A Rugby Life

A Rugby Volunteer's Blog

Eastern Counties Leagues 2016/17

12640462_1120266951325385_8878196756175680673_oThe ECRU League fixtures for the coming season have finally been made available so I’ve had a look through to see what changes there are from last season.  Numbers of teams participating have increased from 88 last season to 92 which is very encouraging, although it is worth checking which are the new teams.

There are in fact six teams joining the ECRU leagues as Harwich & Dovercourt have opted to play in Essex 1, having twice missed promotion from EC2 South despite losing just three games and a play off over the past two seasons.  Another year in EC2 South would probably see a number of one-sided games and the likelihood of players joining other clubs with more challenging fixtures so, with Eastern Counties’ blessing, they applied to play in Essex.  The team will have harder opposition but I am sure they will do well having seen them play.  There is also the bonus of a local derby against Clacton and I have already put their first clash in the diary.

Maldon III have done the reverse of Harwich and moved from the Essex Merit Tables to EC4 South.  The team was getting frustrated at the number of call offs by sides based in Greater London and decided that a league with Colchester V, Mersea Island II, Mistley II and Brightlingsea II would see the opposition more likely to travel to them while reducing their own travelling too.  The furthest they will have to go is to play Woodbridge II and Stowmarket III.   A note of caution however as Mersea and Stowmarket struggled to field their second/third teams all last season, but if the opposition can lend players and if the team with a bye each week in this nine-team league can make its players available for other clubs, it could prove to be a rewarding season for all.

North Walsham III, Dereham II and Thetford II are new to EC4 North which has a new format.  The ten-team league is split into two groups of five on a rough East/West basis.  Each team plays the others home and away, then the top three in one group play the top three in the other group twice giving 14 games in total, while the bottom two teams in each group also play each other giving them 12 league games.  This means fewer games than if they played in a traditional format but it means less travelling for most of the season and the likelihood of evenly matched games towards the end of the season, so increasing the chances of most if not all of the games being played.  It is a concern that with three new teams clubs may not have enough players available every Saturday, but with at least two sides not having fixtures most weeks I would hope that players would be prepared to play for other clubs for the sake of getting a game.

11707445_1077907632227984_7010929766629228142_nThe final new teams are Haverhill & District II and West Norfolk III who join EC3 West where West Norfolk they are likely to find travelling a challenge.  There is a prospect of a local fixture with Wisbech II only 15 miles away but the next nearest opponent is Newmarket II and the furthest away is Saffron Walden III with most away games in and around Cambridge.

In the North leagues the rurality of the area coupled with generally poor road links mean that players are used to longer journeys, although this coming season EC3 North isn’t too bad with Beccles II, Southwold II, Lowestoft & Yarmouth II and Gt Yarmouth-Broadland II all vying for East Coast bragging rights. In EC2 North most of the ten clubs are in and around Norwich although the outliers of West Norfolk II, Gt Yarmouth-Broadland II, Diss II and Fakenham II will have a bit of a trek to play each other.

EC3 South has teams spread all over Suffolk and North Essex with most of them having at least one local derby, although Aldeburgh & Thorpeness will have to travel at least 25 miles for every away game.  But I expect the club to do well this season after relegation from EC2 South and motivation to travel is  much higher when you have a winning team.

EC2 North has two distinct clusters; Brightlingsea, Mistley, Mersea Island and Colchester IV in North East Essex, and Stowmarket II, Sudbury II, Ipswich II and Hadleigh in Mid/East Suffolk.  Felixstowe are the exception but at least the A14 gives them reasonably quick access to the other clubs.

I am particularly looking forward to seeing how the EC1 league pans out.  For the first time, non-first teams will be competing in the shape of Bury St Edmunds III and Colchester III and it will be interesting to see how they get on against teams that have ambitions to gain promotion to the London Leagues.

