The strength of North East rugby below the top two divisions will be in full evidence this Friday night when an England Counties squad including Blaydon lock Chris Wearmouth and a host of other local players takes on the Ireland Club XV.
The 7.30pm kick-off at Darlington’s Northern Echo Arena sees Wearmouth joined by Blaydon club-mates Robbie Kalbraier and Gavin Jones, Mowden pair Cameron Mitchell and Pierce Phillips also included on their home ground as the best players from outside the professional game pull on the national jersey.
For Durham’s county captain Wearmouth it is no first, the Weardale farmer explaining: “Friday would be my ninth appearance, and it has been an amazing experience.
“It gives lads at our level something to really aim for outside of the obvious week-to-week targets in club rugby, and it also makes you want to play for your county at the end of the season.
“To play for England Counties you have to have played county rugby, and once you are past a certain age it becomes your goal rather than, say, Newcastle Falcons.
“My aim in the season now is to play as well as I can for Blaydon and Durham to keep knocking on that England Counties door, and I am sure it is the same for a lot of lads.”
Part of the national side beaten by a single point at their French equivalents three weeks ago, Wearmouth has seen the world with a squad which only came into existence during the past decade, but which has proved hugely popular.
“I went to Africa the year before last when we toured Kenya and Uganda, and those sorts of experiences are what it is all about,” he said.
“We were taking the game into towns where they had literally never even seen a rugby ball before and, rather than the little brats we can sometimes get over here, the kids all wanted to learn.
“In terms of the games we played they were all good wins for us, but you could see the potential in the lads we were up against. Athletically they were excellent; they just probably needed that little bit of expert coaching and structure. If they get that they could really become useful, and they had no regard at all for their bodies in terms of throwing themselves into tackles and breakdowns.
“I was also lucky enough to go to Belgium last year, and it is great because you meet loads of people who you would not normally get the chance to get to know. I have made some good mates, and the whole experience has been brilliant.”
Expecting a big home support this Friday at a venue which has already sold in excess of 1,500 tickets, he added: “It is great for the North East to be so heavily involved, with three lads from Blaydon and two from Darlington Mowden Park.
“With me being from Co Durham I am fetching half of Weardale down to watch the game at the arena, and it is a massive honour for me personally.
“I was lucky enough to play in Preston once before for them, but with this being near my home it is going to be an amazing night.
“The standard is a bit of a step up from National One, and the game in France was extremely physical against a very big side.
“We had every excuse under the sun to go to there last month and get absolutely walloped, but everybody bought into it and we should have won the game, to be honest.
“It was 16-15 in the end. We had a conversion charged down which would have put us four points ahead, then they kicked a penalty three minutes from the end and we never recovered. We were all bitterly disappointed because the Counties have never won in France, and I doubt we will ever be as close again.
“We played them in Nevers, which is in the centre of France, and the money over there is unbelievable even in the third tier. The ground we played at was in the equivalent league to Blaydon over here, and their council had just built them a £5million stadium. The facilities were second to none, and it was crazy.
Combining his rugby with farming duties the bruising forward is a throwback to how rugby used to be, when top international players would juggle day jobs with club and England commitments.
That is very much the Counties philosophy, Wearmouth stating: “I farm up at Eastgate in Weardale, and the snow has been horrendous last week.
“We are getting prepared for the lambing season at the moment which is a very busy time of year, and just the general day-to-day feeding of the cattle and sheep.
“It can be hard juggling it with the rugby, but I am very lucky in that my dad lets me take a full part in training and games. I would definitely not be at the level of rugby I am without that support, and a lot of farmers I know just can’t get to away games and things like that.
“Thankfully I have been able to do it, and it means I can be involved with great occasions like Friday.”
Advanced tickets for the 7.30pm kick-off are available for £5 by calling 01325 350 267, or for £7 on the night.