By Tom Masters
Lancashire and England legend Gill Burns cannot wait for the latest round of the Women’s County Championship matches, as the pool stage of the competition named in her honour reaches crunch time.
With the Division 1 final taking place at Twickenham next Sunday, there is a lot at stake this weekend and Pool 1 contains three teams who could still qualify for a trip to HQ.
Two of them play each other as Lancashire and Yorkshire lock horns in a fascinating Roses clash, while Leicestershire can also reach the Twickenham finale if they beat North Midlands and Yorkshire take down their rivals.
Burns has a particularly close link to Lancashire, who currently lead the group by five points, as both a former player and the president of the county from 2019 to 2022, and is acutely aware of what playing for your county means to players.
She said: “To use the Southern Hemisphere State of Origin term, to play for your local county, to play for your historical rugby county, is huge.
— Lancashire RFU (@lancashirerugby) May 19, 2023
“It's something that you feel in your heart. You want to play with those local rivals who you've faced as opposition time and time again at clubs, to now actually play on the same side is brilliant, to play rugby at a slightly higher standard than you've played for your club and to enjoy rivalries with other counties.
“It's really, really special and I hope that everybody enjoys it half as much as I did and that the County Championship will continue to go from strength to strength.
“Lancashire v Yorkshire is the fiercest game I know when it comes to rivalries, it always will be, but also respectfully and I still have close friends from opponents I played against at Yorkshire. It's all to play for this weekend for both the men and the women with the big Lancashire v Yorkshire games on Saturday and Sunday - there’s huge excitement, and it should be a good weekend.”
In Division 1 Pool 2, Surrey travel to Buckinghamshire in a winner-takes-all clash at Beaconsfield RFC, while there are seven other matches across the country in Divisions 2 and 3.
Essex and Sussex are looking for their first wins in Division 2 Pool 2 on Saturday, while unbeaten duo Kent and Hampshire go head-to-head on Sunday.
In Pool 1, Durham and Cheshire are also both unbeaten and face each other in another crunch clash which will see the winners end top of the group.
This Sunday 21st May 2023 14:00pm
The Clash of the Roses - the North Decider@yorkshire_rfu Women's County team are away at @LSH_Rugby against @lancashirerugby in the @rfu Gill Burns County Championship
Keep an eye out for the teamsheet
Get the support out #ForYorkshire pic.twitter.com/fxit4itGnS
— YorkshireRFU (@yorkshire_rfu) May 19, 2023
Pool 3 sees leaders Eastern Counties host Hertfordshire while second-placed Warwickshire, currently a point off the top, welcome East Midlands.
In Division 3 Pool 1, two sides level on five points battle it out with top spot at stake as Cumbria host Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire & Derbyshire.
Devon have already sewn up Pool 2 and this weekend’s fixture sees Middlesex host Dorset & Wiltshire.
A trailblazer for women’s rugby on both the international and domestic stage, Burns was humbled to have the Women’s County Championship named after her in recognition of her work to set up the first women’s county fixture in the 1990s. The Rugby World Cup winner is also delighted by the surge in popularity and growth of women’s rugby and to see women now playing on an equal footing as men.
“The County Championship is so special - I can remember when I first started playing rugby and went to the men's county championships and watched the rugby being played,” she added.
“To see the passion of players playing with their local rivals [from clubs], on the same team as them, the passion they had for Lancashire, made me want to get involved.
“Just watching the men play and seeing how much it meant to the players and the crowd, and the children there who were watching their fathers play - it just was amazing, so I wanted to get involved and did what I could to help set up the first women’s county game we ever had.
🏆👍Good luck to all the teams taking part in the Bill Beaumont and Gill Burns County Championships this weekend!
👀Ahead of the weekend's action, we spoke to @Waterloonumber8 about her early memories of County rugby, and what the competition means to her⬇️ pic.twitter.com/u3VhFM7T1K
— Rugby Football Union (@RFU) May 19, 2023
“We had a Lancashire v Yorkshire game way back in 1990. That was the first game, so I just wanted to be part of it at the time.
“I often say I'm privileged to have the positions I've had it in rugby and for them to decide to name the cup after me was really humbling – it is a real honour.
“I just like to think that I've done my best for county rugby over the years, county rugby's really, really dear to me and dear to all the people who are involved.”
Burns was also keen to wish all teams luck ahead of this weekend’s fixtures, expressing hopes that they would enjoy playing for their counties as much as she had.
“It's a huge honour to be chosen to represent your county. You do step up and you play with your heart at the forefront and that's what's wonderful about the County Championship.
"Long may players use it as an aspiration for their rugby careers, to look to play for their county and to create some brilliant memories. If they make some of the memories I've been lucky to create over the years, they'll be very, very happy being involved.”
To keep up with the latest Gill Burns and Bill Beaumont County Championship fixtures and results, visit EnglandRugby.com and follow @RFU on Twitter