THE ENGLAND RU Counties XV will expand their extensive international portfolio next year when they visit Africa for a three-match tour during the first two weeks in June.
They will also break new ground domestically when they take their game against the Ulster Bank Ireland Clubs XV on March 16 to Lancashire – the first time the Counties XV have played in the North of England.
The Counties XV, the representative flagship of the county and community game outside the Aviva Premiership, has already visited North and South America, Europe and the Far East since it was founded in 2002, but this tour to Kenya and Uganda is the first excursion to the continent of Africa, although they have played Tunisia.
The programme includes matches against Uganda, East Africa and an East Africa Tuskers Invitation XV.
“This is a really exciting tour and exactly what England Counties is all about as a flagship of England Community rugby and a vehicle for promoting the game among other International Board countries,” said Team Manager Michael Old.
“Not only will we be playing three fixtures to promote the game into East Africa, but also teaming with Uganda and Kenya Rugby, along with the Tag Rugby charity, to spend time taking the game into schools and rugby clubs.
“All three bodies are working hard in East Africa to make rugby the national sport and during our recent visit we went to schools and orphanages where Tag had started their programmes.
“It was an incredible experience and one the Counties squad will get heavily involved in, leaving a positive legacy in East Africa. It promises to be an amazing tour for all the players involved, both from a playing perspective and a personal experience.”
“Having been out there to meet our hosts and get a feel for what we’ll be involved in, I’m hugely excited on all fronts. After watching the athleticism, skills and physical commitment of the players on show in the Uganda Cup Final, I know we’ll be facing strong and determined opposition.
“They can’t wait for an England team to go over there and there is no doubt they will provide a serious challenge. The East Africa sides will include Ugandan and Kenyan players, with the Invitational team including players from South Africa and other major playing nations to supplement their squad.
“It’s a thrilling prospect and one that I hope strikes a chord with players and attracts them to play in the Bill Beaumont Cup this season, which remains the vehicle for inclusion in the tour party.”
Selection for the Ireland Clubs XV game will be made from players with a National League club contract.
One man who will be more excited than most about the Counties trip is Stephen Pope, the Director of Club Rugby at Blackheath, who has been appointed the team’s new Forwards Coach in succession to Dave Baldwin.
The 37-year-old former London Wasps, London Welsh, Swansea, Old Albanians and Blackheath player has been at The Rectory Field in a number of posts since 2004 when he joined them from Swansea.
"I'm very excited about joining the Counties operation and about linking up again with Jan Bonney, the backs coach." says Pope: "I played alongside him as a kid and I've got to know him pretty well during his time at Saracens Academy.
"Blackheath were delighted with my appointment and have been very supportive, which I really appreciate.
"Obviously getting the chance to go to Africa on the summer tour is as thrilling as it gets, so I'm really pleased about being involved."
"Steve was an outstanding candidate and I'm very much looking forward to welcoming him on board for the next two years and to seeing him and Head Coach Jan Bonney working together." said Old.
"At this stage I should add my thanks to Steve's predecessor Dave Baldwin, who has done a great job with the Counties since joining us in