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Council Member Briefing–March 2017

WP_20170226_18_24_28_ProMy latest RFU Council Member Briefing is available by clicking the link below:

Council Member Briefing – March 2017

This edition includes an update to the Paying of Players proposals, news of the RFU President for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and thoughts on the first three rounds of the Six Nations.

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Expect the unexpected


italyI was going to write a blog article about the weekend’s Six Nations games but this article by fellow blogger Double Dummy Scissors pretty much mirrors my view:

This weekend, more than any other, provided proof that should you ever feel you know what is going to happen in the sport of Rugby Union, you don’t. We have become heady with this Eddie Jones …

Source: Expect the unexpected

They’ve got goats…

goat daffodilsTravelling to Cardiff for the Wales v England game I can’t help but think back to the games I have seen at the Principality Stadium.  This will be the fifth Six Nations game I have seen there but it was a World Cup warm up game in 2011 which has the fondest memories.  It was played in the summer on a beautiful warm sunny day and to be honest I can’t remember who won (I think it was the Welsh).  But it was post match when the fun began.

I left the players’ dinner early with fellow Council Member Alex Murphy and went into the city which was a sea of red and white shirts as tens of thousands of English and Welsh supporters flooded the pubs and bars and celebrated the game of rugby and the healthy rivalry between the two nations.  Alex and I were wearing our RFU blazers and we were submitted to good-natured banter from both sets of fans.  The partying went on late into the night and I as far as I was concerned all was well with the relationship between the two old rivals.

Then came the nightmare of 2013 when an inexperienced England team was intimidated by a hostile crowd in a Grand Slam decider with Wales winning 30-3.  Cardiff was not a happy place to be for an Englishman having to watch the Welsh celebrations on the pitch, then walking back to the hotel for the post-match function wearing and England Rugby coat I was verbally abused more than once.  It wasn’t any different when England won in 2015 as I was called the same sort of names after that game too.

Clearly, playing England matters for the Welsh rugby fan and I had been fooled into a false sense of camaraderie in 2011, but I should point out that the majority of our friends over the bridge are nothing but good-natured and friendly to the English.  This time around I will be better prepared. 

Certainly the players will know what to expect and it wouldn’t surprise me if Eddie Jones played them parts of the 2013 game to remind them about the Welsh crowd and how intimidating they can be.  His pre-match press conference alluded to Welsh ‘shenanigans’, referring to the attempt two years ago to get the England team out on the pitch early on a very cold evening and make them wait there while the Wales team stayed in the warm.  My favourite phrase from Eddie was ‘They’re a cunning lot, the Welsh….they’ve got goats, they’ve got daffodils, they’ve got everything!’.  Wales is probably better known for its sheep rather than its goats but I’ll wait to see if either play a part in the Welsh game plan.

Six Nations to have bonus points

DSC00940For as long as I have been on the RFU Council, and this is my ninth season, the issue of bonus points for the Six Nations has been discussed by the 6N committee and each time it has been rejected.  This is because the Grand Slam is seen as the pinnacle of the competition but with a bonus point for scoring four tries and another for losing by seven points or less, it is possible to win all your games yet finish in second place.

For example, Team A wins all five of its games but fails to gain a four-try bonus point in any of the matches so scoring a total of 20 points.  Team B loses to Team A by seven points or less and wins the other four games with a try bonus point in each, thus scoring 21 points and winning the Championship.

So when I read the headline I wondered why there had been a change of heart.  As ever the answer is in the fine print.  The press release on the Six Nations site quotes the following rules:

(i) The Union that wins the Match shall be awarded four Match Points or (if it scores four tries or more in the process) five Match Points.
(ii) The Union that loses the Match shall be awarded no Match Points or (if it scores four tries or more in the process or loses by a margin of seven points or fewer) one Match Point or (if it scores four tries or more in the process and loses by a margin of seven points or fewer) two Match Points.
(iii) Unions that draw a Match shall each be awarded two Match Points and any of them that scores four tries or more in the process shall be awarded a further one Match Point.
(iv) A Union that wins all five of its Matches (a “Grand Slam”) shall be awarded a further three Match Points.

