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12
MAY

LANCASHIRE coach Mark Nelson is confident that his players will be able to deliver the same unique spirit and enthusiasm which marked their opening game when they take the second step in their defence of the Bill Beaumont Cup against Northumberland at Percy Park on Saturday (May 15, 2010, 3pm).

While all the players involved are at the end of a long league season, Nelson believes that the County Championship promotes a new zest in players and that the opening game against Cheshire at Fylde last weekend underlined the strength of the enthusiasm for the competition.

"I spoke to a few players afterwards and they agreed with me that the intensity and passion of the game was more than you get in league matches," says Nelson: "We still have the post-match meal formalities and at that the Lancashire lads were absolutely elated, the Cheshire team were devastated and both set were completely shot at.

"A lot of the players spoke of the intensity in the game. The received wisdom these days is that players have to be paid to perform, but I think that the pride which comes from being selected to play for a representative team among their peers after coming through the county system is a more potent force.

"When they pull on the Lancashire shirt they take notice of the instruction to leave behind the baggage of their league season and enjoy the county campaign for what it is. The obvious effort the players put in completely validates the County Championship.

"Any move to take away or water down the County Championship takes away the sense of what rugby is to players, coaches, administrators and county people.

"The County Championship is unique in providing that experience for players and the RFU need to apply a great deal of thought as to how it is maintained because at a time when the game is focused on its core values, the County game embraces them perfectly."

Confirmation of Nelson's assertions come in the shape of the Lancashire team to travel to Percy Park on Saturday, with Kieron Brookes (Newcastle Falcons), Martin Halsall (Sale Sharks) and Rob O'Donnell (Sale Sharks) all back from Guinness Premiership duty to rejoin the Red Rose squad.

Northumberland go into the game boosted by the availability of their Blaydon contingent which contains No 8 Jason Smithson, hooker Mattie Hall and flanker Mark Wilson, but lacking flanker Grant Rastall, who has decided that he needs to rest after a heavy season.

Prop John Williams may also be ruled out by a neck injury and his getting medical advise.

A ticklish issue for the selectors is the choice between hookers Joe Graham and Hall, who are both in the frame for England Counties XV selection.

"We should have won comfortably last week, but we wasted some good chances that were there for the taking," says Chairman of Selectors Willie Allen: "Tom (Borthwick) wasn't a happy chap last week, but the Blaydon lads give us a wider base to choose from and we've had one good session already this week.

Cheshire earned nothing but praise from Team Manager David Partington after their heroic efforts against Lancashire last week and they also go into Saturday's game against Yorkshire strengthened by the return of Caldy players who were unavailable at Fylde.

"It was extraordinary that we could put a team together from 12 different clubs and see them produce the kind of performance they gave." said Partington: "We had massive selection problems because clubs were unable to give us their players, but that lads who came in were fantastic. In fact that lads who come in this week will have to do really well to justify their spot.

"We've had a truly representative side, with players from all over Cheshire, and they've all done tremendously well. We had one front-row player involved - James Whitlock - who hadn't played for four months, so where he dug his performance from I can't imagine.

"This week we have a good mix, with some of the players who did so well last week keeping their places and some of the more senior players coming in. My abiding memories of last week are of pride in the way the team played and frustration that they didn't get the result they deserved. Hopefully they can repeat the performance and get the right conclusion on Saturday."

Yorkshire could be without six of the side which snatched victory over Northumberland in stoppage time last week for their game against Cheshire at Macclesfield on Saturday.

Injury makes Otley flanker a doubtful starter, while skipper Dan Cook, full-back Jon Feeley, scrum-half Jonny West, No 8 Jon Skurr and flanker Rob Devonshire are all unavailable and need to be replaced from the 45-man squad chosen for the Championship.

Two players coming into contention at seasoned flanker Neil Spence (Hull) and Caldy utility back Richard Vasey.

"We gave a typically rusty opening performance last week at Tynedale," said Team Manager Graham Siswick: "We didn't get into our stride until the second-half and were 19-5 down at one point, but we scored five good tries and improved a good deal after the interval. With so many clubs represented, eight players on debut and only one training session, it was probably not such a surprise."

Durham were another side who suffered at the death last weekend when they were beaten by a point against North Midlands in Division Two of the Bill Beaumont Cup, a storming rearguard action ending in a disappointing 26-25 defeat.

On Saturday they have home advantage against Warwickshire, who have made five changes for their trip to Gateshead.

