Lancashire cruised to another Twickenham final with a comfortable-looking victory over Cheshire in the final round of group matches in the Bill Beaumont County Championship.
But head coach Mark Nelson said: “It only looked comfortable because of the quality of our play.
“Cheshire were much more competitive than the other two sides we have beaten. They wanted to spoil our ball and we had to break them down.”
In fact, Cheshire dominated the opening minutes at Fylde and took an early lead with a Ben Jones penalty. But the Red Rose men ran in three tries by the half-hour with Cheshire’s only response being another Jones penalty.
Lock Rob Birtwell got the ball rolling when he surged through a big gap from 20 metres out after flanker Phil Mills had twice been involved in the build-up.
Mills, the former Preston Grasshoppers and Fylde hooker, now settled in the back row at Rossendale, scored the second himself from a quick tap penalty and ex-Fylde winger Anthony Bingham profited from former Ansdell clubmate Chris Johnson’s long pass to touch down the third.
Johnson converted all three but Cheshire showed they had not just come to make up the numbers with a try by scrum-half Nick Allsop after Harrison Crowe’s break.
Jones converted and added another penalty to make it 21-16 to Lancashire, but Bingham won the ball at a restart and, after going close on the right, the hosts got another ex-Fylde man, centre Scott Rawlings, over on the left. Johnson again converted and added an early second-half penalty to ease any Red Rose nerves.
No 8 Tom Ailes and Fylde prop Adam Lewis were having big games – along with Mills and Rawlings – and it was these two, along with Johnson, who created Bingham’s second try. Lewis also had a hand in Lancashire’s sixth, rounded off by Vale of Lune flanker Evan Stewart.
Bingham was soon celebrating his hat-trick after a pinpoint cross-kick by Johnson, before Cheshire briefly stopped the rout with a try by full-back Charlie Venables, converted by Jones.
The last words went to the title-holders, however, with another former Fylde player, half-back Steve Collins, put clear by Rawlings and his brother Gareth, and then, in injury time, Hoppers’ Scott Jordan – on at half-time as a replacement for Vale’s Jordan Dorrington, who injured an ankle – completed the scoring with the ninth try.
Johnson’s conversion gave him 19 points and Lancashire were on their way back to Twickenham for the ninth time in 10 seasons, where next Sunday they will play Hertfordshire, surprise finalists from the southern group after Gloucester slipped up badly.
“We have worked hard to get where we are,” said Nelson, “and it was crucial that we got this group of players to experience Twickenham. We have some superb players and spent three hours choosing this week’s team; it will be just as difficult picking the 22 for the final.”