- Northumberland face breakfast test
- Cumbria looking for third time lucky
As an unashamed disciple of County Championship rugby, Lancashire Head Coach Mark Nelson is thrilled to bits at the prospect of the Red Rose men taking on Cornwall at Twickenham on Sunday (May 26) in the final of the Bill Beaumont Cup.
Lancashire will be making their fifth consecutive appearance in the final and for the last two seasons they have shared the honours with Hertfordshire, but the choice between a third-match decider and a game against Cornwall was a no brainer for the Fylde man.
The decisive victory for the men from the Duchy was what Nelson was expecting and what he was hoping for, not out of any disrespect for Hertfordshire or any expectation that Cornwall might be the softer option at Twickenham.
Wearing the hat of a county devotee, Nelson knows that Trelawney’s Army will be on the road again and while they might not march in the numbers that put over 50,000 into Twickenham for the game against Yorkshire in 1991, word on the street is that around 10,000 may be making the trip from the deep South West.
“If Cornwall bring anything like that number and the people who are there for the England v Barbarians game decide to stay on and see what the Bill Beaumont Cup is all about, we could be in for a real treat,” says Nelson.
“Cornwall have been a sleeping giant waiting to return to the Twickenham stage and after a long wait they are finally there, so I’m expecting to see Trelawney’s Army there, which will be really refreshing for a county final.
“We will have two very entrenched and committed county teams playing in a Twickenham final and I hope that will encourage more neutral supporters to stay on and support our game. If we were to attract an audience of between 15/20,000 for a County Championship game on a Sunday, that would be more than most Premiership and Championship sides achieve and a real boost for the game.
“If that were to happen, it would vindicate all the years I’ve spent banging on about county rugby. The RFU deserve great credit for deciding to stage four games at Twickenham on the day.
“I’m just really pleased for the players from both sides that they are going to get a chance to perform at Twickenham when there is a big atmosphere, which will live in their memories for the rest of their lives.”
While Nelson looks ahead with real relish, his focus is not so sharply defined that he does not spare a thought for the recent past.
He says: “This season has required a monumental effort from the management team and the coaches, but also there has been a massive contribution from a new group of players, without whose help we would not be where we are.
“This year at Durham there were 15 new ties awarded and our success is down to those boys that won up at Hartlepool Rovers to set us on our way. Some of those boys haven't featured later on, but it is their efforts that have made the trip possible and they deserve a lot of credit for that."
This will be their third meeting of the pair in the County Championship final, Lancashire winning 11-9 in 1969 at Redruth and 9-6 at Twickenham in 1992.
Encouraging Cumbrian club players to believe that the County Championship Shield can deliver an outing on the famous Twickenham turf has never been akin to getting them to believe in fairies given that they have reached the semi-finals of the competition for three successive seasons.
But it was fourth time lucky last weekend when they beat Warwickshire to achieve their goal after falling at the penultimate hurdle to Leicestershire and Surrey twice.
On Sunday they face Surrey once again and this time they will be hoping for a third time lucky experience after a brace of defeats, although Team Manager Mark Richardson recognises that there is another tough test ahead of his side.
“I think we both have five players from last season’s semi-final game, so it’s a new batch of players who will be running out at Twickenham and representing our counties,” he says. “Team wise, we have the same group of players we had against Warwickshire and we’re good to go.
“Naturally we’re all very excited. Kendal’s Richard Harriman played at Twickenham with Cumbria Under 20s in 1998 and is the only player with any kind of experience of the stadium and the occasion, while myself and coach Mike Scott are the only people who were involved in the team when we won the championship in 1997.
“Hopefully we can pass on some of our experience from that occasion to help the lads because it’s going to be a long day. We don’t kick off until 5.15pm, so there’s an awful lot of preparation time when we need to manage the players and keep them focused.
“Surrey are a very good county team so we know it is going to be tough, but although we’re going to enjoy ourselves, we’re not just going to make the numbers up. We’ll definitely be giving it our best shot.”
Northumberland are looking ahead to their first Twickenham appearance since 2008 when they take on North Midlands in the Bill Beaumont Plate final having already secured promotion to the top flight next season.
The sides last met in 2008 at Alnwick, when Northumberland prevailed, but an early morning kick-off and a neutral ground points to a close tussle on Sunday.
“We have Blaydon lock Shaun English unavailable because of a Caribbean trip, but fly-half Grant Connon is back from Amsterdam Sevens duty, so with Ashley Smith also available, we’re rather spoiled for choice at No 10,” said coach Si Cully.
While finalising his line-up is one challenge, organizing his troops for a 9.30am kick-off is a unique logistical consideration.
“I’ve played at 10.30am and 11am, but never quite so early,” he says. “We have to treat it as a normal morning game and recognize that it’s the same for both sides. I just hope everyone can kick into the usual routine, even at that time. We have a few students in the squad, so maybe they’ll be looking at staying up and powering through!
“The important thing is that it provides a chance for the teams to play at Twickenham. A couple of the lads said after we qualified for the final that they’d happily play at Twickenham at 4.30am and it’s good to see the RFU taking county rugby seriously as I believe it still has a tremendous role to play in the development of the game below the elite level.”
One member of the coaching team who is bound to bring plenty to the table is Northumberland legend Dave Guthrie, as Cully confirms.
“Dave is a fantastic role model for the lads,” says Cully. “He’s played many, many times for the county, he’s been there and done it, got the T-shirts, the blazers and the ties and is hugely passionate about playing for the Northumberland.
“The respect that his name instills in fantastic, but he’s also a brilliant coach and I know he’ll have a big impact on our team.”
Sunday’s Twickenham programme is:
9.30 am - County Championship Division 2 Plate Final: Northumberland v North Midlands
1.00pm - England v Barbarians
3.15pm - Bill Beaumont Cup Final: Lancashire v Cornwall
5.15pm - County Championship Shield Final: Cumbria v Surrey