We duly spent the Saturday evening in the Fat Boys sports bar where England beating Argentina vied for TV space with the Confederations Cup soccer matches. The Northampton Old Scouts players came back for the game but the England Counties squad wisely stayed in their rooms having a quiet night.
Match day dawned and we went down to breakfast to find the squad already tucking in. It was a challenge for the kitchen staff to keep the supply of food coming – they obviously weren’t used to the hearty appetites of 30 burly rugby players!
With a couple of hours to kill before leaving for the match venue we paid a visit to Le Grand Place, a medieval square in the centre of the city with magnificent architecture. Belgium is famous for its chocolate and every other shop was selling hand made sweets and confectionary and some were also giving demonstrations of the art of the chocolatier. After duly buying chocolaty souvenirs we headed back to the hotel to change into Number Ones and make our way to the ground.
The game against Belgium was being staged at a the football ground of AFC Tubize, an industrial town 30 minutes outside Brussels not far from the site of the battle of Waterloo. We were invited to a pre-match lunch by the Belgian officials where the British Ambassador was also a guest and I had a chance to find out about some of the outreach work England Counties had been doing at local schools and clubs.
During the game I sat next to the Belgian Union’s chief administrator Danny Roelands who told me a bit about rugby in Belgium. They have 65 clubs with their best players playing professionally in France. Unfortunately for them five of their top players hadn’t been released for this match but hopes were high for a close contest and the 2000 strong crowd showed there was quite some interest despite being in a football dominated country.
It didn’t take long for those hopes to be comprehensively dashed as England Counties put on a superb first half performance. Tries came regularly with some flowing moves and excellent running lines, a yellow card for Belgium making things worse. The half time score of 43-0 seemed a little unfair on the hosts who were trying very hard, the main difference between the sides being that England were making the best of their opportunities to cross the whitewash seven times.
The second half saw a much more competitive Belgian side, and although their tactics were robust to say the least I was pleased that they scored a try early in the second half. In fact, it looked like a different game altogether as there were no more scores for the next 25 minutes, England finding it difficult to break down a rejuvenated Belgian defence until they scored two converted tries in the last ten minutes for a final result of 5-57.
After the final whistle the England players were mobbed by scores of children who had come to watch the game, some of whom having been coached by them earlier in the week, demanding photographs and autographs on programmes, balls and shirts. The scenes were evocative of those in Kampala last year after the game against Elgon Warriors, demonstrating how important these tours are to developing countries. Unfortunately it also demonstrates the gulf between Tier 1 countries and the rest – Belgium is ranked 25th in the world but they were well beaten by England’s amateur side.
At the post match meal speeches were made and gifts exchanged and on the coach journey back to Brussels every squad member sang, some with more success that others and there were a couple of songs new to me! Back at the hotel the whole squad and supporters gathered for the tie presentation and end of tour speeches before the players dispersed into the city to celebrate the way rugby players know best.
The next day all players were in England polo shirts and track suit bottoms, each taking their ambassadorial role seriously and their behaviour on the Eurostar back to London was impeccable.
There is some debate about the future of England Counties XV and its place in the RFU. Having once been a sceptic I now understand how important this team is on the wider world stage and I will be putting forward their case over the months to come. Expect to hear more from me about England Counties XV.
Click here for photos of the game