The Cornish are coming! Pirates prepare Premiership boarding party

A Penzance-born millionaire has transformed the rugby club now winning county-wide support for voyage into uncharted waters
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The Independent Online

The programme for the Cornish Pirates' latest home match listed only one local player in the line-up, alongside men from Samoa, Tonga, South Africa, Namibia and Australia. The atmosphere inside the rugby ground, however, was as Cornish as clotted cream, tin mines and traffic jams on the A30.

A first impression that the hot food stall was selling cosmopolitan fare proved mistaken. It offered traditional steak Cornish pasties, peppered steak Cornish pasties, beef and Guinness Cornish pasties, beef and Stilton Cornish pasties, chicken and vegetable Cornish pasties, cheese and vegetable Cornish pasties and vegetable Cornish pasties.

In the bar, a home supporter quickly realised that his fellow drinker was not there to support the local team. "You'll be English, then," he surmised.

Before the Pirates and their Coventry opponents took the field, pre-match entertainment was provided by the Falmouth Marine Band, who wore Cornish tartan kilts and flew the county flag. After the match the Cadgwith Singers led a rendition of Trelawny, Cornwall's unofficial national anthem.

Cornwall is proud of its identity and proud of its rugby. There is arguably no other English county where the game is so pre-eminent, which makes its lack of club success on the national stage all the more surprising. If Dicky Evans and the Cornish Pirates have their way, however, that will soon change.

Under the guidance of the Penzance-born millionaire, who has built up a booming business growing vegetables in Kenya and selling them to British supermarkets, the Pirates are rapidly making a name for themselves.

Last year they finished fourth in National League One, the division below the Premiership, which was the highest placing ever achieved by a Cornish club. This season, with crowds up by 40 per cent, they are second, having won 10 of their 12 matches. Plymouth Albion and Exeter, ambitious clubs across the border in Devon, are trailing in their wake. Although Harlequins, the unbeaten leaders, are red-hot favourites to return to the Premiership at the first attempt, the Pirates will not be deflected from their own long-term goal of reaching the top flight.

The team are coached by Jim McKay, an Australian with several years' experience at this level. Appointed 14 months ago, he has developed a squad of full-time professionals with a strong international flavour who have delighted supporters with their expansive game.

Iva Motusaga represented Samoa this summer, Villi Ma'asi and Heino Senekal have played in the World Cup for Tonga and Namibia respectively, and the back row includes Matt Evans, a South African, and Simon Hocking, an Australian Under-21 international. Joe Bearman, the captain, Matt Jess, who has been in the England Under-21 squad, and Sam Betty, a graduate of the South West Rugby Academy in Truro, are among the locally bred players.

The door to the Pirates' future ambitions was unlocked by Penzance and Newlyn Rugby Club members at an impassioned meeting in Penzance town hall in the summer. They backed Evans' proposals to rename the club's first XV the Cornish Pirates and to stage their games at a new stadium 30 miles away in Truro, the county capital. By moving nearer to Cornwall's main centres of population and rebranding themselves as a team representing the whole county, the club aimed to tap into the huge local interest in rugby.

The success of Cornish players at international level is evidence of the county's passion for the game. England's squad for the recent autumn internationals contained three Cornishmen in Olly Barkley, Phil Vickery and Tom Voyce. Previous local boys who came good include John Kendall-Carpenter, a post-war England captain who became one of the game's most influential administrators, "Stack" Stevens, a formidable prop from the 1970s whose son is a current Pirates ball boy, and Trevor Woodman, a 2003 World Cup winner.

Despite the success of individuals, however, life on the Celtic fringes has not been easy for Cornish clubs in the professional era, with representative rugby providing the county's finest moments. In 1993 the All Blacks were pushed desperately close by a South-West team at Redruth, where Sean Fitzpatrick had to elbow his way through the 15,000 crowd to throw the ball in at line-outs, while some 40,000 supporters (said to be the largest ever gathering of Cornish folk) travelled to Twickenham in 1991 to see Cornwall win the county championship for the first time for 83 years.

