At this month’s RFU Council meeting we heard a presentation about the England Counties XV’s tour to Uganda and Kenya in June this year. Team Manager Michael Old, Press Officer Emma Kennedy and prop Craig Voisey all spoke about how the tour affected the players, the game in East Africa and the children they coached in their outreach sessions.
I followed the tour with a supporters party, joining the squad at their games, a couple of the outreach days and at some social functions. I wrote several blog articles at the time but listening to the presentations prompted me to look back at what sort of legacy was left.
The England Counties squad was generally a young one with an average age of 23 and one or two older, more experienced heads at key positions. We were fortunate enough to spend time with them at different stages of the tour and it was clear that this was something that would change their outlook on the world. The experience of working with Ugandan and Kenyan children and orphans who had so little clearly moved many of the players who came from various backgrounds, but nothing that could have prepared them for the poverty they saw at first hand.
Part of a video we saw at the Council meeting showed one of the players talking to a woman preparing lunch for the schoolchildren they were gong to coach. It was a large pot of something porridge-like but the player was surprised when he was told it was to feed 35 children, about a cup each, but then he was stunned when he realised that this was the only hot meal they would get that day.
After the second game at Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala the children ran onto the pitch to be with the players that had coached them and an hour later the players were still there, laughing, dancing, taking photographs, reluctant to leave the kids they had formed a bond with over the past few days. Talking to the younger players in particular, it was interesting to see how they had grown and matured as individuals.
The children themselves were enthralled by the players and by the game. The East African Tag Rugby Trust arranged the outreach sessions in Jinja, Kampala and Nairobi and at all of them the children hung on to every word the players said. There were some teachers in the squad which helped, but when it came to game-play, the skills and teamwork displayed after just a couple of hours of coaching was of a level that would put to shame those of many mini sections I have watched in England.
The players were moved to give the children whatever they could; waterbottles, badges, anything they could spare. But in Nairobi there was one older child who asked them to keep their gifts as it wasn’t charity they wanted. What they wanted was for the players to go back to England tell everyone about them so that other could come and help them improve their rugby.
What surprised everyone on the tour was the welcome they received. This was really a big deal, the first time a touring side had come since the British Lions played East Africa in 1962. There were pull-out supplements in the papers, there were billboard posters of England players in the streets around Kampala, and the football world cup qualifier between Uganda and Senegal was relegated to the inside pages as the sports headlines were about England Counties.
This wasn’t something the players were used to but they behaved professionally in radio, press and TV interviews as they realised that they were ambassadors for both England and the sport of Rugby so their behaviour in public was impeccable. For the game against Elgon Warriors, a combined Kenya and Uganda team, over 4000 people squeezed into the ground to watch the England team.
Elgon Warriors, named after the mountain on the border of the two countries, was put together to play the England Counties, a cooperative venture that that will reap benefits in the future, particularly if their application to compete in the South African Vodacom Cup is accepted. The obvious appetite for international rugby has prompted the authorities to make plans to expand the capacity at Kyadondo to 10,000 people.
There are plans to send a reciprocal tour to England to help develop the best players in East Africa, and send coaches and referees too so they can benefit through mentoring from their English counterparts.
I went on the tour as a sceptic of the England Counties set-up, fairly convinced that the summer tours they had undertaken were little more than free holidays for a group of semi-professional players and associated management. I left with a much better understanding of the importance of sending teams like England Counties to developing Rugby nations. Important for the countries being visited, important for the children and players that are coached at outreach sessions, important for the English touring party, and important for the game of Rugby.
Click here to read my blogs written while in Uganda
Click here for pictures from the Uganda trip