A Rugby Life

A Rugby Volunteer's Blog

Is there a future for RFU Cup competitions?

It has been a busy few days and I have only just got round to looking at the results for last weekend in detail. This was a Cup weekend with only Clubs at Level 4 and above playing league games.  I was dismayed at the number of conceded games in the London & South East Division and even more so when I saw how many involved clubs from Eastern Counties.

This isn’t the first time I have written about the number of call offs in cup competitions (see previous article here)  but I think it is worth revisiting to see if anything has changed.  I should say that I am not aiming criticism at individual clubs, I am questioning if the RFU Cup competitions are seen as so important when compared to league rugby.

In the first rounds of the Intermediate Cup and Senior Vase and the Preliminary round of the Junior Vase, 31 games were due to be played and 8 were conceded, about one in four.  What surprised me was that it wasn’t necessarily teams that are struggling that conceded.  Diss and Ipswich lie first and fourth respectively in London 2 North East but despite their current good form, Diss conceded their game away to Welwyn who are second from bottom of London 2 NW and more perplexing, Ipswich conceded a home tie against Woodford who are several places below them in the league.

On the face of it, Diss would have been odds on to go through to the second round and Ipswich would at least have had a healthy bar take on the day with every chance of a win too.  Could it be that players saw a gap in the league programme and arranged to do something else?  If they were aware that there was a cup game did they decide that having a rest week was more important in the context of the whole season?

In the Senior Vase I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for Lowestoft & Yarmouth RFC.  Last season the club fell victim to league call-offs by Upminster in September and May & Baker in December, but L&Y duly honoured the return fixtures later in the season.

This season L&Y and Upminster are still in London 3 NE but Lowestoft are going through a difficult time on the pitch, suffering a couple of heavy defeats in September.  On 1 October the first team travelled down the A12 to Upminster who by all accounts were very appreciative that they had made the journey as there was a pre-match lunch with a lot of supporters on the day.  The home team won 85-0 and they gave due praise to L&Y for travelling albeit with a weakened side. However, when Upminster were due to make the return journey to the Suffolk Coast for a cup tie just two weeks later, they conceded the game, despite being almost certain to win (with apologies to L&Y members).  Again, this looks like an example of Cup games jut not being seen as important as league games.

I haven’t looked to see what the picture is like around the rest of the country but I wonder for how long these Cup competitions will continue when support for them seems to be diminishing.

Paying players in the community game

cash paymentFor as long as anyone can remember there has been debate about players being paid to play Rugby Union.  It caused the creation of the 13-man League code with Union staunchly remaining amateur, although many of us remember stories of ‘boot money’ and players being given mythical jobs by club benefactors.

When the game went professional in 1995 it was no longer illegal to pay players to play rugby, but even 20 years on many clubs below the Premiership and Championship are still reluctant to admit that theirs is anything but amateur.  In most cases this is true but there are a significant number of clubs playing at quite modest levels who feel that paying players is the right thing to do.

Clubs at Levels 3 and 4 (National 1 and National 2 North & South) are regarded as semi-pro as are clubs at Level 5 to a certain extent, although there are some notable examples of clubs playing at these levels that don’t pay any players.

On my travels around clubs in Eastern Counties the overwhelming desire is for paying players to be discouraged at lower levels as it is perceived to be bad for the game overall.  The reasons cited are that it creates an uneven playing field between those that pay and those that don’t, it is encouraging the development of the ‘journeyman player’ who moves from club to club depending on who will pay him the most, and club loyalty is damaged.

At the RFU Council meeting on Friday 14 October the Community Game Board tabled a set of proposals to try to deal with these concerns plus others, such as clubs paying players rather than investing in developing their youth section or in improving their facilities.

A link to the proposals is below but here are some of the highlights:

  • Clubs will have to make an annual declaration saying if they pay any of their players and how much
  • If any clubs at Level 6 and below pay their players then they will not receive any financial support from the RFU, such as:
      • Travel payments
      • Payments from the Supplemental Ticket Fund introduced this season
      • Loans or grants to help with facility development
      • Being considered as a site for one of the 100 RFU funded or jointly funded Artificial Grass Pitches being installed over the next four years
  • Clubs at Levels 3, 4 and 5 will be allowed to pay players up to an amount not exceeding
      • £150k for clubs at Level 3, about £150 per player per game
      • £100k for clubs at Level 4, about £100 per player per game
      • £50k for clubs at level 5, about £50 per player per game

You should read the whole paper to understand all the details but I am broadly supportive of the proposals as far as Level 6 and below clubs are concerned.  For Level 3 to 5 clubs there may need to be some work on the amount of the payment limit but again I am broadly in favour.  It is important to remember that clubs at any level are at liberty to pay players and that clubs at Levels 3 to 5 can exceed the stated limits.  No sanction will be brought against them nor will they they face any kind of penalty other than not being able to access RFU funding.

The loss of RFU support for clubs at Level 6 and below could be significant, not so much in terms of travel payments which are negligible for most clubs when you get to Level 8, nor even the ticket supplement of about £1000 which clubs are yet to start receiving, but in terms of RFU help with facility development.  Hundreds of clubs have made use, many more than once, of the RFF Groundmatch grant for equipment purchases of up to £10,000, a useful amount for most clubs, and they will forsake being considered for major grants towards projects such as floodlights or clubhouse extensions/refurbishment.  In Eastern Counties there is not a single club that has not benefitted in some way from RFU help with its facilities in the past 12 years.