So more teams taking part means that grass roots rugby is growing in Eastern Counties and the structure of the new Eastern Counties leagues, about to start its third season, has had some influence.  Along with relaxed registration rules at lower levels and the message from the CB that it is better to play with reduced numbers than not to play at all, teams are less likely to call off.  I am a little concerned that some of the new teams will struggle for numbers, particularly later in the season when injury start to take their toll, but if players can be encouraged to turn out for other teams when they have a gap week, we can enter an era of inter-club cooperation that may see our game continue to flourish.

Fixtures for all the Eastern Counties Leagues will be on the ECRU website soon at www.ecrurugby.com or you can view them by clicking here

Grand Prix Sevens at Exeter

DSC02380Last weekend I travelled to Exeter for the second round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Sevens.  I am a great fan of sevens for its speed and unpredictability and I have travelled to tournaments in England, Europe and Africa, but the reason I went to the West Country was to meet up with my Belgian friend Jan Coupé.  One of Jan’s sons was playing for Belgium in the tournament although both his boys have represented their country in the past.

Jan is a former President of the Belgian Rugby Union and has recently been re-elected to the Board, so I saw this as an opportunity to talk about the Unity Project where Eastern Counties is working with Belgium to help grow the game.  Things have stalled since our last visit to Brussels in March.

It was my first visit to Sandy Park and I was impressed by the facilities.  It has a capacity of 12,500 and I would say that between 3,000 and 4,000 came to watch on each day of the two-day tournament.  This was a higher number than the previous season and a huge improvement on the year before when the English leg was held at Sale’s ground in Manchester.  There the crowd was in the hundreds rather than thousands.  There were a number of Rugby Europe committee men at Exeter and they were happy that the spectators numbers were growing.

DSCF6001An extra attraction was that this was one of the trial tournaments for the GB Sevens Olympic squad and there were two teams entered, GB Lions and GB Royals, taking the places of the England and Wales teams.  It was difficult to say whether one team was meant to be stronger than the other with England playmakers Tom Mitchell and Dan Bibby with speedsters Dan Norton and Marcus Watson (Anthony’s brother) in the Lions side, but the hugely important James Rodwell was in the Royals squad along with Welshmen Luke Morgan and Luke Treharne.

12 teams were taking part split into three groups of four, so on Day One each team played three games to decide their ranking for the knockout stages.  Both GB sides won all their matches to comfortably reach the quarter finals. Between games I was networking and socialising in equal measure, both activities accompanied by several pints of the very good Otter Bitter which is brewed only a few miles away.

On Day Two I arrived a bit earlier to have a look around the stadium which was well served for bars and had a very well stocked shop with all sorts of paraphernalia with Exeter Chiefs logos.  No doubt this was the reason for the Wild West theme at the Sevens with a number of cowboys and Indians in the crowd and music such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Cotton Eye Joe being played between games.

The main opposition for the GB teams was expected to come from France and Spain, both of whom had qualified as one of 12 countries in the Olympic competition, but it was Russia that proved to be the biggest stumbling block.  The Lions met the Bears in their quarter final and although they had plenty of possession, GP made too many uncharacteristic mistakes and went down 5-7.  This put the Lions in the Plate competition which they won with comfortable victories over Georgia in the semi-final and Germany in the final.

DSC02468The Royals had the reverse fixtures to the Kings playing first Georgia in the quarters before coming up again Russia in the semis.  This was an equally close match but once they had taken the lead, GB closed out the game to win 12-10.   This meant facing France in the final in what proved to be the match of the tournament.  France took an early 12-0 lead but the inspirational Rodwell led the comeback and GP ran out 33-17 winners.

GB coach Simon Amor will have one more tournament next weekend in Gdansk, Poland before he announces the squad that will compete in Rio.

Report from EnglandRugby.com

Pictures from the weekend

Council Member Briefing–June 2016

Briefing picMy latest Council Member Briefing and associated documents can be downloaded in various formats by clicking the link below:

Council Member Briefing – June 2016

This edition includes news about the new Heads of Agreement between the RFU and Premiership clubs.

