcester remains a club wading through shark-infested financial waters, with their bank accounts frozen and not even enough money to pay the wifi bill.
Wandering through the empty bars and food areas of the West Stand, normally full of anticipation and good cheer, was even more daunting than in the darkest times of Covid. When staff members with years of experience in top-level sport roll their eyes and say they haven’t experienced an emotional roller coaster like this, you believe them.
Obviously, there are specific issues with certain aspects of Worcester’s recent management, but the big picture he paints for the league as well is not a pretty one. Players, TV cameras, and ever-loyal fans may put a temporary luster on the situation, but it’s a terrible look picture-wise. As Diamond also clarified, the current state of Limbo cannot continue beyond the next day or two.
Considering all this, the determination of the players was commendable. Under the eyes of England head coach Eddie Jones, the Warriors never lacked commitment and asked enough attacking questions to earn three tries, scored by winger Alex Hearle, halfback scrimmage Gareth Simpson and center Ollie Lawrence.
Lawrence’s 64th-minute score on a nice lineout move was a beauty and made it 29-21, with a sense of confidence starting to build in the stands. Could Worcester possibly stage an unlikely comeback? The answer was no, with a pumped-up Jack Maunder for Exeter’s fifth try eight minutes from time, but a bit more home discipline and composure could have brought the end result even closer.
The good news for Exeter, whose other tries have come from man of the match Richard Capstick (2), Simmonds and Olly Woodburn, is that Henry Slade, Stuart Hogg, Jacques Vermuelen and even Sam Simmonds could all be back in contention to play Harlequins at Sandy Park next Sunday.
Worcester’s immediate concerns, unfortunately, are more serious. “We still don’t know what’s going on and it’s the uncertainty that gets to you mentally,” said captain Francois Venter. “It’s been mentally tough with a lot of things off the pitch, but hopefully it will sort itself out. You can see what it means to the Warriors family that we’re here. It would be a shame if it was our last game The whole of the English game will be poorer if the Warriors end up disappearing as the sun goes down.