- Familiar challenge for Counties on three-match summer tour
- Bonding process key to success in Spain
Transforming a disparate group of rugby players from all parts of the country into a cohesive unit in the quickest time is once again the major challenge facing England Counties XV Manager Mike Old and his coaches Dave Baldwin and Jan Bonney as he leads another team on a three-match tour to Spain.
With only four players from the previous outing in Dublin in March involved on the trip, 15 who have never worn an England Counties jersey before and representatives of 22 different clubs and 12 different counties, the squad is as mixed as any in the past, thereby offering a series test for all concerned.
"Once again the make-up of the squad follows a well-established format in that we have a very diverse group of people, so we need to bring them together as quickly as we can," said Old.
"We finish our tour with a game against Spain and we will select that team on the strength of performances in the two warm-up games, so we need to get the players to gel as soon as we can to make sure that players can produce their best form in those games.
"Our aim is to win all three matches, to build a well-organised, effective team and to leave Spain having bonded another group of young players and to leave our hosts with a good legacy from England rugby.
"The Counties set-up is very, very good, but there are always new ideas to introduce and this time around we’re planning to do some team-building activities away from the rugby pitch. I firmly believe that the correlation between the team bonding together as a social group and producing good performances on the pitch is absolutely key. You need to get that right very quickly.
"The coaches are working on different things as they seek to promote an open style of play in which players take responsibility. I know that’s a bit of a cliché in that it’s what everybody aspires to, but delivering that ethos under pressure is part of the challenge for the coaches and the players alike.
"As with every tour, there is a huge responsibility on everyone to help to promote and develop the Counties brand. The Bill Beaumont Cup this year has seen some excellent players coming through and yesterday’s final was a very good advert for the county game.
"If we can go away and have very positive tours, the profile of the team grows and to play for it becomes increasingly attractive, as we are clearly seeing. To do that you need to be involved with the County Championship and with a very exciting tour planned for next summer, we want to see more high-quality players bidding for places on it by supporting their County sides.
"In the current group we have a huge amount of pace, which is always exciting; we’ve got a bit of experience; and we’ve got some young lads on the way up. Creating a blend and a balance is the key so that they all understand the ethos of what we are about. The sooner we achieve that, the easier it is for everyone and the more successful we’ll be."
The squad overcame the first hurdle at Twickenham yesterday when the three players involved in the Bill Beaumont Cup final – wingman Ollie Brennand and Tom Hughes from Lancashire and Hertfordshire prop Rob Schillaci – all came through unscathed.
England Counties squad
Forwards: Rob Baldwin (Wharfedale & Yorkshire), Richard Boyle (Tynedale & Northumberland), Matt Hall (Blaydon & Northumberland), Ben Hilton (Launceston & Cornwall), Martin Kent (Macclesfield & Cheshire), Aaron Myers (Westoe & Durham), Steve Pape (Rosslyn Park & Somerset), Jack Preece (Birmingham Solihull & Gloucestershire), Rob Schillaci (Hertford & Hertfordshire), Ben Sparks (Stourbridge & Gloucestershire), Tom Stradwick (Henley & Kent), Tommy Taylor (Sale Jets & Cheshire), Craig Voisey (Moseley & North Midlands), Gavin Woods ( Caldy & Cheshire).
Backs: Ollie Brennand (Fylde & Lancashire), Gareth Collins (Leicester Lions & Warwickshire), Steve Hamilton (Rotherham & Kent), Peter Hodgkinson (Ealing & Cheshire), Tom Hughes (Preston Grasshoppers & Lancashire), Cameron Mitchell (Plymouth Albion & North Midlands), Charlie Mulchrone (Macclesfield & Cheshire), Fergus Mulchrone (unattached & Cheshire), Harry Peck (Tynedale & Northumberland), Aaron Penberthy (Redruth & Cornwall), Ollie Thomas (Moseley & North Midlands), Curtis Wilson (Leeds & Yorkshire).