As in last season’s County Championship Final, Lancashire proved their will to win with a fine last 20 minutes at Twickenham to overcome a game Hertfordshire squad. Down by 16-17 in the 65th minute and with their attack struggling to put coherent moves together, it looked as though they would fall short of earning their 25th victory in the long history of the competition.
Brilliant late tries by Anthony Bingham and Steve Collins turned the game on its head. A final score of 32-16 to the Red Rose county was rather flattering but they showed their killer instinct under great pressure. Once again, flyhalf Chris Johnson gave an exemplary demonstration of goal kicking and ended with a personal haul of 22 points.
An early penalty by Hertfordshire fullback, and former Lancashire & Preston Grasshoppers favourite, Sean Taylor, was soon equalled by Johnson’s penalty. Lancashire gave away a few penalties and Hertfordshire profited when winger Elliott Byfield scored a good try in the corner. Taylor was unable to add the extras but his side were 3-8 up.
The battles at the tackle breakdown were fierce and both sides were adjudged to have offended on a number of occasions. Chris Johnson edged Lancashire in front with a dropped goal in the 17th minute and then five minutes later kicking a penalty for a 9-8 lead.
Compared with their three group games in which they averaged 60 points, Lancashire found it much harder to break free and launch their dangerous backline against a stern and well organised Hertfordshire defence. Scrums and lineouts were evenly competed and the game developed into a midfield slog. Each team had periods of good ball retention before spoiling it with handling or kicking errors.
Just before half-time, Johnson kicked another penalty to give his side a four point lead. This looked inconclusive and there was no doubt that Hertfordshire would increase their intensity after the interval.
The 2nd half started in much the same way as the 1st had ended. In the 55th minute a long Hertfordshire kick sailed deep into Lancashire territory. Scott Armstrong caught it and passed to an under pressure Lewis Allen who was buried by a couple of tacklers. Winger Elliott Byfield wrestled the ball free and drove over for his second try. Taylor was once again unable to add the conversion but Hertfordshire had the narrowest of leads at 12-13.
Lancashire had adopted pragmatic tactics throughout and when in the 62nd minute a Hertfordshire player transgressed, Johnson had no doubts about kicking the consequential penalty to once again edge in front.
Summing up the close ‘to and fro’ flow of the game, in the 66th minute a high Lancashire tackle gave Sean Taylor the chance to regain the lead – and he nailed the kick well for a 15-16 lead.
Early injuries to Dan Birchall and later to lock Bob Birtwell had brought replacements Peter Altham and Reece Tomlinson into the action. In the final quarter the other replacements – Steve Collins, Adam Aigbokhae, Danny Mather and Connor Wilkinson – were introduced and they made a major late contribution.
In the 70th minute Lancashire launched a backs move down their left. Connor Wilkinson made a half break and the ball reached Peter Altham who shipped it on immediately to Anthony Bingham. The speedy winger raced clear along the touchline, skipped past a tackler and, despite a tap tackle by Taylor, he made the line for a fine try. Bingham likes Twickenham as this was pretty much an identical try to his effort against Cornwall in the 2017 Final. Johnson’s touchline conversion was perfect and his side had at last put a little distance between the two teams with a 22-16 lead. He added a penalty shortly after to extend the lead by more than one score.
The final minute saw the best move of the game as once again Lancashire launched an attack down their left. Wilkinson was involved before a fine burst by flanker Phil Mills created space along the touchline. He found the fast supporting Steve Collins who, with Bingham outside him, dummied the last defender to cut inside and score an excellent team try. Almost inevitably, Chris Johnson converted with a lovely kick which drifted over for a final score of 32-16.
On paper, the scoreline suggests a decisive victory. It was far from that until the final minutes of the game between two evenly matched teams. It wasn’t a classic game as there were too many errors from both sides. However, Lancashire deserved their win in their ninth Final in the last ten years. County rugby may be considered to be marginal in some areas of England but in the North this championship means a lot and is a good way to finish the season outside the drudgery of 30 match league seasons. There was no doubting the joy and pride as skipper Adam Lewis received the Cup from Bill Beaumont and lifted it to the sky!