A BLISTERING anchor-leg run by fast-rising middle-distance star Nick McCormick again saved the day for defending champions Morpeth Harriers in the National Cross Country Relays at Mansfield.

Last year the exciting Tynesider signalled his emergence as an athlete of immense potential by hoisting his team from fourth to first place as fourth leg runner with the third fastest time of the day. This time he did even better - taking over in what looked like a hopeless sixth place but again overhauling all the leading runners to retain the trophy for the Northumbrians.

McCormick, who guaranteed himself Commonwealth Games selection by winning this summer's 1500m trial, beating Commonwealth Games champion Michael East, was in scintillating form after returning from warm weather training in Portugal.

Under the watchful eye of his coach, Lindsay Dunn, McCormick flew round the five-kilometre course in 14 minutes 21 seconds, to go top of the fastest times and beating highly-rated Great Britain international Mo Farah by eight seconds in the process.

Morpeth needed something special at Berry Hill Park after what might have been a disastrous run by double North-East cross country champion Neil Wilkinson, who slipped to 17th place after Mike Morris had opened in eighth. World Cross country championships international Ian Hudspith clawed back some of the lost ground by finishing sixth on the penultimate leg, but McCormick appeared to face an impossible task, starting 44 seconds behind leaders Altrincham.

But the 25-year-old Hexham-based runner gradually picked off the men in front of him, and as Altrincham faded to third place he scorched into the lead, beating Aldershot's fourth runner by an emphatic 25 seconds.

Now McCormick will stay off the country as he prepares for Melbourne in March, concentrating his efforts on road races and the indoor circuit before travelling to Australia.

Gateshead's Ross Murray had his moment of glory in the under-15 boys' race, moving from sixth to first on the second leg before the Tynesiders slipped back to seventh.

Chester-le-Street women's team, still without their two top runners, improved on their 17th placing last year by finishing seventh, with anchor-leg runner Sarah Wilkinson gaining two places.

l Tyneside middle distance specialist Steven Horn used his track speed over the final 600m to win yesterday's Heaton Harriers Memorial 10K on Newcastle Town Moor.

The Elswick Harrier clocked 32 mins 40 secs, beating Alnwick's David Kirkland by ten seconds, with Darlington veteran Martin Grainger a further 11 seconds away in third place.

The women's race was won by Morpeth Harrier Kate Chapman in 38 mins 10 secs, 28 seconds ahead of Jarrow's Angela Hunter, with unattached runner Caroline Freeman third in 41.08.