Rugby Union: Last hurrah for Roses rivals before the divisions take over: Lancashire and Yorkshire stir the passions for the last meaningful County Championship final. Steve Bale reports

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WHETHER it be wilful murder or death by natural causes (ie the Divisional Championship), the County Championship will cease to have the loyalty of any of English rugby's leading players after this afternoon's Roses final at Twickenham.

This is no accident. It has been the deliberate recent design of the Rugby Football Union, at the behest of the England selectors, to make the four divisions and not the 26 counties the domestic representative focus. The official intention that the counties will assume a 'development' role sounds grand but merely confirms an obvious demise.

From next season the preliminary matches and semi-finals of the County Championship will coincide with fixtures in the Courage league First and Second Divisions, effectively meaning that the Orrell contingent, who form the bulk of the Lancashire side who play Yorkshire today, will not be available.

In fact only two of these Lancastrians - front-row forwards John Russell and Gary French - would be free to play in 1994, though Yorkshire would be less affected, since they are fielding half a dozen from outside the top two divisions. There will be no compulsion, but neither is there any question that the RFU's intention is that players should henceforth play for their clubs and aspire to their divisions.

Not everyone agrees. You would hardly expect it in Cornwall, who have brought 40,000 people to each of the past two finals - against Yorkshire and Lancashire, as it happens. Why, there are even said to be players who will defy the RFU by insisting on playing for Yorkshire next season, whatever the consequences for them and their clubs.

All right, in the Broad Acres county loyalty is more like a national loyalty - and you could say the same of Cornwall. And we know all too well, never mind how invaluable the England selectors find it, that the divisions are amorphous and have no emotional hold other than is commensurate with challenging for England honours.

Which is precisely what irks the county loyalists. Here is one, Keith Barber, the Yorkshire RFU secretary: 'The gradual devaluation of the County Championship is a disgrace. The competition is being buried by a few and mourned by many.

'What the Divisional Championship lacks is the history and identity that bonds players to their county in the same way as it does their country. A Cornishman will always put in total effort in the black and gold stripes; can the same be said if he is playing for the South-West, a completely random selection?'

Cornishmen at large put total effort into their appearances at HQ; hence the massive turn-out. It will not be like that this year. The last time Cornwall were not in the final, when Lancashire beat Middlesex in 1990, a paltry 7,000 showed up. Yorkshire claim that Lancashire's ticket sales last year were so poor that fewer than 1,000 supporters saw Cornwall beaten. And the indications are that, despite the useful marketing vehicle of a Roses final, Twickenham will echo with only about 15,000 this afternoon.

Lancashire are said to have disposed of about half of an allocation of just 1,300. Indeed the bulk of the attendance will be made up of around 8,000 youngsters taking advantage of RFU freebies. The paying attendance could be as low as 5,000. If this sounds like an argument against the County Championship, the London division against the North at Twickenham would probably draw even fewer.

'It will be a sad, nostalgic occasion,' Sammy Southern, the Lancashire captain, said. 'It would be appropriate for Lancashire to win the last final under the current system. We've given more than most to the competition.'

True enough: Lancashire and Gloucestershire lead the honours with 15 wins each since the championship was inaugurated in 1889. Yorkshire come next with 12. It will be the 101st Roses match (including one friendly) since the championship began, though the fixture dates all the way back to 1869, two years before the Lancashire RFU had even been formed.

Of the 99 championship matches, Lancashire have won 46 and Yorkshire 41 with 12 drawn. Lancashire have players of higher individual calibre and won their December meeting 23-16 when Spencer Bromley scored two tries in the last five minutes. However, as Yorkshire have the esprit de corps and cussedness that come naturally with being from the Ridings, there is nowt to choose.

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), R Kimmins (Orrell), N Allott (Waterloo), S Gallagher (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 (Upper Wharfedale), P Buckton (capt, Waterloo).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).