Graham Kitchener Exclusive: ‘To have a rugby club back in Worcester is hugely important’

Graham Kitchener represented Worcester Warriors for six years over two stints
©Barbarian FC via Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon against Northampton Saints, Graham Kitchener will be playing his third game in 10 days for the Barbarians. It may well be his last too.

His 16th season of professional rugby has hardly gone the way he had hoped. Offered a contract extension at Worcester Warriors earlier this year, the lock signed on the dotted line for what he describes as a “bonus season”.

But now in late November, the Premiership winner with Leicester Tigers is gearing up for what could be the final game of his career.

One of the many to have become unemployed when Worcester went into administration, the 33-year-old promptly picked up the phone when the Barbarians came calling and talks to TRU ahead of the team’s ‘Christmas jumper night’, where pints may or may not be available.

“I think I am going to call it a day after Saturday,” Kitchener said. “I have had a couple of offers from abroad, but from a family perspective it doesn’t really stack up. If a really good offer came in January, February sort of time, then I’d think about it.

“But I think it is likely that I will finish off the game on Saturday and that could be me. I just think for me personally, I’d like to progress into whatever career I go into. I feel like the body as well – I have played a lot of games. I don’t want to keep pushing it until it breaks.”

Beginning his career with Worcester in the mid-2000s after coming through the academy, he would move to Leicester in 2011 and score a try in the 2013 Premiership final to help secure the club’s 10th top-flight title. After eight years in the East Midlands, home came calling for Kitchener and he contributed to Worcester’s Premiership Rugby Cup win in May.

Following that immense high of lifting silverware came a summer of discontent at Sixways Stadium. Served a winding-up petition by HM Revenues and Customs following an unpaid tax bill, the uncertainty continued on a weekly basis, with administrators Begbies Traynor revealing earlier this week that the club has debts totalling more than £30m.

Players had their wages paid late, while the rest of the staff were only paid 65 per cent of their salaries. On Thursday, the club’s former owners, Colin Goldring and Jason Whittingham, were described as 'liars and asset strippers' by MPs at a DCMS committee meeting. In his closing statement, Julian Knight MP, who was scathing throughout, even stated he would be reporting Goldring to the Serious Fraud Office.

In the background of all the unrest, players were going about their pre-season under Steve Diamond. Saying that his team needed to “knuckle down”, that mindset and the “together” message helped bind the squad and sought funding from their sponsors in order to play a pre-season fixture against Glasgow Warriors that was ultimately called off.

On October 5th, WRFC Players Ltd went into liquidation which meant that all the players were unemployed and on the hunt for new work. There is hope for the team though, with the club’s administrators announcing that they have a preferred bidder meaning they could restart in the Championship next year.

“I guess I was actually quite relaxed about it just because we had a really, really good group of lads and everyone was all in it together,” Kitchener said. “You didn’t really feel on your own, but also it was a bonus season for me because I thought I would have been retiring at the end of last season.

“With Dimes coming in, things changed a bit and when he offered me another year, I thought it would be good but it wasn’t necessarily something I had expected to happen. Nonetheless, it was pretty tough and there was a lot of uncertainty around our games which was pretty bizarre.

“We were having the Newcastle game and we had a Zoom call with people from the RFU, PRL and RPA on the Friday before the team run. The debate was whether we could actually play the game. 

“You have got to be on the money for any Prem game that you play and having preparation like that where just about 24 hours before the game, players are umming and ahhing about whether you want to risk playing the game is mentally quite tough. Then there was also a few boys getting quite stressed about the lack of pay and getting paid late, understandably.

“We were a really tight group, but those sorts of situations are going to affect any group no matter how tight you are. I think the worst bit was probably the lack of communication [from the owners] because even if things are bad but someone is telling you honestly, you can prepare and that makes things slightly easier.

“We were guessing, reading stuff on social media, trying to piece things together from different journalists or what people had heard. To have no communication from the owners – we would get an occasional email from Peter Kelly [Managing Director] - those emails were a bit of an insult really and didn’t tell us anything. That was tough.

