Rugby Union: Counties take the strain

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The Independent Online
AS A former England captain, Mike Harrison will lend distinction to this afternoon's County Championship final, writes Steve Bale. But the fact that Harrison is now 38 and has moved into team management - with Emerging England - perfectly reflects that county rugby is not, and now never will be, what it was.

When Yorkshire, champions 12 times, meet Durham (eight) at Twickenham they might be seen by 15,000 people, of whom 10,000 will be there for free. Only when Cornwall, more country than county, get there does Twickenham fill.

This is almost by the Rugby Football Union's deliberate design, or at least is an unavoidable extension of the downgrading of the County Championship to 'development' (as the euphemism has it) status. Let's face it: Harrison, called in by Yorkshire when Jon Eagle withdrew, did all his developing a long time ago.

The counties need their championship, we are told, because they are the administrative bedrock of the English game. But it can hardly be denied even by those who hold to tradition that what matters are the four divisions and the First Division.

Not that the divisions inspire any loyalty, amorphous as they are. Yorkshire, and Durham for that matter, will always have more of an identity than the North, let alone London and the South-East or the South and South-West.

The county reps were at Twickenham yesterday for a constituent bodies' meeting and a special general meeting that turned the RFU into an industrial and provident society - which sounds as dry as dust but accords with a changing rugby world where the union handles millions of pounds for which four trustees have hitherto been liable.

Since the clubs - meaning the Courage league First Division rather than the top 40 who make up the Senior Clubs' Association - are more responsible for generating these sums than the counties, they want to usurp some of the counties' power and in any case are fed up with feeling themselves to be a dog wagged by the tail.

'It is becoming apparent that the interests of senior clubs are no longer being effectively represented by those from constituent bodies - the counties - serving on the RFU,' Bob Taylor, the former England No 8 from Northampton, said in introducing his recent report for the SCA.

The RFU has loftily put Taylor down but, whoever collects the CIS Trophy at Twickenham today, the counties - and by extension county rugby - are under strain and creaking.

DURHAM: G Spearman (Blaydon); O Evans (West Hartlepool), P Nickalls (Rosslyn Park), I Bell (Hartlepool Rovers), C Mattison; J Bland, S Kirkup (Durham City); G Naisbitt (Stockton, capt), I Parnaby (Westoe), M Douthwaite (Stockton), G Wanless (Durham City), C Aldus (Stockton), S Musgrove (Westoe), D McKinnon (West Hartlepool), B Dixon (Stockton).

YORKSHIRE: D Breakwell (Leeds); M Harrison (Wakefield), B Barley (Sandal, capt), S Burnhill (Cleckheaton), C Thornton (Leeds); K Plant (Rotherham), G Easterby (Harrogate); R Szabo (Wakefield), R Whyley (Harrogate), S McMain (Sheffield), I Carroll (Otley), C Raducanu (Bradford & Bingley), C West (Rotherham), C Vyvyan (Wharfedale), N Hargreaves (Leeds).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Bath).