- Clean bill of health is first hurdle for Counties
- Realising rich potential is aim says coach Baldwin
The broadest smile at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon (May 30) was not to be found on the faces of the successful Lancashire team and management that retained the Bill Beaumont Cup by beating Gloucestershire, but on the face of a Northumberland strawberry grower.
Danny Hodgson, the fruit farmer from the North East, is the Manager of the England Counties XV, the representative flagship of the community game outside the Guinness Premiership, and he had to endure the annual ordeal of watching players who are about to accompany him on tour – in this case to Canada for a three-match trip – playing competitive rugby only hours before the team departs.
The delight for Hodgson today was that having had no emergency telephone calls from the previous day’s County Championship Plate final in which he had tourists in action, he was able to enjoy a clean bill of health from today’s game in which a handful of players were involved.
"It’s always a massive relief so close to departure time," he said.
"We have players who are good enough to make themselves available on an SOS basis should the worst case scenario occur. It’s these guys you really feel for when you ring them up to tell them they aren’t needed and while we’re immensely grateful to these players for putting themselves on stand-by, it’s nice to see that everyone has got through OK.
"We had a scare yesterday with Paul Humphreys, who was playing for Kent, but he’s been checked over today by our doctor Andy Smith and he’s fine."
The only change to the selected squad is the withdrawal for personal reasons of Birmingham & Solihull centre Cameron Mitchell, with Harrogate and Yorkshire centre Kyle Dench coming into the squad.
Excitement starting to build – Baldwin
One person sharing the manager’s joy that the squad has escaped serious injury worries is forwards coach Dave Baldwin, who admits to a real sense of excitement ahead of the trip.
"Last year our visit to Korea and Japan was widely regarded as the most successful tour the Counties have had since they started out in 2002 and there is no doubt that it was outstanding in every department," says Baldwin.
"But looking at the players in this squad, I think that they have the quality to be as good, if not better, than last year, which is brilliant for us. We have a lot of young players who seem very enthusiastic to do well and if they develop, with some guidance from the coaching staff and the senior players in the squad, we have all the ingredients for it to be a really successful tour.
"That said, the challenge of touring is getting the players to blend well. You can have the best players on paper, but it’s how they play together, how they get on together, how the game style suits them. So, we have the potential to be very good and the potential to be disappointing in not achieving the heights we think are within our capabilities.
"You also have to remember that we will be playing against teams who have played together regularly for two or three seasons. It’s going to be very challenging, but we’re looking forward to some exciting challenges. That’s what we want from the trip."
England Counties squad
Forwards: Dan Baines (Macclesfield & Lancashire), Luke Collins (Redruth & Cornwall), Phil Eggleshaw (Nottingham & Durham), Mark Evans (Moseley & North Midlands), Nick Flynn (Sedgley Park & Lancashire), Will Fraser (Saracens & Hertfordshire), Matt Hall (Blaydon & Northumberland), Gavin Woods (Caldy & Cheshire), Matt Long (Birmingham Solihull & Gloucestershire), Louis McGowan (Coventry & Lancashire), Jonny Roddam (Fylde & Lancashire), Harry Spencer (Bedford & Devon), Craig Voisey (Rotherham & North Midlands), Mark Wilson (Blaydon & Northumberland).
Backs: Will Cliff (Sale & Cheshire), Gareth Collins (Leicester Lions & Warwickshire), Kyle Dench (Harrogate & Yorkshire), Steve Hamilton (Blackheath & Kent), Paul Humphries (Blackheath & Kent), Charlie Ingall (Tynedale & Northumberland), Tom Jarvis (unattached & Gloucestershire), Tom Kessell (Plymouth & Devon), Fergus Mulchrone (Macclesfield & Cheshire), Henry Staff (Blackheath & Hertfordshire), James Tincknell (Wharfedale & Yorkshire), Ross Winney (Macclesfield & Cheshire).
England Counties Canada tour itinerary
Friday, June 4 – The Rock v England Counties at Swilers RFC, St John’s, Newfoundland, KO 18.15.
Tuesday, June 8 – Ontario Blues v England Counties at Oakville Crusaders, Toronto, KO 19.00
Saturday, June 12 – British Columbia Bears at Klahanie Park, West Vancouver, KO 15.00.