Rugby Union: End of era for wild bunch of Roses

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SO IT is not quite farewell to the County Championship but it might just as well be, if by championship we mean the best that English rugby has to offer in a wide-ranging representative framework. Let's face it: the Divisional Championship just ain't the same.

But it, coupled with the upper reaches of the Courage league, is now officially the conduit to the England team - so the counties, the administrative bedrock of the English game, are reduced to subsidiarity. Next season Courage League One and Two fixtures coincide with the County Championship. End of story.

At Twickenham 18,700 people - a fair proportion present through free tickets supplied by the Rugby Football Union - saw Lancashire win their 16th county title, extending the record they had jointly held with Gloucestershire, by beating Yorkshire 9-6 in the 100th championship Roses match. It was an inauspicious way to go out.

Some of us were asked why we were not in Edinburgh watching the sevens. Well, we wanted to watch some real rugby. The trouble was this was really poor rugby. Three penalties by Gerry Ainscough to two by Robert Liley left the Red Rose blooming but the game was blooming awful.

But then that has been the case for many years; even when Cornwall were being followed to Twickenham by 40,000 (there was even a busload of black-and- gold-bedecked souls from the Duchy there on Saturday), the rugby was never up to much.

There was drama, though, and a sense of identity and common cause which the divisional sides will never, ever enjoy. Yorkshire come the closest to the Cornish and, although Lancashire had far fewer followers at Twickenham, the calibre of team they have fielded over the years has shown their county commitment.

'It wasn't Lancashire or the Northern division that put the County Championship in jeopardy; it was the rest of the country,' Des Seabrook, the Lancashire coach, said. 'We've always been proud to play for Lancashire, just as the Yorkshire lads have for Yorkshire. It's not us that's devalued the championship.

'The competition as it is is not the standard that it was 10 to 15 years ago. Is it progress? I don't know, but it's evolution. The structure of the leagues has become very strong and competitive and something has to give. The County Championship is the one that's given out.'

Seabrook's own plans reinforce the point. There is no one more identified with Lancashire rugby. His county side formed the bulk of his North side who beat the All Blacks in 1979, and the North then formed the bulk of the England side who did the Grand Slam in 1980. Yet next season his priority will be his club, Orrell, exactly as it will be for Sammy Southern, the Lancashire captain.

Nor is this new. Last season Lancashire were denuded of Orrell players before the final against Cornwall, which they also won 9-6, when a league game against Harlequins was rescheduled. Club rugby took priority, just as divisional rugby is supposed to have done since 1991.

'I had to make the choice two years ago between playing for the North of England and Lancashire, and I chose Lancashire,' Southern said. On the other hand, next season he and Seabrook and seven other Orrell players who represented Lancashire on Saturday will fall in with RFU policy by choosing the new world of home-and- away league fixtures. 'It's sad that the county is the one who has to suffer.'

Southern is not very comforting, but at least Lancashire had gone out with a win. They dominated the first half so conclusively that a 3-0 lead when Ainscough kicked his first penalty towards half-time was less than adequate. Moreover, the line-out difficulties that might have been caused by the withdrawal of Bob Kimmins and Shaun Gallagher did not materialise. Nick Allott did a fantastic job.

Yorkshire did better in the second half and, because Lancashire had been unable to get away from them, were within an ace of a scarcely deserved victory when they had their one period of consistent attacking during the second half. Ultimately, however, the Red Rose defence was as solid as the White Rose's had to be for far longer periods.

This partly explained the lack of continuity in the game. Crucially, the Orrell players have First Division know-how and everyone, it seems, knows that the present laws of rugby make loitering on the fringes of rucks and mauls at least as profitable as joining them. 'It was a classic example of the bad points of the new laws,' Peter Buckton, the Yorkshire captain, said.

Buckton is worth listening to, partly because he is a Tyke playing his rugby in Lancashire and partly because he is an RFU employee who is paid by Twickenham to spread the rugby gospel as development officer for Merseyside. Even Buckton, a flanker renowned for his rangy, gadabout style, could not impose himself on the last meaningful county final.

That left him disappointed, obviously with Yorkshire's defeat and the standard of the match, but also that he, too, is now to be denied county rugby. Buckton has represented Yorkshire 63 times but next season his loyalties will have to lie with Waterloo. 'It's a great shame,' he said. 'I still feel as if I could contribute a lot to county rugby - but that's taken away from me.'

The debate concerns how best to take individuals out of their cosy club environment and throw them in with others at representative level - a preparation, if you like, for the same sort of thing at international level. Having like Southern chosen his county rather than the North, Buckton knows which he personally prefers and also has an idea which he believes is better even in the England context.

'It's a bit upsetting, because I've seen over the course of this championship our players develop considerably, particularly some of the younger ones,' he said. 'I sometimes get the feeling that playing just three one- off Divisional Championship games is a different kind of commitment and perhaps difficult to judge some players on as well.'

Seabrook . . . Southern . . . Buckton. Voices to listen to, opinions to respect. But they won't make a scrap of difference.

Lancashire: Penalties Ainscough 3. Yorkshire Penalties Liley 2.

LANCASHIRE: S Taberner; P Hamer, G Ainscough, S Langford (Orrell), S Bromley (Rugby); A Handley, C Saverimutto (Waterloo); J Russell (Broughton Park), G French (Liverpool St Helens), D Southern (capt), C Cusani (Orrell), N Allott (Waterloo), P Manley (Orrell), M Kenrick (Sale), N Ashurst (Orrell).

YORKSHIRE: R Thompson (Wakefield); J Eagle (Leeds), D Edwards (Wakefield), P Johnson (Leeds), J Sleightholme; R Liley (Wakefield), A Crowley (Bradford & Bingley); M Vincent, T Garnett (Wakefield), S Rice (Otley), I Carroll (Wakefield), D Baldwin (Sale), S Tipping (Otley), C Vyvyan (Wharfedale), P Buckton (Waterloo, capt).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).