Cornwall Rugby League make history
Rugby League celebrated its 117th birthday by recording another first for the sport on Wednesday, as Cornwall defeated Devon by 32-24 in the third annual South West County Challenge. It’s the first time any Cornish RL team has recorded a victory, and it came about as the visitors responded better to the first half downpour in Teignmouth, on the Devon coastline.
With five club sides to draw upon, the experienced Devon team was expected to complete a hat-trick of victories against a Cornwall squad largely brought together around this fixture. Indeed, the early omens were good for the home side, as England Lionhearts’ prop Rusty Morris crashed in after just two minutes, and then halfback Billy Stockwell cut though to score on the end of the following set. With Featherstone Rovers player Alex Stevens kicking both conversions, Devon lead 12-0 before Cornwall had touched the ball.
In past seasons, Devon’s early advantage has given them too much of a lead for Cornwall to overturn as their familiarity with the League game increased, but this time around the Cornish side showed they had enough to stay in contention. Loose forward Fotu Latitu, a Tongan-origin player from Saltash, pulled a score back for Cornwall, and although Devon Sharks prop Jon Woodhead scored from close range to push the home team out to 16-4, the visitors in black and gold began to shape their attack around the channels and patterns of Rugby League. Winger Sam Pengelly crossed the line for Cornwall, but was ruled to be offside in gathering Webster’s crossfield kick, and the visitors started to look dangerous in possession.
A bright August day gave way to a clouded and windy night, and on the quarter mark, the heavens opened. In scenes reminiscent of Wembley the previous weekend, it seemed that the average monthly rainfall for the South West fell in a five minute spell. Devon’s expansive game plan fell apart with a series of handling errors, and Cornwall capitalised to the full. Second row Bryan Webb was rewarded for his well-timed, angled running with two tries, both breaks along the left touchline from distance. Dan Hinton’s conversions pulled Cornwall back to a deficit of just two points. Then Hinton himself crossed in the corner from the right centre channel, and Cornwall were ahead for the first time in three years. Just before the interval, Devon replacement Anthony Pinkerton nipped over for an unconverted score, to give the Green machine a slender 20-18 advantage at the break, but for the first time the enthusiastic crown sensed it was ‘game on’ for the Cornish.
Cornwall restored their lead directly from the restart, with Latitu breaking through after an early spell of pressure from Andy Webster’s defence-splitting pass, and Hinton converting. As Devon struggled to contend with the heavy pitch, Cornwall’s league leaders adjusted their game plan effectively. In particular, the key positions were occupied by league players of experience and talent, respectively the Royal Navy and Plymouth Titans hooker Johnny Platt; Somerset Vikings and RN Veterans coach Chris Richards at scrum half; and former University of Gloucestershire stand-off Andy Webster. All three are Cornish-born league players, and the spine of the Cornish side gelled better in the difficult conditions than their Devonian counterparts.
For twenty minutes, the game settled into an attritional battle, but the momentum was with the visitors, and it was Chris Richards who finally capitalised on the build-up of pressure by darting through a dog-legged defence to score, Hinton’s goal pushing Cornwall out to 30-20. Ben Tharme, the Cornish wing, might have extended that advantage, but for an excellent cover-tackle from Devon’s Matt Coldrey, scrambling from the opposite flank to push the Lanuceston player into touch.
Devon frantically searched for an answer, knowing they had strike players all over the park, but increasingly abandoning percentage football as the clock ticked down. A break down the right touchline almost brought a try, but the final pass was ruled forward. Hooker Matt Cuss dragged them back into contention ten minutes from time, with a sharp score close to the ruck, but the conversion was missed. Then Devon conceded a penalty from the restart, and Webster’s boot pushed the margin back out to two scores. Time and again, Devon had opportunities to attack, with loose forward Will Hodgson their most dynamic player, but a forced pass or a strong tackle turned over possession, and the chances came to nothing. Even before the hooter, the Devon squad seemed to realise that their appointed role was to be on the receiving end of an historic first, and when the siren sounded, the Cornish players and their vocal support in the stands celebrated wildly.
Cornwall’s captain, Andy Webster, received the trophy from Martin Roddy MBE. Latitu took the Andy Tyres Trophy as the Man of the Match. One hundred years on from the formation of the short-lived Torquay Northern Union team, and 117 years to the day from the founders’ meeting at The George, a Cornish rugby league side came to the South Devon coast, and left with all the honours.
Cornish team manager, John Beach, was delighted. "This gives us real momentum for developing the game", he said. "We'll be hosting next year's game as holders of the trophy, and we're hoping to get some regular Rugby League played through the summer so we can hold on to the cup". For Devon player-coach Matt Cuss, there was disappointment at the result, but praise for their opponents. "They responded better than we did to the condititions, and deserved their victory. It's a shame to lose a match that matters so much locally, but if it helps to establish the game in Cornwall, we'll fell all the better to take them on and beat them in the years ahead".
For Beach and the Cornwall RL Association, the challenge is to build for next year. There are hopes that Launceston will join the SW Division, in which the five Devon teams currently play, and that the western Cornish players will run a nines series in preparation for next year's County game, which is expected to return to the Cornish Pirates' Mennaye Stadium in Penzance.
South West Counties Challenge Match
Devon 24, Cornwall 32 (Half time 20-18)
at Teignmouth RFC, Devon
Devon 24 Tries: Morris, Stockwell, Woodhead, Pinkerton, Cuss
Goals: Stevens 2
Cornwall 32 Tries: Latitu 2, Webb 2, Hinton, Richards
Goals: Hinton 3, Webster
Devon: Paul Ansell (Plymouth Titans), Matt Coldrey (Exeter Centurions), Alex Stevens (Featherstone Rovers), Glenn Channing (Exmouth Saints), Reece Hopkins (North Devon Raiders); Alex Ford (Exeter Centurions), Billy Stockwell (Plymouth Titans); Russell Morris (Devon Sharks), Matt Cuss (Exmouth Saints), Wayne Broomfield (Exeter Centurions), Chris Courtier (Exmouth Saints), Nigel East (North Devon Raiders), Will Hodgson (Devon Sharks); Bench: Jon Woodhead, Joe Bramley, Anthony Pinkerton (all Devon Sharks_, Dan Shepherd (Plymouth Titans)
Cornwall: Adam McRowan, Ben Tharme, Dan Hinton, Alec Plunkett (Plymouth Titans), Sam Pengelly (Plymouth Titans); Andy Webster, Chris Richards (Somerset Vikings); Albert Hall, Johnny Platt (Plymouth Titans), Aaron Tharme, Bryan Webb, Laurence Belt, Fotu Latitu (Somerset Vikings); Bench: Alex Dean, Guy Pallett, Rob Macintyre, Darren Horne (Somerset Vikings).
Referee: Andy Bickle (Plymouth).
Assistants: Clinton Mill (Newton Abbot), Charlie Bramald (Exeter)