Arguably the most ambitious aspect of the Pirates project is the attempt to bury local animosities and unite the county under one flag. Penzance and Newlyn were themselves separate clubs until merging in 1945, their earlier rivalry having been so fierce that fixtures between the two were suspended on more than one occasion to preserve public order. When they joined forces, the Pirates' home, the Mennaye Field, was strategically positioned, with one half in Newlyn and the other in Penzance.

The Pirates played in the depths of the Cornwall and Devon League when league rugby was launched in 1987 and it was not until Evans became president and principal benefactor, persuading the club to embrace the professional era, that they began to move swiftly up the ladder. Seven promotions eventually saw the club reach National League One two years ago.

Evans, a former Pirates player who grew up within a stone's throw of the Mennaye but can now make only occasional visits from his base in Kenya, knew that tough decisions would have to be taken if further progress was to be made. It was not possible to bring the Mennaye's facilities up to Premiership standards, but Evans hoped that relocation to "neutral" Truro would widen the supporter base. By playing on Sundays the Pirates aimed to win backing from other clubs, whose own gates would not suffer.

Less than a month before the start of the season the Pirates were given the go-ahead to build a new stadium on a former school playing field at Kenwyn, on the outskirts of Truro. The ground holds 6,000, with seats for 4,000 in covered temporary stands on both sides and a hospitality marquee for 400.

The club has a three-year agreement to play at Kenwyn, but, with parking a major problem, it is unlikely to be the club's permanent home. While the success of the move is assessed, other sites are being considered.

Early signs are encouraging, with attendances up to an average of 2,600. More than 2,000 tickets have already been sold for the home match against Harlequins in March. At the Stoop last month the Pirates lost 50-6 to Andrew Mehrtens, Will Greenwood and company in front of 10,843, more than 3,000 Cornish supporters having travelled to London to help set an attendance record for the division.

New fans from other parts of the county are supporting the Pirates. Some of the Mennaye faithful have refused to make the trip to Truro, but most fans back the move. Paul Wakfer, a Kenwyn regular, said: "There was a bit of a mixed reception at first. Somebody said the club should be called the Cornish Smugglers because they'd taken our rugby away from us, but in the long term I think the club had to relocate if it wanted to progress.

"A few years back I don't think any of us would have dreamed that the club would have come this far. It would be another huge step to go up to the Premiership, but if we get there I don't see why we shouldn't be able to stay there. Rugby is massive in Cornwall and there would be great support for a team playing in the Premiership."

Robin Turner, the Pirates chairman, said: "We said we would assess where we are at Christmas. My feeling is that so far it's been a success, but we have to carry on building. We need the whole of Cornwall behind us: rugby supporters, local businesses, sponsors, local authorities, everybody.

"The next step we want to make is the biggest one of all and that's the only way we can succeed. Dicky Evans has stuck out his neck - and his wallet - and now it's up to the rest of the county to demonstrate that it supports his vision."

McKay says the team have been feeling the weight of expectation in recent weeks but is optimistic. "There's been a lot of pressure on us and the defeat at Harlequins took a lot out of us, but we've responded well," he said. "Creating a brand as the team for the whole county is a good move. Cornwall is a hotbed of rugby. The passion is there to support a successful team."

Four local sporting heroes

BOB FITZSIMMONS

Born in Helston, Fitzsimmons lived in New Zealand and Australia before arriving in 1890 in America, where he quickly became a boxing legend. A fearsome puncher, he was the first fighter to hold three world titles, at middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight. He won the heavyweight crown by defeating James J Corbett in 1897 in one of the greatest fights of all time.

JACK RICHARDS

Penzance-born Surrey wicketkeeper played just eight Tests but was key part of England's 1987 Ashes winners Down Under.

ED COODE

Bodmin-born Coode recovered from missing out on a rowing bronze by 0.12sec in Sydney to strike gold in Athens in 2004.

NIGEL MARTYN

Everton's 39-year-old St Austell-born goalkeeper was playing for St Blazey when signed by Bristol Rovers in 1987. Became Britain's first £1m goalkeeper at Crystal Palace then moved on to Leeds and Everton. Won 23 England caps despite being a contemporary of David Seaman.

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