England 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.
The 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.
I 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