The 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
It 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.
You 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
Afterwards 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