A press conference at the Kenya High Commission this morning saw the official launch of the England Counties tour to Kenya and Uganda this June. In previous years the side has toured to North and South America, as well as the Far East, but this will be the first time they have travelled to Africa.
In fact, it will be the first time that a touring rugby side has visited Kenya since the British & Irish Lions played a match in Nairobi back in 1962. The Counties trip to East Africa however is about so much more than just playing a series. Working with the Tag Rugby Trust, the squad will take part in many community outreach programmes, including in the Ugandan township of Mbale, where the local Mbale Elephants rugby team has recently undergone a radical rejuvenation. Speaking with England Counties Team Manager Michael Old, and President of the Kenyan Rugby Union Mwangi Muthee, both men relayed their excitement about the project.
Old recently visited the area of Mbale, returning with a real sense of optimism about the project. “I went out there a couple of weeks ago, and the enthusiasm was fantastic. We went and visited blind schools, orphanages to see what we could do in the country. The first thing that enthuses me is the challenge of playing these teams, because they are big, quick, and physical. They also play a different style of rugby which will be interesting for our guys to experience, but the massive positive here is the amount of good I believe we can do for the communities out there.”
Picking the England Counties side does not happen until after this year’s County Championship, of which the final takes place on the 27th of May at Twickenham, leaving the selectors a relatively short period of time to choose their squad. “Until we know who is playing in the County Championship, we have no idea what the selection will be for the England side. That’s one of the beauties of it to be honest, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
“There is a core of county players who play year in, year out, but part of the England Counties job is to encourage more players to play in the County Championship. By announcing tours of this nature, as you can tell by the enthusiasm in this morning’s press conference, there’s a real hunger to play county rugby in order to be involved on these tours.”
Since its inception in 2001, the Counties side has proved to be a valuable stepping stone in the careers of England EPS players David Strettle and Ben Foden, as well as former England representatives Shaun Perry and Dean Schofield, whilst the most recent player to benefit from time with the side was Saracens and England Saxons scrum-half Ben Spencer (right), who played for the side last year. With that in mind though, the Counties team is not all about picking youth.
“It’s a massive mix. We’ve had players in their late 30s who’ve been around the block a couple of times. When you have only two or three training sessions before the game and you’re going away for two weeks on tour, you need that experience. You can’t go with a bunch of kids who haven’t toured, who haven’t had that experience of life. But it’s not just about the rugby. It’s about engaging with the community out there, so you’ve got to have a blend of players. You want to have the 18 year olds and 19 year olds out there, because it’s a building block for them, but you do need that experience or “lack of hair” shall we say.”
For the KRU President Muthee, who played rugby up in Newcastle during his time at university making many great friends and memories, Kenyan rugby in particular is on the up. He was present over the last weekend in Las Vegas, when the Kenyan 7s side won the Plate competition and were narrowly knocked out by eventual champions Samoa in the main semi-finals.
“We only lost one game, to Samoa who we gave a real scare. The boys did well, and they are building a good culture and unique Kenyan style of playing rugby. We want to consolidate the good work from Saturday’s performance, and going forward we don’t want to play the way England play, or New Zealand play or South Africa play; we want to create our own style of playing rugby because it would great to have that unique brand. We are very ambitious.”
To establish themselves as a true global rugby force however, Muthee accepts that Kenya must develop the fifteen man game as well as having success in the 7s format. This is part of the reason why the Counties tour is so important, because if it proves to be a great success there is a chance for future investment in the Kenyan game. “When we talk about Rugby World Cups, the XVs game in Kenya needs a lot of work. We are not ignoring that side of the game, because we are the African champions after the Springboks, and going forward we need to develop a better all-round game of rugby.”
“But the challenge is resources. Building a sport anywhere, even in England, is very expensive. That’s a challenge to us. That is what is holding us back.” Muthee may be reluctant to put a date on Kenya participating in a Rugby World Cup, but the potential and ambition is certainly there. With plenty of investment, it could happen sooner than people think.
by Ben Coles