Toronto, Niagara and Ontario Blues: On tour with England Counties

DSC01917The England Counties squad arrived in Toronto for the last leg on their tour of Canada and it was back to the training and recovery routine.  However on Thursday they had an afternoon excursion to Niagara Falls, about two hours by coach on the other side of Lake Ontario.  This was the first time I had met their eccentric driver Jerry who looked like he was a throwback from the 1970s.  His habit of turning round to look at you when he wanted to talk to you while he was driving was disconcerting to say the least and communication was made more difficult as he was hard of hearing.

We all arrived at the Falls in one piece and disembarked to look at one of the great natural wonders of the world. There are two falls, the American Falls and the Canadian, or Horseshoe, Falls and we all went aboard the Maid of the Mist in our red waterproof ponchos to have a closer look.  The falls are on the Canadian/USA border and boats from the American side had their passengers in blue ponchos, I guess to make sure that they returned to the right country.

The journey did not disappoint as we went through the turbulent waters in the heart of the Horseshoe falls, the ponchos very much needed as we went through the mist caused by the water hitting the lake with such tremendous force.  In all we spent four hours in and around the Falls, definitely one to tick off the bucket list.

Pictures and videos from the trip to the Falls

DSC02013It was a late return to Toronto and the next day the players had their captain’s run and other preparations for Saturday’s game.  Brian and I went exploring in the city which was comfortably the biggest and busiest of those we had visited in Canada with a population of around 2 million.  Situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, Toronto has a group of islands just a short ferry ride away which provide green space and beaches for people to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.  Brian and I went across and spent a peaceful morning wandering around and enjoying the hot weather and sunshine.

The afternoon and evening were spent with my Toronto-based cousin whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years and I invited her to see her first ever rugby match the next day.

Once again game day saw temperatures reach over 30c as we made our way to Fletcher’s Fields, a 50 minute drive from the city centre.  We arrived to find four games in full flow with a further two pitches spare.  I found out that the facility is jointly owned and run by five local clubs and the Ontario Rugby Union who each have one of the six pitches as a ‘home pitch’.  The clubhouse was very big with eight changing rooms, a large bar area and a separate function room, and by having five clubs plus the provincial union based there, a regular bar income during the season is guaranteed, as vital for clubs in Canada as it is in England.

As kick-off approached we went out into the heat of the day and after the anthems were sung we took our seats in the stand.  The Ontario Blues were likely to be the toughest opposition for England Counties but with Canada playing Japan the same day in Vancouver and the national Sevens squad preparing for the Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco, they were shorn of any international players.

DSC02044You can read a match report here, but after daily training sessions and two games in the past two weeks, the Counties players were at the top of their form and they showed it in this game.  The forwards provided fast ball in the set piece and in the loose, the handling was slick and the ball was being taken at pace.  The England tries soon flowed and Ontario had little answer.  Although they had more possession in the second half they came up against a solid defensive wall and it was only a matter of time before the turnover came and England were back to their scoring ways, ultimately winning 73-0.

After the game both teams went into the function room for the post match meal and the usual formalities, and I was once again honoured to present six players with their England Counties caps.  The squad stayed on or the post tour court presided over by captain Keith Laughlin, the details of which will stay private, but as you can imagine there was a lot of beer involved!

Click here for photos from the match

DSC02159Afterwards we all got onto the coach driven by in inimitable Jerry and after brief stop at the hotel we headed for the entertainment district and the bars of Toronto, specifically the Bier Markt.  On the way my cousin asked if the players would be looking for women while they were out and I explained that with a group of tall, fit young men it was more likely that women would find them.  And so it proved and by the time I left there were plenty of young women milling around the squad eager to find out more about these English rugby players.

