Rugby Union: Martin's fledglings fail opening test: Tim Glover makes for the shires to assess the current quality of play and players in the County Championship

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The Independent Online
THERE were extra traffic police on duty in the middle of Henley and you instinctively knew they had nothing to do with the visit of Eastern Counties. The Thames was swollen and so was the town centre, not because of the County Championship match but a protest march, in Michael Heseltine's constituency, by miners from Grimethorpe and South Wales.

Had they marched on to Henley RFC they would have been a welcome addition to the attendance. The County Championship has become small beer and Oxfordshire and Eastern Counties, in division four, are at the bottom of the barrel. Most eyes are on the Divisional Championship and, without the support of ADT, who sponsor both competitions, the county set would probably be out of work.

There are only three counties in division four (Somerset is the other) so their fixture list amounts to two matches each. Since the introduction of club leagues, county rugby, with a few exceptions, notably Cornwall, has been shoved into the backwoods of the shires. Not far enough, according to some.

'It is the counties which administrate the game at local level, and do it well, but whose influence is disproportionate to their current playing standards,' writes Rory Underwood in his premature book, Flying Wing. 'The gulf between what is required at county level, as a player or an administrator, and what is required at national level is far too wide for many people to bridge.' The Rugby Football Union committee, he says, has a 'lot of time-servers, people on the old school tie network. There are too many doing nothing to help the modern game.'

Nick Martin is doing all he can. Martin, the former Bedford, Harlequins and England lock, is the new chairman of the Eastern Counties selectors. He is also assistant borough secretary of Bury St Edmunds and president of Newmarket RFC. Martin has spent so much time scouring Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex for players there is no place for his other passion, writing poetry.

In Martin's day, Eastern Counties were a power in the land and all their players were drawn from first-class clubs. On Saturday, they nearly all came from junior clubs. 'If you live in East Anglia where do you go?' Martin asked. 'Many of these boys are playing beneath themselves. They are as keen as hell and the county system gives them a focus. There is nothing more for them to look forward to.'

As a result of Martin's mileage, Eastern Counties fielded 10 new 'caps' on Saturday. As a result of his forward background, they fielded a large, powerful pack that should have seen off Oxfordshire but there was little guile or sophistication behind the scrum. Oxfordshire, also starved of a first-class feeding system, had a guiding light at stand-off in Ashley Tapper.

Tapper, who 12 months ago was winning a Blue for Oxford at Twickenham, contributed 14 points. From the moment he scored a try in the opening minutes after charging down a clearance by his opposite number, Oxfordshire established, expanded and finally held on to their lead.

All feeling had left the feet when Counties scored two late tries and threatened to rediscover what Martin described as the ethic of winning. 'Disappointed not disheartened,' Martin said.

He has friends in high places. 'My view has always been that the playing of the divisional and county matches on the same day did not do justice to two great competitions,' Danie Serfontein, the president of the RFU, said. From next season there will be no clash, except between the views of people like Serfontein and Underwood.

At Henley, the scoreboard read: Henley 24 Visitors 21 - the players received their petrol money, a meal and a free tie. Caps are no longer awarded.

Oxfordshire: Tries Tapper, Iacona, Thomas; Conversions Tapper 3; Penalty Tapper. Eastern Counties: Tries Early, Footer; Conversion Pugh; Penalties Pugh 3.

OXFORDSHIRE: M Thomas (Banbury); A Iacona (Bath), N Hill (Waterloo), D Hebden, J Mitchelmore (Banbury); A Tapper (Bath), W Davidson (Henley); S Stevenson (Richmond), R John (Chinnor), B Williams (Oxford / RAF), I Stevens (Oxford Marathons, capt), A Rabcjak (Oxford), S Henderson (Henley), S Hamilton (Oxford), P Davies (Banbury).

EASTERN COUNTIES: M Morgan (Eton Manor); B Magnurson (Thurrock), R Norcaro (Eton Manor, capt), R Early (Chelmsford), L Smith (Harlow); C Pugh (Old Edwardians), M Eyles (Thurrock); R Prabhakaran (Rochford Hundreds), G Peck (Upper Clapton), R Martin (Thurrock), R Hargrave (N Walsham), M Upex (Bedford), A Footer (Bury St Edmunds), T White (Bedford), D Cook (Sudbury).

Replacement: M Cornell (Bury St Edmunds) for Upex, 40.

Referee: J Wallace (Somerset).