Chris Pennell may be a rising name within England rugby union circles but he has his roots in the playing fields of Portadown.
The 27-year-old was rewarded for his professional progress this week with a seat on the England plane heading towards a tour of New Zealand. Injuries and loyalty to recently-relegated hometown club Worcester Warriors have possibly combined to keep Chris out of the main sporting spotlight until now but the full-back is tipped to make his international debut on June 7 in Auckland.
However, the Pennell potential was obvious to rugby coaches in town during the 1990s.
Work commitments resulted in the Pennell family relocating to the area for two years and Chris certainly made an impact at Millington Primary School and with Portadown’s famed mini-rugby programme.
“Chris was a joint captain of our Gilpin Cup-winning side back in 1997 and from day one it was obvious he had natural talent,” said Stephen Blevins, the current Orchard County Primary School principal who was a young teacher at Millington in the 1990s. “He was such a lovely kid and very popular with everyone around the school despite spending just two years in the area.
“He was around the top of his class in terms of schoolwork and an all-round athlete on the sports field.
“He walked out in a full Leicester rugby playing kit on his first day with the side and it was clear he had something special.
“It says a lot about Chris that he came to me on his final day of P7 to say thanks for coaching him and I vividly remember telling him if he stuck at it and worked hard he had a real chance at making it in the professional game.
“He was slight but would tackle anyone and always appeared in the right place at the right time for the team.”
Mr Blevins said Chris stood out as someone with “all the technical ability in the world” but he also had the “mental drive”.
He continued, “He remains, without doubt, the most talented I’ve seen or worked with at any age. The support from Derek Holden as principal helped us push forward with rugby overall at Millington back then but Chris played a big part in our Gilpin Cup success.
“Trophies do not count as much as watching a former pupil go on to represent Northern Ireland or Ireland in sport but you never expect to see someone line out in the white of an England kit.
“People like Chris, Philip Currie and Luke McCullough have all gone on from Millington to achieve high-level recognition in the world of sport so that must act as a real inspiration for any pupil.”
Willie Gribben spent time with Chris at Chambers Park within the town club’s mini-rugby system.
“He was highly-skilled and very quick,” said Willie. “Obviously when he left Portadown as a child we lost touch but the name popped up again a few years back and I did some research and discovered it was the same Chris.
“It is great to see Chris do so well in the game and to operate as captain of Worcester Warriors in the Premiership and now gain England recognition is a testament to his talent but also his dedication.
“We only had Chris for a short space of time in Portadown but it is always brilliant to see someone you know from grassroots level progress and reach such a high level.”