Kent 39 Lancashire 37
An incredible game, and a fitting climax to rugby union’s oldest domestic competition, which sees Kent crowned National County Champions for the first time since 1927.
On a fine afternoon at Twickenham, the two counties, who had both gone unbeaten in their respective pools to reach the final, produced a total of twelve tries, the balance in favour of 25-times champions Lancashire, but the result would hinge on the goal-kicking of the two fly-halves.
With three minutes remaining, and the scores level, Kent had launched a sweeping move up field which saw Westcombe Park back-row Rafael Dutta cross out wide on the left to give his side the lead for the first time since the opening quarter, Sam Evans, who’d already had four successful strikes from five attempts, stepping up and coolly adding the all-important conversion.
Lancashire pressed hard in the dying stages and created the space for right-wing Rhys Henderson to glide over in the final play, but Fylde’s Greg Smith saw his conversion attempt, just a couple of metres in from the right touchline, fade to the left of the uprights, and Kent could begin celebrating.
It wasn’t heading that way at half-time. Lancashire dominated the opening period, scoring five of their seven tries for a 27-10 lead, and had it not been for some narrowly missed conversions (the unfortunate Smith saw three of his conversions hit the woodwork during the game) the Northerners might well have been out of sight.
With their scrum sending Kent backwards on two occasions, and their pace and movement persistently getting them over the gain-line, tries from front-rows Dan Rylance and Ben Gregory got them underway. Tom Grimes followed, the wing finishing a great effort from deep, and blind-side Toby Harrison added another after being put through by Fylde colleague Connor Wilkinson’s inside ball, all in the space of 14 minutes mid-half, to put Lancashire 20-3 ahead, Evans’ early penalty Kent’s only response.
Just as the Lancastrians threatened to run riot, a far more solid Kent scrum saw Evans set Matt Harrison on a run, the Westcombe Park centre releasing Canterbury wing Alfie Orris across in the left corner for a converted try, but only a brief interruption to the flow, as a neat pass from Lancashire number-eight David Fairbrother sent Wilkinson across, restoring the red rose county’s 17-point advantage into the break.
However, a different Kent emerged for the second period, and within eight minutes of the re-start they were back on level terms.
As the backs found pace and cut lines into the Lancashire defence, and the impressive Keita Orelaja went close, Kent won a five-metre scrum, and in a complete reversal, and with Danny Herriott magnificent at tight-head, dismantled the Lancashire set-piece to be awarded a penalty try.
Bryan Hotston broke from full-back to send Toby Wallace across, Evans adding the conversion and a penalty moments later for parity.
Lancashire struck back quickly as skipper and loose-head Dan Birchall barrelled over from close-range, but the northern county conceded their second yellow card of the period, and from a tap-penalty, Nick Cook stretched out one-handed to touch-down and level the tie once more.
The match remained on a knife-edge at 32-32 for 20 minutes, with Kent producing some desperate defence, until Evans sent Reece Conlon charging into the Lancashire twenty-two, and Orelaja found Dutta on his outside to score.
‘We kicked too much ball away in the first period, but once we decided to use the real talent in our team, and go through the hands, as they had done, you saw the difference and we started to get a lot of joy,’ said Canterbury and Kent captain Jamie Stephens.
‘Evans’ contribution has been massive. You need a high percentage goal-kicker, and he’s been spot-on from the tee, not just today, but throughout the whole competition.’
‘Kent’s a huge rugby county, and getting the honours puts us on a pedestal with all the other big counties,’ he continued. ‘There’s a lot of talent out there, and let’s hope it inspires younger players to come and do this as well, and create the environment where everyone wants to get to Twickenham every year.
Tries: Orris 35, Penalty try 43, Wallace 45, Cook 57, Dutta 77
Conv: Evans 35, 45, 77
Pens: Evans 3, 48
Tries: Rylance 18, Gregory 25, Grimes 28, Harrison 32, Wilkinson 40, Birchall 50, Henderson 80
Conv: Smith 40
Report by Graham Cox
Photos by Ian Carter