After dropping my cousin at home Brian and I decided to go for a nightcap and as it was Pride month in the city we decided to visit Church Street, the gay area of the city.  While we sipped our Rye and sodas we watched the most outrageously dressed drag queens totter by and although it was after midnight the area was buzzing.  However it wasn’t really for us so we walked back to our hotel.

Although the squad flew back to London early evening on Sunday, our flight was a couple of hours later so we sent most of the day catching up with my Canadian family before going to Union station to catch the Airport Express.  The Toronto Blue Jays baseball team has been playing a home series against the Baltimore Orioles and as tickets were almost impossible to get (although coach Shanners managed to get to a Friday night game) I had been following them on the TV when I could.  As we reached the station the Blue Jays fans were pouring out of Rogers stadium having narrowly won 10-9 and I was surprised to see quite a few also taking the Airport train.  Then I saw more people and plenty of couples in Blue Jays shirts waiting for planes all to all over Ontario and the East Coast of Canada and the USA.  Sport is obviously taken seriously in North America with supporters happy to travel long distances, and as three or four baseball games are usually played back-to-back fans can stay a few days and make a short holiday of it.

I’d like to say that the flight was uneventful but we were diverted to Reykjavik in Iceland as a passenger became unwell and needed medical attention.  This added 2½ hours to the journey but when I finally got home I could reflect on a successful tour for England Counties and a great trip to a new country for me.

NB. The longer than expected flight the day after the game, combined with jet lag and work commitments has meant that it has taken longer than usual to get this article written and published

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Calgary and the Prairie Wolf Pack

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Once in Calgary in was very much back to business for the England Counties squad.  They were only here for three nights and were expecting a tough game against the Prairie Wolf Pack so it was a recovery session after the coach journey from Kelowna on Sunday, two training sessions on Monday then the captain’s run and the game on Tuesday.  This left them very little time to see much of the city but as they were billeted in a hotel rather than in university accommodation they were happy with the more comfortable surroundings.

I had a lot more free time although I did have a meeting with Larry Jones who is on the Rugby Canada board. We met at a very exclusive golf club and were joined by former Canadian international who also played for Leicester in the late 1990s.  We talked about rugby in Calgary and Alberta, about the city and the forthcoming game.

There are six rugby clubs in Calgary playing at the top level and another five in Edmonton and they play 12 games in the regular season and then play-offs. The season is split in two with the Canadian winter preventing any play from December to April.  This is in contrast to Vancouver in British Columbia who play through the winter as it is much milder in the West.  The Wolf Pack is the provincial team and are the current Canadian champions, but because Canada have fixtures against Japan on 11 June and Russia on the 18th, there would not be any of their internationals playing.

DSC01904We had a look around Calgary and it is obviously a prosperous city, its wealth coming from the oil industry although it has taken a financial hit recently.  There are a lot of high-rise buildings and quite a bit of construction going on, much of it renovations and repairs to existing infrastructure to deal with the growing population which currently stands at 1.2 million.

The big annual event is the Calgary stampede which bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city.  From what I can tell it is essentially a huge rodeo but with loads of other events tagged on such as wagon racing, music festivals, food fairs, etc.  Part of this tradition is a white Stetson hat which is a Calgary symbol.

On game day we went to Calgary Rugby Park for the captain’s run.  The grounds feature five rugby pitches and the show pitch had stands all around.  The club will host Canada v Russia on 18 June and preparations were well under way.  I went into the clubhouse and as usual I had a look at the shields above the bar to see if there were any I recognised.  To my surprise I saw not one but two Eastern Counties shields, one being the centenary shield presented when they toured here in 1991 and another more modern version.  I also saw one from my old school St Benedict’s in Ealing.

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The session over Brian and I headed back for downtown Calgary for something to eat.  This is very much a beef town and we had already sampled some of the range of steaks on offer but with the busy evening in prospect we went for seafood thinking that something lighter would suit us better.

