Open country for title rivals.
The championships return to Branksome School in Darlington on Saturday after an absence of six years, and the senior men's race could well produce a new champion on the testing course set out by Darlington Harriers.
Mark Hood, winner for the past three years, is doubtful due to injury, and with three of the region's leading athletes - Ricky Stevenson, Lewis Timmins and Jonny Taylor - all away representing their country in the European Cross-Country Championships in Dublin, it leaves the way open for a new name to be etched on to the magnificent Wilkinson Sword Trophy.
However, there are past winners among the entries, notably Sunderland's Brian Rushworth and Morpeth's Neil Wilkinson and, though they are classed as vets, a good performance on the day could well ensure an upset.
It's disappointing that Hood will be missing for, with three titles to his name, he had every chance of emulating Rushworth, who won the championship an unprecedented 10 times and to show he is still in good form ran away with the vets race at the recent Gateshead International meeting.
It certainly would be a fairytale if Rushworth, whose last victory came in 2000, could take the leading place on the podium.
And Wilkinson, winner in 2003 and 2004, is also showing encouraging form, having just gained his first Scottish vets international call-up.
Morpeth's Chris Sampson, third in 2006 and runner-up a year later, and teammate Mark Brown, second in 2004 and third the following year, could well be in the shake-up for a medal once more.
But one has to look at the younger element for the likely winner.
Sunderland Harriers would love to think they have not one but two athletes to follow on from Hood and lift the senior crown.
Brothers Patrick and Jack Martin are both in terrific form, though 24-year-old Patrick will be making his seasonal crosscountry debut after producing some eyecatching performances on the road, especially when finishing in second place in the Leeds Abbey Dash against powerful opposition.
Younger sibling Jack, 21, meanwhile, has had two decent runs over the country at both Gateshead and Liverpool and will be accustomed to the muddy conditions expected on Saturday.
Morpeth, who could well be vying with the Wearsiders at the end of the day in the battle for team honours, also have Nick Swinburn in their line-up.
Though the 21-year-old just headed Jack Martin by a matter of a stride or two in Liverpool, if he can return to the form which saw him finish in 11th place in the National Cross-Country Championships at Parliament Hill earlier in the year then he will take some stopping.
It's over 70 years since a Teesside club athlete won the senior men's championship - Darlington's WC Wylie in 1934 - though Teessiders Denis Coates and Dominic Bannister won the championship while representing other clubs, but they have a real opportunity on Saturday. New Marske's Andy Wiles, 21, third behind Hood and Swinburn in last year's championships, was close to joining Stevenson, Timmins and Taylor on the plane for Dublin, missing out by a matter of around 30 seconds or so.
The senior women's championship is also devoid of two previous winners, both of whom are in Dublin for the European Championships.
Freya Murray (Chester-le-Street), winner in 2006 and Sonia Samuels (Sale), champion in 2002 and 2007 are both in the GB team, but last year's champion Mary Ferrier will line up to defend her title.
In atrocious conditions at Wrekenton last year, Ferrier had to shake off the attentions of Gateshead team-mate Charlotte Wickham to take the title and the pair could well be in contention for a repeat showdown.
Durham City's Rosie Smith, a surprise winner in 2005, will be out to show her recent debut at Gateshead in a Scotland vest was just a slight blip and could well be the one to beat again.
Ferrier and Wickham, who was also runner-up in 2007, will also have to ward off a strong challenge from the allconquering Chester-le-Street club, who look certain winners of the team trophy.
Kathryn Foley was second in 1997 and 2003, Claire Simpson was third in 2002 and runner-up in 2004 and Maxine Czarnecka finished third last year, so any one of the trio, plus the likes of Melissa Turner, who has had excellent results on the roads recently, and Tracy Laws could well be the mix at the finish.
George Ogle, chairman of the North Eastern Cross-Country Association, said: "It's certainly good for the region that we have so many athletes in the GB team for the European Championships.
"However, that doesn't mean we won't have an excellent championships ourselves. I'd like to thank Darlington Harriers for all their hard work in putting the championships on and I'm sure we are in for a superb day of cross-country running."
defend his title in Darlington this weekend due to injury
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|Publication:||Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Dec 10, 2009|
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