Point (iv) is the crucial one; the extra three points for winning all your games will guarantee the Championship and the Grand Slam.

Well done to the Six Nations committee for finding a solution that encourages attacking play but retains the primacy of the Grand Slam

Another step up for England

DSC03065England extended their unbeaten run to 13 games after an absorbing game at Twickenham where two of our club volunteers were honoured.

The day started early for me as I tried to get a good spot in the Cardinal Vaughan car park to set up for drinks for guests of Eastern Counties.  The CB has invested in a new canopy which definitely stood out.  We have offered drinks at every Autumn International and Six Nations series since 2013 and each year it has got more popular.  This time as well as our main sponsors Greene King providing the beer, our Women & Girls sponsor Musks supplied us with 10lbs of cocktail sausages which proved to be very popular.

People arrived at the Eastern Counties area from 12 noon and a steady stream of players, officials and members associated with our clubs came and went until soon after 2pm when we had to make our way to our seats.  We probably served over 100 people during that time and many thanks are due to Pamela Clarke, Russ Clarke and Brian White who were kept busy pouring drinks and replenishing the food.  It certainly raises the profile of Eastern Counties and we next plan to do the same at the England v Scotland game in March.

The game was a fascinating one to watch and for me, Elliot Daly’s red card made it all the more interesting.  England had to adapt and change their game to deal with playing for 75 minutes with 14 men and they really stepped up to the mark.  Their defence was excellent with all the players putting in tackle after tackle, over four times more than their opponents, and the discipline, so often an English Achilles heel, was superb with only one kickable penalty conceded (excepting the scrum penalties at the end of the first half) and that was reversed by the referee.  Argentina’s discipline was what let them down allowing Owen Farrell seven kicks at goal, five of them converted, giving England what seemed at one stage an unlikely 16-0 lead

The first scrum of the game came after 36 minutes and provided over 10 minutes of drama as Argentina won penalty after penalty which first reduced England to 13 then produced their first try.  When Argentina scored at the beginning of the second half to reduce the gap to two points while they still had a two-man advantage, the crowd feared the worst but the England players stepped up again and when Johnny May scored I knew that the game was won.

At the post match dinner the two captains spoke and they both looked absolutely exhausted.  Dylan Hartley said that playing with 14 men meant the the game was faster as there was more space, more tackles to be made and no cover available if you made a mistake.  But England did a rare thing in winning a game a man down for most of the match.

DSC03112At the dinner the RFU honoured volunteers who had been put forward for Lifetime Achievement Awards and for Eastern Counties these were given to Shelagh and David Tate from Mistley RFC.  Those at Mistley and surrounding clubs know how much they have put into the club, not always the figureheads but tirelessly working behind the scenes.  It is fair to say the Shelagh is the more visible of the two but she couldn’t do that without David’s support for her and the players and members at Mistley.

They were presented with their award by Eddie Jones having spent the day at the stadium with a tour, lunch and dinner plus accommodation at the Petersham Hotel in Richmond, formerly the England base in Will Carling’s day.

So we look forward to the last game of this Autumn series and probably the toughest for England, but I think the best is still to come from this squad.

Photos from the day

An Olympic day at Twickenham

DSC02952England against Fiji was the perfect game to celebrate the first ever Olympic medal for the visitors and Team GB’s silver medal in the Rio rugby sevens.

When I arrived at the ground at about midday it was much quieter than the previous week, but there were a lot of school parties.  I doubted that the crowd would be above 70,000 but with top price tickets as low as £50 with concessions for children I was delighted when it turned out to be a sell-out.

The RFU had invited Team GB Olympic and Paralympic medallists as VIP guests and 40 or so accepted plus the British men and women’s sevens squads.  They all came in their Team GB track suits and many brought their medals with them, with a stark contrast in size between some of the quite petite women’s hockey players and the biggest of the men’s eight rowing team. 

They all enjoyed watching an England win and from my point of view I was pleased to see the team play with such confidence.  The passing was the best I had seen from them over a whole game with a couple of sublime touches from Danny Care and from Alex Goode, whose offload while in mid-air and horizontal I thought was breathtaking.