Level 3 to 5 clubs that exceed the limit will lose travel funding but the amounts are not as high as you would think.  On average National One clubs receive about £10,500 in travel grants with Blaydon in the North East (£18k) and Plymouth Albion in the South West (£23k) getting the highest amounts.  But with some playing budgets rumoured to be well in excess of £500k, the loss of £10k or less is comparatively insignificant.

In National 2 North the largest travel grant is just under £8,000 and in National 2 South the average is a little under £9,000, although some clubs in the South West receive in the region of £20k.  I only have figures for the London & South East Division where clubs receive about £1100 on average but those situated near the Suffolk and Norfolk coast generally receive in excess of £3500 :

  • Level 5; Highest £2971, Lowest £660, Average £1001
  • Level 6; Highest £5200, Lowest £330, Average £1308
  • Level 7; Highest £3549, Lowest £0, Average £1031
  • Level 8: Highest £3797, Lowest £0, Average £1150

My conclusion is that an inland club without a need for any facilities help probably won’t be much affected by paying players or exceeding the limits.

Will the self-declaration proposal work?  A cynic would say that if a club wants to circumvent the rules then they will find a way.  However, it is likely that at least one of the four officers required to sign the declaration, President, Chairman, Hon Secretary and Treasurer, is a member of a professional body or cannot afford to have his/her integrity questioned if it is discovered that they have made a false statement.  No doubt there will be one or two unscrupulous clubs that will do their best to pay players and still receive RFU funding, but the penalties for being found out are likely to be harsh and could include deduction of league points.

Are these proposals necessary?  Ultimately that is for clubs to decide through their Council Members who according to the published timetable will be asked to vote on them at the 2 December Council meeting.  For my part I will be writing to club officials in Eastern Counties to ask for their views, I will attend what county meetings I can in the next seven weeks and I will be discussing the subject at clubs I visit.

Meanwhile, I would value any opinions and debate posted on this blog or on my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

You can read the tabled proposals by clicking here

Related Article: 3 January 2012 – Ask not what you club can do for you…..

Leadership, Volunteers and the loss of a Legend

CBODIt’s been a rugby-filled week and as I’ve not contributed to my blog for a while I thought I would note down some thoughts about the past few days.

The RFU Leadership Academy has been running since 2005, in fact I was a member of that very first course.  Since then I have been a mentor to candidates at two Leadership Academies held in Eastern Counties with most of the alumni going on to senior roles in their club or county.  Earlier this year I asked about being a tutor and after undertaking some development of my own I was told that I would be delivering to the Leadership Academy group in East Midlands & Leicestershire.

So after work on Wednesday I headed off for the Holiday Inn at Corby and met up with my co-deliverer Rachel Brown ahead of an evening of briefing Leadership Academy mentors.  I had been studying the content but was still hesitant to start with but Rachel’s confidence rubbed off (she has delivered the course a number of times before) and my performance got better as the evening wore on.  It was very interesting to hear the various points of view particularly about the difference between mentoring and coaching.  The next session will the the launch in November when I will meet the candidates for the first time.

It was a late drive afterwards to Twickenham and although the M1 was clear all the way, you can rely on the M25 to be at a complete standstill at 11pm.  I finally checked in at the hotel just after midnight so being upgraded was very welcome as was the beer waiting for me in my room.

CCJ and RachelI was at Twickenham as I had been asked to present at the annual CB Orientation Day where people new to volunteering at CBs are invited to find out more about the RFU and what support they can receive.  I was presenting with Simon Winman, RFU Head of Club Development, with whom I have had a very good working relationship for many years.  I met him for breakfast to have a final run-through which is when he told me that the presentation had changed!  However it was still within my comfort zone although the slides had been changed around a bit.

About 60 volunteers, a quarter of them women, came from as far away as Cumbria and Cornwall for the day and my contribution would be to talk about The Rugby Landscape and the role of CBs.  My main theme was that more is achieved when volunteers and RFU staff work together with the most appropriate person leading in the various areas, such as player development, volunteer management or facility funding, regardless of their status.  I was very pleased to be asked to talk at the event as it is important that volunteers are seen to play a part in the way the RFU does things.

On Friday I was back at Twickenham chairing a volunteer recruitment working group to which we had invited a Club Volunteer Coordinator.  His input was both insightful and invaluable and there were some very positive outcomes, and it was another example of volunteers and RFU staff working together to help grow the game.

DSC02883Saturday is for rugby and if I don’t get to see a game I feel I have missed out.  I went to watch Clacton vs Harwich, a local derby between two sides that had never played a league game against each other although there had been several cup ties in the past.  It promised to be a spicy affair and there were some handbags in the first half, but it was very well managed by a referee who was aged just 17, showing a maturity beyond his years.  After a close first half Clacton controlled the game and ran out deserved 16-3 winners.

During the game I received an email informing me that Dickie Jeeps had passed away.  I had received a call a couple of weeks earlier letting me know he was gravely ill so it was expected.  I never saw Dickie play but he was one of the most talented sportsmen this region has ever produced.  He played for Cambridge, Eastern Counties, Northampton, England and the British Lions and would have been regarded as the Jonny Wilkinson of his day.  He went on to be President of the RFU and Eastern Counties.

Jeeps_037I was lucky enough to meet him at the post match dinners at Twickenham were Malcolm Coe would bring him.  Although he would struggle to remember me he was always pleased to see any of the females that I would bring with me and he had a reputation for being a ladies man.  I went to his testimonial dinner at Cambridge Rugby Club a few years ago and he was in good form, clearly delighted at being the centre of attention.

There will be obituaries printed in the coming week and I would urge you to read them to find out more about the life of this extraordinary man, a man you could truly call a legend.

Photos courtesy of Leo Wilkinson and Chris Fell

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


Calgary and the Prairie Wolf Pack


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.


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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