Sink or swim for Pirates
Tom Hamilton
May 23, 2012
Rob Cook has been at the forefront of everything the Pirates have done well © Brian Tempest

The Cornish Pirates will go into their final of the play-offs against London Welsh looking to secure the RFU Championship title but unlike their opponents, there is no chance of them obtaining promotion to the Aviva Premiership. Last week's vote by the Cornwall Council to not lend any financial assistance to the development of a new 10,000 capacity stadium has potentially put the final nail in the coffin regarding any hope of promotion for the Pirates in the future.

While they have the lifeline of a cabinet within the council potentially overturning the decision on June 20, the Pirates are staring down the barrel of Championship rugby for the foreseeable future. With the vote concerning whether they would inject £10m of public money into the £24m development proposed, Cornwall came within touching distance of getting the stadium the region deserves and economically needs.

The Pirates' own stadium is woefully inadequate with a capacity of just 4,000 but that does not put off the club's loyal fan base who packs out the Mennaye Field whenever the Pirates are in town. It is a hotbed of rugby talent with the likes of Olly Barkley and Phil Vickery hailing from its picturesque shores but any hopes of retaining that calibre of talent within the county look to be quickly decreasing.

At the top of the Pirates pyramid is owner Dicky Evans. While the club is not making any comment on last Tuesday's decision by the council, Evans was forthright in his views through a statement on the Pirates' website where he laid down the hard-hitting reality of the decision.

"Will the last person to leave Cornwall please put the lights out," Evans said. "Leave the people enjoying this moment of our depression in the dark because they have no plans to improve Cornwall so they won't need lights."

The Pirates' head coach Ian Davies went one step further and made the assertion to The Rugby Paper that: "I think you could see the end of the Pirates in the next 12-24 months. Our benefactor, Dicky Evans, is incredibly frustrated at the moment as you saw by his statement. If he can't achieve his number one goal of getting the Pirates into the Premiership then I don't know if he will continue."

The risk now for the Pirates is that they will continually be used as a stepping stone to the Premiership for ambitious players. Harlequins centre Matt Hopper used the Championship to showcase his array of skills and has made a substantial impact for the Premiership finalists this term. While this is not necessarily a bad thing for English rugby in general, it must be immensely frustrating for the Pirates to lose their talent.

There's even a chance that supporters of the club will lose their side. One option for the Pirates would be a ground-share - as London Welsh plan to do should they win the title and promotion - if they are to really push for a spot in the Premiership. However, the closest suitable ground that falls in line with the necessary criteria is Plymouth Argyle's Home Park or one of the two Bristol clubs - roughly 190 miles away from their Penzance base.

Speculation aside, one of the best adverts for the Pirates' case for a new stadium is their form on the field. After dispatching promotion favourites Bristol in the Championship semi-finals, they made their second final in as many years. At the forefront of the Pirates' charge has been fullback Rob Cook - perhaps the best player you've never heard of.

Cook re-signed with the Pirates last month despite rumoured interest from the Premiership. He has a unique kicking style which has been compared to a chicken laying an egg and for him it was an easy option to commit his immediate future to the Penzance-based side and was keen to highlight the impact the fans have on the side. "The supporters down here are fantastic. I know Bristol have claimed the past that they have a 16th man in their crowd, but ours rival them every time we play," Cook told ESPN. "Even when we go away we sometimes have more supporters than the home fans.

"Regarding rumours linking me with the Premiership, I'm not sure where they came from. I'm happy down here and it's a great club and I'm well looked after. It's great in the summer when you finish training and you're only 10 minutes away from the beach."

The Cornish Pirates' Mennaye Stadium, Penzance, May 11, 2011
The Pirates' Mennaye Stadium - deemed inadequate for the Premiership © Getty Images

His focus will now be solely on tonight's game and while they do not have the carrot of promotion on offer, it is not detracting from their desire to put the most monumental spanner in the works for London Welsh and their own dreams of Premiership rugby.

"They're a very physical side and they're strong at the breakdown. They have some key individuals in the backs who can put some pace onto the ball and run some good lines.

"We always have good games against them and we're looking forward to it. Regardless of the whole promotion issue, we just want to win the final. Last year we were just happy to be there but this year, when we won the semi-final we were focused solely on beating London Welsh. The boys want to win it and fair play if they [Welsh] can go up but we want to stop them."

Players like Cook deserve to have that dream of Premiership rugby kept intact. This is not some Mourad Boudjellal paint-by-numbers rugby team, it is one forged in Cornwall with the goal of competing with the relative economic superpowers of London's Saracens and Manchester's Sale Sharks.

A move away from the region would defeat the point of the Pirates; they are a team with the values of Cornwall engrained in its DNA. Prior to the council's decision last Tuesday, Josh Lewsey penned a letter in support of the proposed stadium and it is his words that perhaps best sum up the need for the council's cabinet to overturn the decision on June 20.

He states that if a stadium was to be build then "it can also create jobs, boost an economy, provide community benefits and most significantly give this wonderful county something to get behind - a true identity!" So with a petition already having nearly 20,000 signatures calling for the decision to be overturned, there is still hope that the Pirates will not sink and will instead secure the ground they and the county require.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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