Following on from our series of articles produced by Cambridge Director of Rugby Richie Williams, Leicester Lions’ Gareth Collins is next to pen his journey in the game as he looks ahead to another National Two South campaign with the Midlands club.

After focusing on his domestic playing career in his second blog, Gareth talks about his time with England Counties in his latest post….

As my last article alluded to, I had some great times playing in the National Leagues for both Rugby Lions and Leicester Lions. I also had some great experiences on the 7’s circuit playing for Apache, with whom I got to travel the world with, but probably my proudest memories are those from my time spent with England Counties.

I have always been, and still am, a huge advocate of county rugby. I played for my county, Warwickshire, at every age group and this continued as a senior. There is something special about county rugby. I think in my case it was built up through my experience as a junior player.

In the absence of academies, there was always a high level of competition to play for your county at age group level, as everyone had to start there. There was then a clear pathway to regional and international age-grade sides. Not everyone progressed but at least there was a sense of pride, and an experience of competitive rugby, by being selected at each level. I think this is something that, sadly, has been lost in the junior game with the introduction of academies.

Without academies, it also allowed us to play, and progress, in a number of sports which I believe leads to a more well-rounded and instinctive rugby player, and definitely a more well-rounded person. My experience of a number of sports has also definitely helped my coaching.

I also think in the absence of any cup competition for the National League sides (which is something else I don’t agree with) the county competitions fill a void left with no knockout rugby. Of course it also gives players the platform to be selected for England Counties.

I was first selected for England Counties in 2009, for the tour to Japan and Korea. I remember receiving a phone call from the manager at the time, Danny Hodgson, and being shocked. It wasn’t something that I’d even thought about as not many players from level 4 were ever selected.

The tour was an incredible experience and it was the first time I had been exposed to such levels of professionalism. I loved the attention to detail from both the coaches and managers. At the same time, every effort was made to make the experience an enjoyable one. An England Counties tour is a unique experience of ‘professional’ rugby combined with a traditional rugby tour. For me, it was the best of both worlds and it’s definitely an ethos that I’ve taken into my approach as a National League coach.

I was lucky enough to go on two further tours, to Canada and Spain, and also play in some internationals against France and Ireland. I was also given the honour of being captain for the game away to Ireland. It’s hard to put into words the pride that you have when leading an England side out.

The game against Ireland was really tough. Firstly, for some reason that I can’t remember, the national anthems wouldn’t be played on the pitch, so I was asked to lead the singing of the anthem in the changing room before we went out. For someone brought up to support Wales, this wasn’t easy!

I remember having to rehearse the words in preparation and also fearing that no-one would join in. Thankfully this wasn’t the case and actually the moment turned out to be a hugely passionate and memorable one. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us to win the game and we lost to a strong Irish side 16-10.

I was given another opportunity to lead England Counties on the tour to Spain. Following two comfortable victories in the warm up games, we played the national side, who were ranked in the top 20 countries in the world. England Counties had never lost a ‘Test’ match on tour so I was desperate not to be the first captain to do so. Thankfully, we won the game pretty comfortably.

One of my favourite experiences on these tours was doing the outreach work. Even in Japan, with a language barrier, I got so much enjoyment from running sessions with local school children. Not only did these experiences cement my decision to become a teacher, but it’s probably the first time I saw myself becoming a coach in the future. The concept of ‘giving back’ is so important to me and these times certainly helped develop that attitude.

I was also exposed to some great coaches through my involvement with England Counties who not only had a real influence on me as a player at the time, but also the way I work as a coach now.

Both Dave Baldwin and Jan Bonney, who were ever-present throughout my time with England Counties, had a manner that got the best out of people. I think it was the way they dealt with you on and off the field – two really good guys who loved the game and understood the importance of culture. Jan, in particular, had a real impact on me – so much so that I contemplated signing for Rosslyn Park where he was coaching at the time.

Playing for England Counties is a unique experience and one that I believe needs to stay in the game for the good of the sport, and especially the National Leagues. Time together is obviously very limited so to forge bonds and implement systems, and compete against international sides, is a huge challenge.

For me, England Counties was the pinnacle of my career, as it is for many National League players. It gives some just reward for the undeniable high level of effort and performance from players at levels 3 and 4. However, I also got to see the opportunity it gave to younger Premiership players such as Ben Spencer, Will Fraser, Mark Wilson, Will Cliff and Tommy Taylor, who have all progressed to Premiership and full international rugby careers.

The experiences I had throughout my time with England Counties helped me develop as a player, coach, and most importantly, as a person. I maybe biased, but I think it would be such a shame if we lost county rugby and the England Counties sides. If anything, I would advocate more support to improve the competitions and the opportunities that they provide.