The BARLA National Cup Final, which is back at its spiritual home of Blackpool – or more precisely in 2015, Fylde – promises to be classic.
The match, on Sunday (17 May) involves holders Sharlston Rovers – who are extending their own record of successive appearances in the decider to five – and Cumbria’s Egremont Rangers, whose sole previous experience of the amateur game’s red-letter day was back in 1990.
Whether that greater experience of the National Cup Final will benefit Sharlston remains to be seen. The Wakefield outfit have lost several players in recent months and, after having left the Pennine League for the summer-based Yorkshire Men’s League, are successfully rebuilding under the greatly-experienced head coach Gordy Long.
Rovers go into the final as unbeaten leaders of the YML’s Premier Division and Long said: “It’s been a tough year. We’ve lost quite a few players, with several retiring and such as Ian Jackson, Dean Gamble, Danny Glassell, Scott Glassell, and Matty Johnson joining Featherstone Lions.
“Our determination to maintain a second team in recent years under coach Johnny Bretherton has, however, paid off. Lads whose hearts have been in Sharlston, but whose opportunities were perhaps previously limited, have blossomed with regular first-team football. One of those, centre Richard Hatfield, is our top try-scorer and Josh Beecher has emerged from the shadow of his brother Luke to really make his mark.
“On top of that, the likes of Carl Savile and Jonny Waddle have returned to the club following our switch to summer, having previously become disillusioned with rugby in the Pennine League, particularly when the Premier Division was reduced to five or six teams.”
Arguably the toughest challenge Sharlston have faced en route to the final was in the first round, when Fryston were beaten 20-18 at home.
The Warriors had, the previous week, piled up a half-century of points against Rovers in a league fixture, but Sharlston turned the tables in style.
“Our players showed a great attitude, and real commitment, in the build-up to that tie,” reflected Long. “The National Cup means a great deal to Sharlston Rovers and our lads trained well during the week and really rose to the occasion on the Saturday.
“We’ve not had it easy in subsequent rounds, either, with Brighouse Rangers, Dewsbury Moor and Upton all testing us, but an appearance in the final is due reward for the hard work and loyalty of our squad.
“I’ve picked up quite a lot of information about Egremont, and we’re ready for the challenge.” Rangers coach Gary Charlton, meanwhile, admitted that he knows little about Sharlston.
Egremont are in the Premier Division of the Kingstone Press National Conference League, which does not allow league games to be postponed because of cup-ties, and he said: “We’re a young side, capable of playing some good rugby even if there are times when some of our inexperienced lads might try to score in every set.
“I don’t know much about Sharlston, but if conditions are dry I expect us to mount a real challenge.”
He admitted: “We approached the National Cup, initially, as a pre-season competition ahead of the National Conference League and Cumbria Men’s League campaigns, with a mix of players from our first and second teams.
“When we got to the semi-final stage, though, we opted as a club to focus on the National Cup, which remains one of the most important competitions in the amateur game. So we sent our first team to Widnes St Marie’s for our semi-final, with fringe players and our `A’ team representing us in the league game at Lock Lane.
“It was a big decision to make, but you don’t get many chances to play in a National Cup semi-final and the opportunity couldn’t be wasted.”
As a former Egremont player, Charlton is as aware as anyone of the importance of the National Cup. He played for Rangers in the mid-80s, prior to signing for Australian side Gold Coast in 1988, thereby missing out on Egremont’s National Cup success over Saddleworth in 1990.
He keeps in touch with many of that side, however, and said: “We’ll be giving it our best shot on Sunday, although we do have an issue to resolve as the NCL won’t allow us to postpone our home game with Oulton Raiders the previous day.
“Whatever the result, our young side is heading in the right direction. And it’s great that experienced players such as Rhys Davies, Kieran Glenn and Ben Walker are getting the chance to appear on the major stage.”