- Durham back among the big boys
- But counties hit by club programme
Photo: RFU Archive
Durham are back at the top table of County Championship rugby having regained their place in the Bill Beaumont Cup last season, a home game against Lancashire at Hartlepool Rovers RFC on Saturday (May 4, 3pm) launching them on what is sure to be another testing campaign.
Coach Peter Taylor reminded the current group of players what being in the championship can mean for his squad when he delivered a presentation at the first training session, one of his motivation tools being an image of the match programme from the 1994 final, when Durham met Yorkshire at Twickenham.
By coincidence, Taylor, then a Harrogate player, was one of the second-row forwards in the White Rose team that day, so his memories of getting to Twickenham were clearly etched.
“Obviously coaching is a different proposition, especially now we are back in the big league, and we face a massive challenge – Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire in successive weeks.
“Last year we beat Warwickshire and Eastern Counties, two good sides, and we deserved to get promotion, so this year fellow coach Chris Hindman and I are excited about being in the top league and justifying why we are in it.
“Our squad is even stronger this year with more players from the bigger clubs who are all keen and committed. Blaydon forms the core of the team, but we also have players from Westoe, Mowden Park, West Hartlepool and Durham University. We’ll definitely be putting out a competitive side.
“We have our home games against Lancashire and Cheshire at Hartlepool and Gatehead respectively and then we go to Scarborough, where I was brought up and played all my rugby as a child, for the Yorkshire game.
“The Roses game last season attracted a crowd of around 2,500 and with easy access from Durham, I’m hoping for another big crowd and a top-class rugby occasion.
“The key to county rugby is to allow the players to treat it as an escape from the week-in, week-out pressure of club rugby environment. It should be about enjoyment and nothing else. In my day playing for Yorkshire was the pinnacle of your career and enjoying those games was the key to success.”
For Lancashire, the disappointment of being beaten in last season’s final by Hertfordshire will doubtless be a potent motivating factor, although Coach Mark Nelson is more preoccupied at the moment with pulling a side together, given that key league games featuring major contributors to his side are radically restricting his options.
Fylde, who traditionally supply a significant contingent to the Red Rose cause, have an important league game against Macclesfield, who are battling for survival, leaving Nelson, coach to both Fylde and Lancashire in an invidious position.
“It is crucial to the integrity of the league that Fylde put out a strong side and that is what we will be doing,” he says. “Selection is proving to be a nightmare. We met on Sunday to discuss the options and the meeting lasted four hours and that’s not an exaggeration.
“It’s been unbelievably difficult. We will have a strong Lancashire team on the field at Hartlepool, but the number of man hours we’re having to put into getting it together has been unprecedented.”
His Cheshire counterpart Simon Wright, Director of Rugby at Caldy, finds himself in exactly the same position as he prepares for a game against Yorkshire at Bradford & Bingley RFC. His club have an important league game at Hull Ionians that requires a full-strength side and with Macclesfield players also committed to club duty, Cheshire are missing virtually a full side.
Consolation for Wright is that in-form Chester, the National Three North Champions, will be supplying eight players to the Cheshire squad. Joining them from Sale FC will be experienced hooker Henry Platt and not-so-experienced 18-year-old scrum half Sam Stelmaszek, who will be on the replacement bench.
“I wasn’t expecting my first season of doing the job would be quite as tough as it has been, but you get used to it to some expect when you are dealing with club stuff,” he said.
Another consolation for Cheshire is that Yorkshire have also been hit by the same availability issues, with players from their senior clubs also taken out of the reckoning by an on-going league programme.
Earlier in the piece the White Rose men were looking to have serious input from Leeds Carnegie, Doncaster and Rotherham, but they are no longer available and support from Wharfedale, Otley, Hull and Hull Ionians is also hit by their continuing league commitments.
“We’ve been absolutely decimated and we won’t know what kind of side we’ll be putting out until we meet for training at Morley tonight,” said Yorkshire’s Team Development Chairman Ted Atkinson. “We’re having a dire time getting a team together, but we have two sessions to get sorted out.
“There are prouder Yorkshiremen than me and it breaks my heart to see things happening like they are.”
Northumberland will be launching their bid to get back into the top flight when they travel to Towcestrians RFC for their opening game in Pool 2 against East Midlands.
Cumbria were left without a game last weekend in the County Championship Shield after their scheduled opponents Staffordshire withdrew from the competition because they could not raise a team due to league commitments.
On Saturday they have Notts, Lincs & Derby travelling to Wigton and will start firm favourites according to the form-book. The Midlanders leaked 12 tries last weekend at home to Leicestershire, who will visit Penrith on May 18 in their bid to claim the trophy this seaon after twice finishing as runners-up in the last two seasons.
Bill Beaumont Cup
Pool 1 – May 4, 2013: Durham v Lancashire at Hartlepool Rovers (3pm), Yorkshire v Cheshire at Bradford & Bingley (3pm). Pool 2 – East Midlands v Northumberland at Towcestrians (3pm)
May 11, 2013: Lancashire v Yorkshire at Fylde (3pm), Durham v Cheshire at Gateshead (3pm). Pool 2 – Eastern Counties v East Midlands at Cambridge RFC (3pm)
May 18, 2013: Cheshire v Lancashire at Macclesfield (3pm), Yorkshire v Durham at Scarborough (3pm). Pool 2 – Northumberland v Eastern Counties at Alnwick RFC (2pm)
May 26, 2013: Final at Twickenham - Pool 1N winner v Pool 1S Winner
County Championship Shield
May 4, 2013: Cumbria v Notts, Lincs & Derby at Wigton (3pm)
May 11, 2013: Cumbria v Leicestershire at Penrith RFC (3pm)