Rugby Union / Commentary: Fleetwood confirm their progress with cup triumph: Provincial Insurance end sponsorship but English junior clubs' competition continues its success in inspiring the game's grass roots

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The Independent Online
FOR SOME reason Provincial Insurance is pulling out of English rugby's junior clubs' competition. So it does not have the glitz of the Pilkington Cup - but as a promotional exercise this competition has paid out handsomely on a modest premium.

A crowd of 7,500, such as turned up for the Provincial final in which Fleetwood beat Hitchin 13-7, is swallowed up in Twickenham's vastness but those people made enough noise for three times that number. And when you remember that the two clubs would be pleased to get 500 between them on any other Saturday you can understand just what a success this cup has been.

When it began in 1990 it may have seemed down-market, certainly when compared with the goings-on at the elite, elitist end of the game. Not a sound investment, perhaps? Rubbish. The publicity for Provincial's fairly coarse rugby has been phenomenal, probably out of keeping with the stature of the clubs involved.

See what I mean? I have mentioned the company three times in three paragraphs, gratis. But a new marketing man came in and it is going out. If the Rugby Football Union does not find a fresh sponsor, the union itself will find the necessary finance.

It may not come to that. What, for instance, could be more agreeable than Pilkington's lending its support at the nether end of the game as well as the top and supporting this competition to a final as curtain-raiser for the main event at HQ on the first Saturday of May?

A great idea, and it may well happen, though more of the misbehaviour which saw three people ejected from the west enclosure for fighting - an uncomfortable echo of the more serious incident at the Fleetwood-Tredworth semi-final at Moseley - would cause any would-be sponsor to reconsider.

This was the third Provincial - there I go again - final, and you have only to look at the protagonist clubs to appreciate the benefits of

insurance. It had a galvanic effect on Bradford Salem, winners in the first two years, and Bicester, beaten finalists both times; now it has done the same for Fleetwood and Hitchin. (Neither are eligible next season.)

Fleetwood were in such decline a few years ago that, in the words of their chairman, John Dewhurst, 'the next step was to fall off the bottom rung'. But the league has forced lowly clubs to examine themselves and make the decision between playing rugby for fun and playing for keeps, which is less fun but more satisfying.

Fleetwood chose the latter. This season they are heading for promotion at the top of the North Lancashire First Division and now, as a handy adjunct, hold a cup that will never again be played for. The club are generating essential income - and will doubtless generate a lot more on the back of Saturday's triumph.

Hitchin, towards the bottom of the Herts/Middlesex First, may have lost, but their case is probably even more striking. While they were progressing towards the final they were pulling in pounds 30,000 in sponsorship and, having called in a former England prop for coaching assistance, now appreciate the investments they must make if they are to expand and improve.

David Marshall, the Hertfordshire Hedgehogs' sterling captain and main line-out man, told this story: 'Paul Rendall came down and said 'Right, Dave, get the scrummaging machine'. So we did and he said 'OK, where's the first-team scrummaging machine?' I said this is it. Then he asked for a blackboard and chalk, and all I could offer was a pen and paper.'

That is a blackboard, chalk and a scrummaging machine - and bigger and better facilities to cater for five senior teams, colts, women's, juniors and minis. 'We've done this - got to Twickenham - on a shoestring at a shoestring-type club,' Marshall said.

So this was serious stuff, definitely not coarse rugby even if much of it was unrefined. Fleetwood did not make their territorial advantage count and consequently were only a converted try away from defeat.

They controlled the game from half-back, where John Wright and Steve Burnage were keys to Lancastrian superiority. Burnage was one of English rugby's leading points-scorers when he played for Fylde, but on Saturday he missed all three kicks at goal and four of five drop-shots.

Fleetwood therefore had to do it with tries. Wright's characteristic blind-side rapier-thrust put Mark Wilkinson over for one in the first half, and David Berry's line-out catch and dive brought another early in the second half when Hitchin were at their most vulnerable after their Welsh hooker, Ieuan Callicott, had been replaced.

Callicott, originally from Bridgend, left the field at half-time for stitches above his left eye and by the time he was ready to return was mortified to find he had already been replaced by Alex Nicol. What was that about coarse rugby? Callicott would have been perfectly fit to resume.

Marshall regarded this as the turning-point and indeed when Nicol threw into the line-out for the first time the ball passed beyond Marshall and into Berry's hands. Alas for Hitchin, they were only a yard from their own line and Berry scored.

Hitchin's retort was a try by the deserving Marshall, converted by Les Jefferies, from a tap-penalty and there, despite their best efforts, the scoring ended. As losers, Marshall and his men had to precede Bill Baxter and Fleetwood to the committee box. 'To describe the disappointment when we went up the steps first is impossible,' Marshall lamented.

On the other hand, what it meant simply to be there should not be underestimated. Baxter said: 'When you play junior rugby, there's no way of getting to Twickenham except to watch an international or a cup final. To step out on the hallowed turf was a great feeling.' Marshall had been very nearly overwhelmed by it all. 'When we went out for the pictures it was immense,' he said. 'And when we sang the national anthem I thought I was singing so badly out of tune.' National anthem? 'A Welshman singing God Save The Queen . . .' Ieuan Callicott confessed. To which Marshall rejoined: 'He was under penalty of death.'

Fleetwood: Tries Wilkinson, Berry; Drop goal Burnage. Hitchin: Try Marshall; Conversion Jefferies.

Fleetwood: M Hill; P Seed, A Crowther, S Fearn, M Wilkinson; S Burnage, J Wright; D Gawne, W Baxter (capt), M Pilkington, A Burman, P Hanley, S Merrick, I Cameron, D Berry.

Hitchin: C Lee; V Donnelly, L Jefferies, A Smith, R Simon; A Forrest, R Owen; P Joyce, I Callicott (A Nicol, h/t), P Tasko, D Marshall (capt), R Cobley, P Broadhurst, B James, D Thompson.

Referee: R Quittenton (Rustington, Sussex).