We were back at Calgary Rugby Park at 5pm to take the team photos and talk with some of the people at the club.  One of the first people we met was the chef who we had previously bumped into on our first evening in Calgary.  We were walking in Inglewood, the oldest part of the city, heading for the Blues Can which we were reliably informed played live music every night.  A car pulled up and a man fell out of the back seat looking very much the worse for wear.  Brian was wearing an England polo and when this man stood up he focused on the badge and said “Nice shirt!  What are you guys doing here?”  When we explained that we were here for a game on Tuesday his face lit up and told us that he was doing the food.  He said that he would have joined us for a drink but he had been at a wake and had already had a skinful and he would see us at the game.

The temperature hit 31c and I was glad that I had decided not to go for the blazer and tie as we tried to find a cool spot with a breeze.  Many of the people we spoke to asked about Jason Leonard who had spent a couple of spells playing in Canada.  Before the trip Jason has said not to believe everything people said about him in Calgary but as you would expect he is talked about with enormous warmth. 

About twenty minutes before kick off I started feeling decidedly unwell and it was not through alcohol as I had stuck to water since I had arrived.  I managed to get to the mens room before I was reacquainted with my seafood lunch and that was repeated every ten to fifteen minutes for the next hour or so.  In between these episodes I would go back outside and watch the game and people would come to talk about rugby, Jason Leonard and the game in Canada, but I would have to make a hasty apology and rush back to the mens room.

DSCF3850From what I saw of the match it was a reasonably even affair up to half time.  England made more breaks, often because the Wolf Pack tried to force the game too much and two tries and a penalty saw them take a 17-0 lead before the hosts broke through for a converted try just before the break.  At that time I caught a cab back to my hotel and went to bed, but I kept an eye on the Twitter feed to see the Counties’ progress.  Clearly the floodgates opened in the second half as England scored fifty points in forty minutes to the Wolf Pack’s three and were comfortable 67-10 winners.

You can read the official match report here

I caught up with some of the players the following morning at Calgary airport where we were catching planes to Toronto, albeit at different times.  Most of them were wearing white Stetsons which had been presented too them after the game and they were by all accounts well looked after by the Prairie Wolf Pack and Calgary Rugby in the clubhouse.

Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures during the game, but the team’s local liaison officer was snapping away and has promised to make his pictures available when I will share then too.  Meanwhile I have put the few pictures I have got (with thanks to James Shanahan) and put them into an online folder which you can access by clicking here.

So now on to Toronto and the Ontario Blues on Saturday who will have seen England Counties score over 100 points against their fellow provincial sides.  They will be determined to restore some Canadian pride the end of this tour.

Road trip to Calgary

DSC01816The celebrations after the opening win of the tour meant a couple of sore heads the following morning when we all met up at 10am to board the coach for the 600 mile trip to Calgary.  However we were not going to attempt it in one go and had arranged for an overnight stay in Kelowna, about 250 miles from Vancouver.

The trip was pretty uneventful with most of the squad catching up on sleep after a late night but we were delayed by a traffic jam an hour out of Vancouver, then at our stop in the nondescript town of Merritt, lunch took a lot longer than expected.

We arrived at the town of Kelowna about an hour late so the planned coaching session with a local rugby group had to be scrapped but a touch rugby session was arranged.  While preparations were made we all went to the lakeside beach to make the most of the beautiful sunny weather with temperatures in the high 20s.  Some got changed into swimming trunks and had a dip in the lake, others tried out beach volleyball, but all the players caught the attention of the locals on the beach, particularly the young ladies!

DSC01844Kelowna is a town of about 120,000 people in the Okenagan valley and enjoys a temperate climate with the Coast Mountain region to the West and the Rockies to the East providing shelter from the worst of the elements.  The rugby session was organised by CORE, the Central Okenagan Rugby Enthusiasts (corerugby.com ) whose team of volunteers spend their time promoting rugby for men and women, boys and girls of all ages.  The touch sessions lasted for about an hour before we were invited back to a local club for drinks and a barbecue.