Although England had a good win it didn’t seem that they had to try too hard and the crowd, not made up of the usual supporters, got easily bored.  So with the game apparently won with just 25 minutes gone Mexican waves started going around the stadium at regular intervals.  During the second half a lot of the crowd switched on the torches on their mobile phone; I’m not sure why or how it got organised but it was an eerie sight.

DSC03015Afterwards there was an informal post-match function with all the Olympians present.  Dave Ewels received his England cap, but for the first time ever Team GB Rugby caps were to be presented with Lord Coe doing the honours.  Each player received the black and gold cap with the Team GB logo and their name embroidered and they posed for pictures afterwards.

The Fijians treated everyone to a couple of songs.  The last time I recorded them singing at a post-match function and uploaded the video to YouTube I was given a rap on the knuckles by the powers that be, so I resisted the temptation to do so again.  However, there were dozens and dozens of mobile phones being held up and I am sure at least one recording will make its way to the internet.

IMG-20161120-WA0001I knew that the Fijians players were big, but up close you realise how massive they are.  A had a picture taken with Nadolo and I can only imagine what it must be like to have this 20 stone colossus of a man thundering towards you you; it must have been a similar feeling to those who played against the great Jonah Lomu.

So onto next week and the game against Argentina who were beaten by the Scots on Saturday.  I am sure England will expect a backlash but if you are coming to watch the game come and join Eastern Counties for a drink in the Cardinal Vaughan car park from 12 noon.

Pictures from the day

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A good weekend for England; a poor one for RFU Cups

WP_20161112_14_31_52_ProEngland stretched their unbeaten run to 11 games with a comfortable win over an ordinary South African side, with Norfolk’s Ben Youngs unlucky not the get Man of the Match after creating two of England’s four tries.

The first of four Autumn Internationals saw a few changes at Twickenham; the Rose & Poppy gates installed at the entrance to the West stand were the focus for Remembrance events with rose motifs at the bottom gradually changing to poppies at the top.  A clever design by Harry Gray who also created the statue to rugby icon Prince Alexander Obolensky which stands in Cromwell Square in Ipswich.

The game may not have been a great spectacle with the almost constant rain playing its part, but England’s improvement is clear and two tries in each half kept the crowd happy.  Post match arrangements have been changed this season with the formal sit-down dinner dispensed with in favour of a more casual arrangement where guests mill around and are brought bowl food such as braised beef, fish & chips, mini pies, etc.  Meanwhile the players have a buffet at one end of the room roped off for a little privacy.

Personally I’m not sure if this is a change for the better.  It means that the players can leave earlier and can avoid speaking to any of the guests if they so choose, but for the guests I and my colleagues bring this is arguably their highlight as a rugby volunteer.  To be able to talk to the players and have a photograph with them is a huge thrill and to some extent that has been taken away from them.  The players themselves have always been very accommodating, remembering that they started at grass roots clubs which depend on volunteers.

However, there was a nice touch when six volunteers were recognised for their contribution to rugby.  Other traditions were observed with speeches by the presidents and captains of both countries and caps awarded to debutants.  South Africa went one step further by also presenting new players with their international blazer.

I bumped into Keith Green, ex-Essex RDO, ex-England Students coach and formerly on the coaching staff at Colchester.  He was the liaison officer for the South African side and he was certainly being kept busy.  I also had a chat with Richard Hill who has recently been appointed England team manager.  It was clear from our conversation that Eddie Jones is a tough guy to work for as he expects the same work ethic that he has himself, but the ethos he has instilled means that everyone is prepared to put in as much as it takes to make England the best team in the world.

I was home by 10:30pm, earlier than expected, and I had a look through the results.  It was a cup weekend and I was dismayed to see the number of call offs in the second round games.  Out of 32 fixtures, 10 were not played as one of the opposition called off (see Is there a future for RFU Cup competitions?).  This is happening year after year and seems to contradict the assertion in last season’s Adult Competitions Review that players want to play Cup rugby.

But Lowestoft & Yarmouth aren’t complaining.  Despite having a difficult time in the league the club has reached the third round of the RFU Senior Vase without playing a game after call offs by Upminster and Finchley.

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

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Calgary and the Prairie Wolf Pack

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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.

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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

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