Lancashire reach Cup Final at Twickenham

Lancashire 64 Cheshire 23

Lancashire advanced to their ninth Bill Beaumont Cup Twickenham Final in ten years with a conclusive 2nd half display of running rugby against a gritty Cheshire squad at Fylde’s sun-drenched Woodlands Ground. The Red Rose county scored nine fine tries, five in the 2nd half, to earn a place in the Final against Hertfordshire on Sunday, 27th May, on the undercard to the England v Barbarians fixture.

Lancashire’s Head Coach, Mark Nelson, and his fellow selectors haven’t had an easy time with their selection policy in this campaign. Following a clutch of Sedgley Park players being unavailable for the first game at Northumberland and a big Sale FC contingent being ruled out against Eastern Counties last Saturday due to over running league fixtures, this time Nelson had the luxury of more or less a full squad to choose from against Cheshire. Whatever 22 players have played these three matches, the dynamic running game and free scoring has been constant. Rattling up 180 points in three games against decent opponents has proved ample evidence of Lancashire’s right to be at Twickenham next Sunday.

With nine players in Cheshire’s starting line-up from Caldy, one of the fine success stories in National One this season, it was clear from the outset that this would be a serious clash between North West opponents. From the kick off Cheshire made their power at the breakdown tell as they pushed deep into Lancashire’s half. Winger Ben Jones capitalised in the 4th minute by opening the scoring with a penalty kick.

It took the home county just three minutes to hit back. A delicate pass by prop Dan Birchall put the excellent lock Bob Birtwell through a gap in the Cheshire defence and he broke a couple of tackles from 20m out to score near the posts. Chris Johnson added the extras to take a 7-3 lead.

It was an even contest for 20 minutes before Lancashire extended their lead with flanker Phil Mills, who stood out throughout the game, driving over from close range at the foot of one of the posts. A routine Johnson conversion extended the advantage.

It wasn’t one way by any means and when a Lancs defender offended in the 25th minute, Jones kicked a second penalty to reduce the deficit.

Lancashire’s running game was now starting to flow, with their hard working pack earning plenty of possession. In the 32nd minute a neat move down the left touchline and a surge by centre Scott Rawlings gave Anthony Bingham some space. The fleet footed winger just needs a hint of a gap and he stepped past a defender to score near the left corner. Johnson’s kick from wide out was on the mark for a 21-6 lead.

Cheshire hit back immediately when they earned possession deep in Lancashire’s half and recycled the ball before scrum-half Nick Allsop jinked his way past defenders to score a good try near the posts. Ben Jones converted this and a couple of minutes later he added a third penalty to put his side right back in the contest at just 21-16 down.

In many ways, the most crucial moment of the game was in injury time ahead of the half-time whistle. Lancashire battled their way into the Cheshire half and their backs moved left. Scott Rawlings did what he’s done throughout his career by battering his way past defenders before plunging over the line for a try earning his side a crucial bonus point in the process. The reaction of the Red Rose coaches and replacements on the sidelines said everything about the significance of this score, added to by another perfect kick by Chris Johnson to extend the half-time lead to 28-16.

The gloss was taken off this moment by a serious ankle injury to Lancashire winger Jordan Dorrington who was stretched off. He was replaced after the interval by Scott Jordan.

A penalty by Johnson in the opening minute of the 2nd half put his side further ahead before a minute later Anthony Bingham latched on to a delightful offload by skipper Adam Lewis to race clear to score on the left side. Johnson converted once again for a 38-16 advantage.

One of the most prominent National League players in the North West in the last decade has been backrower Evan Stewart. Two seasons at Macclesfield was followed by six seasons at Fylde including an England Counties cap along the way before he moved to Vale of Lune a year ago. The ultra tough and selfless Ulsterman has put his body on the line for all his clubs and the physical toll on him has been considerable. The Director of Rugby at Lancaster Royal Grammar School has just been appointed at Portsmouth Grammar School and has decided to retire from playing. So what a delight it was in the 50th minute to see him in his last senior game finish off a superb move down the left by scoring in the corner.