Our hosts were Vicars RFC, so named because their home ground is Priest Fields.  Their clubhouse is basic but it has the essentials of a club room, a bar and a kitchen.  It also has a deck area where we could all enjoy the balmy evening sun.  The players were staying at University accommodation and would continue their journey by road in the morning, but Brian and I had booked into a hotel by the lake and would fly to Calgary.  We accepted the offer of a lift to the hotel from Vicars President Frank Byl who told us about the area.  He has lived there for 25 years and as we were in no hurry we were happy to go back to his lakeside home where a group of his friends were having a few drinks on his veranda.

The view over the lake was wonderful and over a couple of beers we heard about the sailing and fishing on offer and the general high quality of life that living in Kelowna offered.  I have to say that it all seemed idyllic; even the winter temperatures rarely get below zero.

DSC01886We eventually had to leave and checked into our hotel about 10, but when we tried to find a bar downtown for a final drink, we struggled to find anywhere that was open so we retired for the night.  Clearly there are some downsides to life there.

The players drove through the Rockies the next day and there are some spectacular photographs on individual Facebook pages.  Meanwhile, we spent the morning soaking up the sun by the pool before taking our flight over the mountains with views that were equally dramatic.

Now everyone is in Calgary, the players continuing to train hard for their game against the Prairie Wolfpack on Tuesday evening, an opposition that promises to be a tougher proposition than the BC Bears. 

Pictures from the day

Game 1: BC Bears v England Counties

DSC01648After three days of training, game day dawned the squad boarded a coach to take them over the bridge to North Vancouver for the captain’s run.  The venue was Klahanie Park, home of Capilano Rugby Club, surrounded by trees and with a nice clubhouse that most clubs in England would be very happy with.  A storm a week earlier had left the pitch underwater but it had recovered in time although there were still some patchy areas.

Coach Shanahan put the players through their paces practising kick-offs and other set pieces and once he was satisfied that the squad were ready it was back to the University for final preparations.  Meanwhile Brian and I went downtown for a final wander around the city centre and went to Steamworks for lunch which brews it own beer.  After sampling some stouts, pilsners and West Coast IPAs it was back to the hotel to change and meet the team back at Capilano RFC.

Click for pictures of the Captain’s Run

In contrast to the quiet and deserted club of the morning, the stands were already filling up over two hours before the 7pm kick-off as there was a curtain raiser featuring womens teams from Vancouver and Vancouver Island.  What followed was a high quality game between two sides that included some Canadian internationals and either team would have given any top womens team in England a run for their money.

Afterwards the women stayed on the pitch to form a guard of honour for the BC Rugby and England Counties players.  I felt quite a sense of pride as the Counties skipper led his team out resplendent in their white kit with the red England Rose and we prepared for the anthems. When I met the British Columbia Rugby officials a couple of days earlier they checked to see what should be played, God Save the Queen or Jerusalem.  I mischievously thought about telling them that Swing Low would be appropriate but decided that I had better stick to protocol.  It should have come as no surprise that a large number of English expats had come along and helped us perform a decent rendition of the National Anthem, however several hundred Canadians made sure the home anthem was comfortably sung the louder.

DSC01690The British Columbian team had not had much opportunity to train together and perhaps that was the underlying reason for the first Counties try, a relatively straightforward clearance kick being charged down by centre Sam Winter.  Loose-head prop Dan Seal was causing his opposite number all sorts of problems and the first three scrums yielded penalties, two of which were converted into points by fly-half Gabitass and England Counties were 13-0 ahead after 20 minutes.

Their dominance continued with two more tries for a 27-0 half time lead, but the home side got themselves more organised in the second half and began to threaten the Counties’ line.  Excellent defence kept BC Bears scoreless and two England tries from the backs made the final score 41-0.

