Rugby Union: Cornwall dream of joining elite

Cornwall 24 Gloucestershire 15
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The Independent Online
IF COUNTY RUGBY is as dead as the proverbial dodo, it is enjoying one hell of a wake. For the third time in less than a decade, the Cornish descended on Twickenham and submerged the place in an ocean of black and gold - an ocean in which Gloucestershire duly drowned, despite treading water for a full 80 minutes and threatening to stage an escape straight out of the Tony Bullimore handbook of deep-sea survival. In the end the elements were too hostile for the men from the northern reaches of the West Country.

There is no more elemental force in British rugby than the Cornish hordes on an away-day adventure; if the county union ever decided to push local rivalries to one side, pool the available resources and throw their weight behind a single, elite Premiership club team, that team would have to play their home games on Bodmin Moor, just to accommodate the supporters. "It's a travesty that there is no Cornish side playing in either division of the Premiership," said Dean Shipton, who led Cornwall to their third championship. "I challenge any leading club to match the support we have. The side that won this title would hold their own in Premiership Two."

Maybe, maybe not. Cornwall played a quick game on Saturday and looked distinctly useful in patches, especially when Jason Atkinson, that old back-row warhorse from Penzance, was pirating his way around the old cabbage patch with the ball clasped in one horrible hairy fist. However, their finishing was on the desperate side of hopeless; two tries, the second of them in the fifth minute of injury time, was a laughable return on 60 per cent possession and 70 per cent territory.

The worst of it is that we are unlikely to see the argument settled in the near future. "We're facing two big issues here," said Phil Angove, the Cornish coach. "Would the clubs make the necessary sacrifices in support of one team capable of staying afloat in the Premiership? And even if they agreed to do so, where would we get the cash? Rugby is money-driven nowadays and there is no point even thinking about Premiership rugby unless the pound signs are in place. Still, we need to stay aware of developments across the Tamar. If we allow ourselves to become too insular, we will lose touch with the game itself."

Shipton almost lost touch with reality when, with a 17-12 advantage in his favour and 20 minutes left on the clock, he declined three simple penalty points and went for broke instead. Gloucestershire tackled their way out of jail and but for some outstanding defensive work from Nacanieu Saumi - even in an ultra-traditional county final, the most striking performer turned out to be a big-hit wing from Fiji - they might easily have scored a try of their own and sneaked off with the spoils.

As it was, Saumi had the last word by converting a clean-cut score from Stewart Whitworth on the final whistle. "I always thought we were doing enough to win the game," said a smiling Shipton, who intends to quit while he is ahead. But are Cornwall doing enough to find a way out of the backwater and catch the tide of professionalism? For all the weekend celebrations, that is the real question.

Cornwall: Tries Tucker, Whitworth; Conversion Saumi; Penalties Larkins 3, Saumi. Gloucestershire: Penalties Osborne 5.

CORNWALL: A Birkett (Launceston); N Saumi (Penzance & Newlyn), J Tucker (Launceston), C Laity (Exeter), S Larkins (Redruth); S Whitworth (Redruth), M Roderick (Penzance & Newlyn); P Risdon (Launceston), N Grigg (Launceston), J Thomas (Penzance & Newlyn), G Hutchings (Launceston), K Moseley (Penzance & Newlyn), J Atkinson (Penzance & Newlyn), D Shipton (Launceston, capt), M Addinall (Penryn). Replacements: E Nancekivell (Launceston) for Larkins, 39; S Rush (Launceston) for Thomas, 63; L Mruk (Penzance & Newlyn) for Hutchings, 81; P Gadsdon (Penzance & Newlyn) for Roderick, 85.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE: S Morgan (Gloucester); J Perrins (Stroud), D Edwards (Cinderford), L Osborne (Lydney), C Dunlop (Lydney); S Thompson (Stroud), J Davis (Lydney); A Martin (Cinderford), N Nelmes (Lydney, capt), A Powles (Gloucester), B Guy (Ashley Down OB), A Adams (Clifton), R York (Cheltenham), M Nicholls (Lydney), A Tarplee (Cheltenham). Replacements: S Ward (Gloucester) for Thompson, 60; G Williams (Lydney) for Martin, 69; P Knight (Sale) for Davis, 70; R James (Matson) for Nicholls, 76; N Matthews (Matson) for Nelmes, 80.

Referee: N Yates (Manchester).