Leicester Lions full-back Gareth Collins, Rugby Lions winger Jeff Gregson, Earlsdon centre Steve Clarke, Broadstreet tight-head prop Neil Tatlow and Rugby Lions lock Andrew Weaver come into the side that beat Eastern Counties 24-8 last week, so the Midlanders will be in optimistic mood.

However, Durham shows plenty of character at Stourbridge to rally from a 26-6 deficit and on home turf, that kind of spirit is bound to stand them in good stead.

Cumbria came through their opening County Championship Shield tie against Staffordshire relatively intact, the only absentee from the starting line-up against Notts, Lincs & Derby at Mansfield RFC being Workington centre Martin Armstrong, who was replaced by Gavin Cartmel last week when he was injured.

"I understand Penrith fly-half Steve Wood may come into the frame, but he'll have to prove his fitness after hamstring trouble," says Team Manager Mark Richardson: "Otherwise we'll be looking to go with the squad that did so well last weekend.

"We're expecting a tough game, but Staffordshire told us that they had lost the game rather than the Three Counties winning it on the opening day because they had lost their concentration in the closing stages. That's something we'll be working on and hopefully we can deliver another good display."

Bill Beaumont Cup

May 8: North Division One - Northumberland 26 Yorkshire 31 (at Tynedale RFC), Lancashire 37 Cheshire 27 (at Fylde RFC). South Division One - Cornwall 17 Devon 31 (at Cambourne RFC), Gloucestershire 26 Hertfordshire 3 (at Lydney RFC). North Division Two - Warwickshire 24 Eastern Counties 8 (at Coventry RFC), North Midlands 26 Durham 25 (at Stourbridge). South Division Two - Middlesex 18 Somerset 35 (at Staines RFC), Hampshire 15 Kent 55 (at Havant RFC).

May 15: North Division One - Northumberland v Lancashire (at Percy Park RFC, 3pm), Cheshire v Yorkshire (at Macclesfield RFC, 3pm). South Division One - Devon v Gloucestershire (at Plymouth Albion RFC, 3pm), Hertfordshire v Cornwall (at Hertford RFC, 3pm). North Division Two - North Midlands v Eastern Counties (at Stourbridge RFC, 3pm), Durham v Warwickshire (at Gateshead RFC, 3pm). South Division Two - Somerset v Kent (Taunton RFC, 3pm), Middlesex v Hampshire (at Staines RFC, 3pm).

May 22: North Division One - Cheshire v Northumberland (at Chester RFC, 3pm), Yorkshire v Lancashire (at Huddersfield RFC, 3pm). South Division One - Hertfordshire v Devon (at Old Albanians, 3pm), Cornwall v Gloucestershire (at Redruth RFC, 3pm). North Division Two - Eastern Counties v Durham (at Sudbury RFC, 3pm), Warwickshire v North Midlands (at Rugby Lions RFC, 3pm). South Division Two - Hampshire v Somerset (at Basingstoke RFC, 3pm), Kent v Middlesex (at Folkestone RFC, 3pm).

May 29: Division Two Plate final - Winners of South Division Two v Winners of North Division Two.

May 30: Cup final: Winners of North Division One v Winners of South Division One at Twickenham

County Championship Shield

May 1: Pool 1 - East Midlands 15 Oxfordshire 54, Leicestershire 43 Essex 19; Pool 2 - Staffordshire 20 Notts, Lincs & Derby 28; Pool 3 - Dorset & Wilts 31 Buckinghamshire 6, Berkshire 28 Sussex 20.

May 8: Pool 1 - Leicestershire 33 Oxfordshire 12 at Market Harborough RFC, Essex 32 East Midlands 24 (at Barking RFC).Pool 2 - Cumbria 42 Staffordshire 10 (at Penrith RFC).

Pool 3 - Dorset & Wilts 48 Berkshire 10 (at Swanage & Wareham RFC), Buckinghamshire 24 Sussex 22 (at Aylesbury RFC).

May 15: Pool 1 - East Midlands v Leicestershire (at Peterborough RFC, 3pm), Oxfordshire v Essex (at Chinnor RFC, 3pm). Pool 2 - Notts, Lincs & Derby v Cumbria (at Mansfield RFC, 3pm. Pool 3 - Sussex v Dorset & Wilts (at Lewes RFC 3pm), Buckingham v Berkshire (at Marlow RFC, 3pm).

May 22: Shield Semi-finals - Pools 1 & 3 have home advantage

May 30: Shield Final at Twickenham

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