Rugby union's County Championship under threat as Lancashire's former Fylde coach Mark Nelson stresses its vital role
It will be a month of May like none before for the players of Fylde RFC,who are looking forward to friendlies against Blackburn Rugby Club when they would normally be anticipating a County Championship campaign with Lancashire and a possible Twickenham final.
Whether this traditional end-of-season competition will return in 2022, having fallen victim to the pandemic this year and last, remains to be seen after the Rugby Football Union instigated a thorough review of the County Championship which could - in the most extreme scenario - see it scrapped after more than 130 years.
After a survey among players, clubs, coaches, officials and volunteers into the senior men's, women's and under-20 County Championships, the Community Game Board has assembled an independent review panel to hold further discussions and produce a report by October.
Nowhere is the County Championship held in higher regard than Lancashire, who have won the senior men's title 25 times, more than any other county, and contested 13 of the 16 Twickenham finals from 2003-18, winning nine of them. It is perhaps no surprise that the men's and women's trophies the counties are competing for both bear the names of Lancastians, Sir Bill Beaumont and Gill Burns.
And the concept has no more passionate advocate than Mark Nelson, the head coach of Lancashire.
Nelson is also a former head coach at Fylde - Lancashire's highest-ranked club which regularly supplies the core of the Red Rose squad and stages County Championship fixtures.
And Nelson's feelings are in no doubt. He told The Gazette: "All options are on the table, including getting rid of the championship, or they may come up with a watered down version.
" I've submitted my own proposals, as have Lancashire, looking at all aspects and options going forward.
My view is that it is the most important competition in representative rugby outside internationals. It gives players the opportunity to play at a higher level and on the biggest stage, and to me that is pivotal.
"In the men's senior competition there may be mileage in a different group structure but I don't think we can move away from each county playing three games."
The Community Game Board acknowledges that the tournament has been a mainstay and highlight of the calendar since 1889 but says it must consider " whether it provides a strong pathway for players, men and women, into higher levels of the game."
Nelson responded: "You have to determine what player pathway you are talking about because not every player's road leads to the professional game. The pathway can lead in many directions.
"Jonny May and Kieran Brookes are two who played in the County Championship and have gone on to play for England. The stronger the base of the pyramid, the stronger the top."
Two issues which could be central to the survey are the costs of staging the finals at Twickenham and concerns over player welfare in the 'community game', with the season extended to nine months for those involved in the championships.
On those matters, Nelson argued: "I would say that playing at Twickenham is a fundamental part of the County Championshp because players outside the professional game would not otherwise have the opportunity to play there.
"There is no conflict between club and county. The two can work together because theCounty Championship takes place after the club season. And there will be four fewer league games for players at Fylde's level after the restructure next year.
"And the County Championship is completely voluntary. The players are not paid a penny. It is up to them whether they take up the option to play if they are invited to represent their county."
It's now a case of waiting six months for an outcome but Nelson is optimistic. "From my own dealings with the committee, I think they are very open to listening and they appreciate the value of the County Championships.
" I'm certain that within the review group there is an open mind and no pre-set agenda. And I hope that the groundswell of opinion from the game will ensure a bright future for the County Championship in all its forms."
Thanks for reading. If you value what we do and are able to support us, a digital subscription is just £1 for your first month. Try us today by clicking here