Another former Fylde player who was enjoying himself was fly-half Chris Johnson. He’s far more than just a superb goal kicker and showed this with shrewd distribution and control throughout. In the 59th minute he hoisted a pin point cross kick to the right corner where Anthony Bingham leapt athletically to catch the ball and touch down in one movement. Needless to say, Johnson added the conversion from wide out.

It wasn’t all one way as Cheshire hit back in the 65th minute when fullback Charlie Venables finished off a sharp move with a good try. Ben Jones converted to reduce the deficit to 50-23.

Lancashire upped their game in the final 10 minutes and scored two more tries. Firstly, a superb move down the left involving interplay between backs and forwards was finished off by a swift burst by replacement Steve Collins. In injury time, the Red Rose county moved the ball right and replacement winger Scott Jordan had enough space to race clear down the touchline to score in the corner. Of course, Johnson once again converted it with a brilliant kick from the touchline to finalise matters, and for a personal haul of 19 points.

An interesting footnote for local supporters is that of the 23 player squad, there were just three from the Fylde club. However, a further 14 had previously played for the Woodlands-based club! Add to this the Head Coach Mark Nelson, Assistant Coaches Warren Spragg and Martin Scott, and Team Manager Steve Rigby, and it’s possible to see the influence of the Fylde club on the current Lancashire senior set-up.

Mark Nelson said: “Cheshire were very competitive, posed some serious challenges and were the toughest opponents we’ve met so far in 2018. But once we settled down, we played some excellent rugby in the ‘Lancashire way’. Despite all the personnel changes we’ve made, there were some outstanding performances, individually and collectively. We were ambitious and showed that we could score tries from anywhere on the pitch, and against a good defence.

“With many of the players having previous Twickenham Final experience, they won’t be overawed but rather inspired by that setting. Each week we’ve set ourselves challenges and next Sunday will be the biggest.”

Click here for Chris Farrow’s 165 photographs.

LANCASHIRE: 15 Lewis Allen (Rossendale); 14 Jordan Dorrington (Vale of Lune), 13 Chris Mayor (Sale FC), 12 Brent Rawlings (Longton), 11 Anthony Bingham (Sale FC); 10 Chris Johnson (Sale FC), 9 Callum McShane (Sedgley Park); 1 Dan Birchall (Sale FC), 2 Alex Loney (Fylde), 3 Adam Lewis (Fylde), 4 Bob Birtwell (Sedgley Park), 5 Rhys Davies (Sale FC), 6 Evan Stewart (Vale of Lune), 7 Phil Mills (Rossendale), 8 Tom Ailes (Sale FC).

16 Peter Altham (Preston G), 17 Danny Maher (Sedgley Park), 19 Gareth Rawlings (Sale FC), 20 Andy Hughes (Sale FC), 21 Connor Wilkinson (Fylde), 22 Scott Jordan (Preston G), 23 Steve Collins (Sedgley Park).

CHESHIRE: 15 Charlie Venables (Leeds Met University); 14 Charlie Reed (Macclesfield), 13 Lucas Titherington (Birkenhead Park), 12 Delwyn Jones (Caldy), 11 Ben Jones (Caldy); 10 Tom Morton (Macclesfield), 9 Nick Allsop (Macclesfield); 1 Tom Concu (Caldy), 2 Ted Stagg (Caldy), 3 Derek Salisbury (Caldy), 4 Nick Gray (Caldy), 5 Martin Gerrard (Caldy), 6 Harrison Crowe (Caldy), 7 Josh Longton (Sandbach), 8 JJ Dickinson (Caldy).

16 Mike Barlow (Sandbach), 17 Max Himbury (Exeter University), 18 Andy Baston (Chester), 19 Gareth Caen (Sandbach), 20 Ryan Higginson (Wirral), 21 Tom Burden (Macclesfield), 22 Ross White (Chester).