“Like I say, it was a strong group. We were all very tight and we sort of got ourselves through it. We believed right until the very end that things would come good. They didn’t, but I guess that belief we had in each other – and you saw that in the way we played against Newcastle – that kept us going.”

Like in the summer, developments surrounding the future of the club that launched his career can only be found on social media. That’s where Kitchener saw the consortium - led by former Worcester CEO Jim O’Toole and ex-London Irish lock James Sandford - was Begbies Traynor’s preferred bidder for the club, and that a documentary focused on the Warriors' revival is already in production.

“I feel like I am only getting my information off Twitter again,” Kitchener said. “And that was fairly problematic in the lead up to everything going south. I have kept an eye on it. Obviously, I love the club. It has given me my career really. It did huge, huge amounts for me.

“I find it quite hard to read about the debt it is in and how it has been mismanaged because it’s a very important club to me. I have also seen a few positive stories and I am just hoping that the guys who actually take over, if they do, can deliver what they say and just make the club sustainable again and give people back some rugby whether that is in the Championship or not.

“You can see the passion – especially this season – of the fans and what it means to them. To have a rugby club back in Worcester is hugely important, and one that’s sustainable and the game gets back to bringing young lads through and all those sorts of values it has had.

“I do keep an eye on it, and I am very interested in what happens next. I have got everything crossed that some good will come out of this situation.”

Since liquidation, several of the players have found themselves work elsewhere. Ollie Lawrence and Ted Hill are new stars with Bath, Joe Batley and Noah Heward have joined Bristol Bears and Kitchener’s younger brother, Andrew, has landed a deal with Saracens.

This weekend at Cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, Kitchener will be up against a familiar foe in the form of Fin Smith. Still just 20, the former Worcester fly-half has taken the reins in fine fashion in Northampton colours and earlier this week, he was in camp with Eddie Jones’ England as they prepare to take on South Africa at Twickenham.

Seeing how Academy products Lawrence and Hill are faring elsewhere, it compounds the loss of Wasps too as the West Midlands is now without a top-flight club. Like with the disbanding of Yorkshire Carnegie’s academy, the RFU has established an England Regional Academy, but while beneficial to help players develop, where they go to gain higher honours is less certain.

For Kitchener, that path was clear. Educated at Adams’ Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire, the 33-year-old is very much a West Midlander despite having been born in Bromley.

In the Wolverhampton Wanderers Academy for a time and a schoolboy cricketer for Shropshire, it was through making trips to Sixways that the lock decided rugby was the game for him.

“I have come up through an Academy system in the area and I am not 100 per cent sure, but even if Worcester and Wasps come back in the Championship next year, I am not sure what happens with the academies,” Kitchener said.

“Even so, you kind of worry for that group of people, because the Academy is not there, or the funding is not there. I remember me and a couple of schoolmates, we used to love going to watch Worcester between the aged of 14 and 16. One of the parents would drive us down and we’d go and watch every Saturday when they were at home.

“Thinking about it, that had a huge impact on us in terms of wanting to play rugby and inspiring us. You think if there are no Premiership clubs for youngsters to go to and do that, you worry that rugby fizzles out a little bit. Hopefully that won’t be the case, and Championship rugby is a good standard.

“If they can both get back on their feet, then hopefully it will be two or three years before Worcester or Wasps are competing in the Prem. Just the way things are at the moment, you don’t know what PRL are thinking. You don’t know what their plans are, if they are going to ringfence and leave them behind, which would be an awful shame.

“If I take what I read, then hopefully both clubs will be back in the Champ next year and competing to get promoted and hopefully you only go one or two years without a Premiership club for those fans to go and see.”

The fixture replaces the Saints’ previously scheduled Gallagher Premiership match against Worcester Warriors, with all Season Tickets and seasonal hospitality valid for the game. Match tickets are available to purchase HERE and start from just £22 for adults while all under-18s tickets are capped at £8.

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