Once again it’s been a while since I last posted but so much happened at the end of May and the round of county games, not least of which was a ten day trip to Georgia (Eastern Europe, not the US) with the England Counties rugby squad.
This really was a fantastic experience, spending time with the cream of the nation’s county players; photographing them training and playing two Test matches against Georgia’s national squad. As these England recruits were representing their country, they were subject to the latest monitoring and training methods in order to best prepare them for such challenging encounters.
In addition to individual health, well-being and medical monitoring, all training sessions and the matches themselves were recorded on video. The ensuing footage was closely analysed so everyone was aware of what was expected and the role each player was expected to play. It was generally agreed that the level of planning and attention to detail was higher than most clubs can offer on a regular basis. The training was intense, occurring every day of our stay apart from immediately prior and following the two matches.
We stayed in two training bases: Martkopi and Kutaisi, the latter also being a match venue. We arrived at Martkopi on Monday, the first Test match being on the following Friday. Monday was still a training day despite the party having travelled through the night and arriving in the early hours.
By the time of the match at 6pm on Friday, the players had settled in well with three days of training and practice followed by a three hour coach trip to Kutaisi. The first Test was closely contested, with England pulling away at one point before Georgia managed to recover to within a score of the visitors. With the hosts pushing forward for a win, England were able to find gaps for firstly a penalty and then a try from Darlington’s Callum Mackenzie. The final score was 26-15 to England.
It was back to Tbilisi for the final few days, the accommodation being the Holiday Inn. The training centres had been been very comfortable with excellent food but it has to be said the hotel was a step up in terms of comfort and facilities. A local stadium was used as a training base during the lead up to the second Test on the Tuesday before we flew home in the early hours of Wednesday.
Overall the weather was hot and sunny throughout our stay although it tended to follow a pattern each day: fresh and warm in the morning, heat and pressure slowly building, often accompanied by clouds and sometimes rain later on. On a couple of evenings this led to a thunder storm. Thankfully the freshness and blue skies always returned with the new day.
It would be great to report a clean sweep of victories for the England Counties squad. Sadly this was not to be. Although well ahead at one point, the disallowing of a second half try following a video review seemed to signal a swing in momentum. With the game almost over Georgia scored a try which put them a point ahead. Although England ended the game on the attack, a recovery didn’t happen.
Although everyone was bitterly disappointed, coaches agreed that the squad had done extremely well, playing against a national team whose players were vying for a place in their World Cup squad. The mood was somewhat muted as we departed for the airport. However, many began to reflect on what a wonderful experience the trip had been.
I hear there’s been discussion among the higher echelons of the RFU about ending the England Counties project. From what I saw, this would be a mistake. It gives all those club players who’ve not reached the professional Premiership or Championship level, possibly by choice in the pursuit of another career while playing, an opportunity to represent their country and experience elite treatment. And for a small yet crucial number, it could be a second avenue into the professional game when others have closed.
Above all, the England Counties squad is living proof that the rugby family really exists. In the same way that clubs can reach Twickenham through the various cup competitions, individual players can still aspire to play for their country while not playing in Premiership rugby.
I enjoyed the trip immensely. Everyone was so friendly, helpful and clearly enjoying the experience themselves. Big thanks to everyone involved! Players and staff have already seen about as many of my photos as they’d want but you can view more of the matches themselves here.