The enforced absence of Worcester sensation Chris Latham will give Mike Ruddock the chance to assess the progress of the man he hopes will eventually replace the Australian as the last line of Warriors’ defence and the first of their attack.
Latham’s knee injury allows academy product Chris Pennell, pressed into action on the wing for most of the season, to return to his preferred and best position at Saracens on Sunday as the Sixways outfit look to win a third consecutive Premiership match for the first time under Ruddock.
As he must, the director of rugby is trying to put a positive spin on the loss of Latham – a bona fide superstar of world rugby – and fly-half Matthew Jones who has suffered a stress fracture in his foot.
While Loki Crichton – the man whose goal-kicking has played a big part in two of Worcester’s three league wins - slots seamlessly into Jones’ position, Pennell will be asked to fill some of the biggest shoes in the game from full-back.
Ruddock is confident the 21-year-old is up to the task. “He had a few problems when he came into the side,” Ruddock said in reference to the youngster’s nightmare debut at The Rec in September 2007.
“He had had a year out with injury when we first picked him at Bath. He had a long time out of top-class rugby and was quite nervous going down there. But over the weeks and months he settled down and got his belief and there is no doubt now the guy is playing with great confidence.
“You have only got to see the way the guy stepped up without hesitation for that 52-metre kick to realise the guy believes in himself and what he is about.”
While Crichton was successful with all four of his attempts in the 26-11 victory over Newcastle Falcons last Friday, no less impressive was the booming effort, just a quarter of an hour into the game, that Pennell hit from inside his own half. So sweetly and with such force did he strike the ball he cleared the bar by a good 10 metres.
Such derring-do is a classic feature of Latham’s game and working with the Wallaby legend is clearly having an affect on Pennell.
“He is really enjoying working and playing alongside Chris Latham,” Ruddock said. “He has learned a hell of a lot. Chris has done a brilliant job with him as his mentor.
“Chris Pennell is now a far more all-round player than he was a year ago and certainly a more confident player. He has worked hard on his game – he is going to be fine on Sunday.”
With Pennell’s wing berth vacant Rico Gear, another Tri-Nations superstar who has not even come close to Latham’s level of productivity, gets his latest chance to prove his fitness and justify his huge salary.
“With Rico coming on to the wing outside him and Miles Benjamin on the other, there is a lot of try-scoring potential there,” Ruddock said.
“With a back three of that sort of pace, without giving our game plan away it would be sensible for us to get the ball to those areas as quickly as possible.”
That is not to say Saracens will be especially compliant in that process. The Watford outfit have lost their last two matches and defeat at home to Worcester will see the visitors go above them into seventh place.
They will be fortified, however, by the return of several internationals on the pitch and the arrival of World Cup-winning coach Jake White off it.
With the South African joining Eddie Jones, coach of the Australian side that lost the 2003 final, on the sidelines Sarries will not lack for tactical pedigree.
Ruddock said: “It is going to be pretty tough, Saracens have lost their last couple of games and there’s going to be a severe backlash on home soil. Our goal is to put in a big performance and if we do that we could get a win. It will take a massive performance.
“They have got a lot of their internationals back. That is the reason why they have lost a couple of games, they have had a lot of key personnel, heavy armour and leaders absent.
“We’ve lost a couple of important contributors and that tips the scales in their favour.”