Click here for a match report

The game was played in good spirit throughout and the large and knowledgeable crowd, about half of whom were female, appreciated good play, although the biggest cheers came when big tackles were made by either team.  The players stayed on the field for about 30 minutes afterwards with plenty of people wanting their picture taken with them.  A touring side like England Counties is a big deal in Vancouver which this year hosted a leg of the World Rugby Sevens series for the first time in March.

Click for match highlights courtesy of BC Rugby

WP_20160603_22_03_26_RawThen it was upstairs for curry and Capilano Rugby Pilsner before the formalities of speeches and presentations.  Former Canadian international Mike James id the honours for BC Rugby, while I responded on behalf of the RFU and gave BC Rugby a plaque and some ties.  It was then my privilege to present England Counties debutants with ties and those who had played their third game with caps.

The socialising went on past 10pm when we all were taken downtown to The Pint, but it is probably better that what happened from then on remains unrecorded.

So a successful outcome in the first city of the tour; next stop Calgary by coach although there is an overnight stay in Kelowna where the players are due to take part in some outreach work with local schoolchildren.

Click for pictures of the day

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An afternoon to see Vancouver: On tour with England Counties

DSCF3639After twice daily training sessions since they arrived the players were at last given an afternoon off to see a bit of the city.  They were taken to Grouse Mountain which is a ski resort in the winter but stays open all year round with various attractions, including a pair of tame grizzly bears, a lumberjack show, birds of prey demonstrations and the most fantastic views of Vancouver and the surrounding mountains.  The venue is reached by a six-minute cable car ride which is worrying enough without 30 or so rugby players adding to the weight.

Click here for pictures

Afterwards the players were dropped in the the main tourist area of the city to have a look around before going back to British Columbia University and and prepare for tomorrow’s game.  The squad has been selected and the captain’s run will be at Capilano RFC at 10:30am (6:30pm BST).  Then they will return to Capilano for the 7pm (3am BST) kick off against the BC Bears.

The game is live on http://bcrugby.com/live and will be archived so it can be viewed at a more reasonable time for those in the UK.

A Canadian adventure begins

vancouver_skyline-wallpaper-1920x10802England Rugby teams are going to various parts of the world this month; England have three tests in Australia, England Saxons have two games in South Africa, England Counties U20s are going to Russia and I am travelling to Canada where England Counties play games in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

I met up with the team at a Heathrow hotel on Sunday evening after England had convincingly beaten Wales for the pre-tour briefing, but where they travelled from Heathrow airport the next morning with Air Canada, I went from Gatwick with my regular travelling companion Brian White to travel with Canadian budget airline WestJet.  We had booked to travel Premium Economy for the ten-hour flight as we would have appreciated a bit of extra legroom, but a series of circumstances including a two hour delay and a change of aeroplane to one operated by Omni Air (I haven’t heard of them either) we ended up in the First Class cabin.  Although it wasn’t the most modern of planes it was an unexpected bonus to have so much extra room, not to mention a constant supply of food and drink, and the journey was made more than tolerable.

We arrived in Vancouver at 4:30pm local time, 2:30am UK time, and we knew that we should try to stay awake as long as we could to try to combat the effects of jet lag.  We checked into our downtown hotel and went for something to eat and drink, but were both asleep before 9am and awake again at 3am.

Counties oceanThe squad and coaches were staying at British Columbia University (BCU) and we went to see them at their first training session later that morning.  Although their flight wasn’t quite as comfortable as ours, they had similar stories of being wide awake at times varying between midnight and 4am but the coaches have planned twice daily training sessions to get them into shape for the first game against BC Bears on Friday. The promised pool session for the afternoon was changed to a dip in the Pacific Ocean, and although the sun was shining, the water hadn’t heated up appreciably.

I left the players to it and did a bit of sightseeing around Vancouver.  It is a comparatively new city being less than 200 years old and there is a major oriental influence.  In fact over half of city’s population of 600,000 have a first language other than English. There are a lot of high-rise buildings but Stanley Park in the bay provides a large area of greenery.  Unfortunately jet lag took its toll again and we cut short our sightseeing and went back to our hotel. 

