RUGBY UNION: Test of time for counties

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There is something quaintly appropriate about the annual meeting of the International Rugby Board and the semi-finals of the English County Championship coinciding, since there are many in rugby who wonder whether either has stood the test of time.

This afternoon, Warwickshire play Berkshire at Rugby and Northumberland play Gloucestershire at Tynedale for the right to challenge for the CIS Trophy at Twickenham on 22 April. The very fact that this is worthy of mention reflects the absence of anything much else going on today.

Pontypridd continue their pursuit of Cardiff in the Heineken League in Wales with a home game against Neath. But in England this is the one pre- international Saturday that has always been left free and the Scots, too, have permitted the postponement of most of their programme so as to preserve their players' fitness one week before the Grand Slam match at Twickenham.

Yesterday, the routine pre-match speculation on black-market ticket prices put them at up to £700, a figure usually arrived at by thinking of a number and doubling it. "Holders of misappropriated tickets will be escorted from the ground," Richard Ankerson, the Rugby Football Union ticket officer, routinely warned.

The RFU years ago downgraded the status of the County Championship and made it official as soon as fixtures at the top end of the league coincided with county games. Berkshire, in a sense, make the point by arriving in the last four for the first time and being based squarely on Reading down in the Fourth Division.

By coincidence, this year's RFU president, Dennis Easby, is from Reading and so will be at Rugby, where his side are not favoured to succeed. "Berkshire have never reached the semi-finals before, so whatever happens it will be our greatest day since we entered the county competition after the war," he said.

That was when it meant something in the wider scheme of things and sometimes one wonders what wider relevance the incestuous world of Welsh club rugby has in these difficult days for the national team. With four games to go, Cardiff and Pontypridd are separated by Cardiff's try superiority of 10.

At least the Welsh, with the reluctant help of their awkward neighbours among the Five Nations, are now hopeful of hosting the 1999 World Cup, a decision the IRB will announce on Tuesday if it has not already leaked it. This would have the effect of sparing Wales from having to pre-qualify - giving the Welsh the last laugh as this fate may well await all four of their prospective co-hosts.