We woke from a deep sleep at an alarm I set at 7:30pm to remind us that we had arranged to meet someone at 8, so we groggily got dressed and walked the half-mile or so to The Pint, a sports pub near the old part of the city, to talk to Dan Tanner the manager.  One of the tasks I had been given was to try to sort out somewhere for the squad to have a couple of beers after Friday’s game and Dan had been in touch via Twitter offering his bar as a venue.  Dan plays for local club Capilano RFC which is where England Counties will take on British Columbia Bears, but it turns out that he originally hails from Witham in Essex, barely 15 miles from where I live in Colchester.

We talked about rugby locally, nationally and back in England, but after an hour or so or so we were flagging so we headed back to the hotel, but not before I had asked Dan to come and meet the players at the training session the following morning.

Dan was kind enough to pick me up and we drove to BCU.  I should say something about the University sports facilities which are quite brilliant.  American football, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse and rugby all have their own pitches, training areas and pavilions and I am sure that the major indoor sports of ice hockey and basketball to name but two have excellent training facilities as well.  I’m not sure that there is anything like this in the UK but university sport in North America is big business.

WP_20160601_13_15_17_RawI didn’t stay long as I had a lunch appointment with officials from Rugby Canada and BC Rugby at The Cactus Club, a restaurant with superb views across the bay.  Seaplanes taking-off and landing were a distraction which not many venues can boast but we talked about what Rugby Canada wanted to get from the tour in terms of exposure and growing the game.  All the locals schools have been invited along to watch Friday’s game free of charge and the game will be streamed live at www.bcrugby.com/live although it is a Saturday 3am kick off UK time.,

It was enlightening to hear what plans BC Rugby CEO Annabel Kehoe had to expand the game and some of the challenges they face, not least the distances that teams need to cover.  The US pro-league started this year and BC Rugby is looking at it this year with a view to joining sometime in the future but finances are always an issue.  We parted looking forward to seeing each other again at Friday’s game.

The players have an afternoon off tomorrow to do some sightseeing and I will be doing the same.  I will next meet up with the squad at the captain’s run on Friday morning at Capilano RFC and I will return at 5pm for a curtain raiser before the main event at 7pm.  I will be sending the occasional update from pitchside but as the game will be in the middle of the night in the UK I can’t imagine there will be too many people reading them!

Pictures from training sessions

England Counties (and Eastern Counties) in Canada

Canada-FlagI’ve been lucky enough to travel to some far flung places following one team or another (see previous trips here) and this year my rugby holiday takes me to Canada where England Counties leave for a two week tour on 30 May.

The tour starts in Vancouver where there is a game against British Columbia Bears at Capilano RFC on Friday 3 June before moving on to Calgary and a game against Prairie Wolf Pack at Calgary Rugby Park.  The final stop is Toronto where they will play the Ontario Blues at Fletcher’s Fields in Markham on 11 June.  In between there will be some outreach work with schools and clubs and the chance to do some sightseeing.

There is quite a bit of Eastern Counties interest with Head Coach James Shanahan who has a long history with the area having played at North Walsham and Cambridge before moving on to Old Albanians, and he is also head coach at Cambridge University.

Three players recently turned out for Eastern Counties in the County Championship; Cambridge’s record try-scorer Albert Portsmouth, his former teammate James Stokes who will be playing at Coventry next season, and Joe Tarrant formerly of Colchester but now at Ampthill.  They are joined by Cambridge’s Dan Seal who played for East Midlands in the County Championship, and former Cambridge players Rob Conquest (Hertfordshire and Darlington Mowden Park) and Matt Miles (Hertfordshire and old Albanians).  You can see the full squad by clicking here.

As on previous trips I will be posting articles on my blog and sending pictures, news and live scores by Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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