Former Test prop Cam Blades will coach Combined Country against the might of the touring British & Irish Lions at Hunter Stadium in Newcastle on Tuesday, 11 June.
Currently coaching Sydney club Southern Districts in Premier Rugby, Blades said he was excited by the prospect of another tilt at the world’s most iconic Rugby team – following his two on field battles with the Lions in 2001.
“I played my last two games in Australia against the Lions,” said the former front rower who headed soon after to the UK where he played with Glasgow in Scotland before retiring in 2003.
“Those two matches against the Lions were just a few days apart.
“I had the thrill of beating the Lions with Australia A in Gosford and then lined up against them the following weekend for NSW.”
The Waratahs match against the Lions is still remembered for the ill-feeling that surfaced after Lions fly-half Ronan O’Gara received facial wounds in a clash with his opposite Duncan MacRae.
“The opportunity to play against the Lions is an unforgettable experience,” said Blades.
“Because they travel here only every 12 years, you can miss out on the experience even if you have a career of incredible longevity.
“I consider myself lucky to have run out against them in 2001. Those memories are certainly some of the fondest of my Rugby career.
“Now I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to coach a team against the Lions. I will be emphasising to the Country players involved just how important this is and what a milestone it is in their careers.
“It is such a great occasion, such a great challenge, and whoever gets that opportunity in the Combined NSW-Queensland Country team will understand it is a genuine stepping stone for their progression in the game.
“I want them all buying into that opportunity and to climb into the Lions in Newcastle.”
Blades confirmed the Combined NSW-Queensland Country team will be Origin-based and players now residing in city locations or plying their trade professionally with Super Rugby franchises will be eligible providing they have been identified as having true Country roots.
“We have a spread sheet of available players,” said Blades.
“It includes players currently with Super Rugby franchises, with Premier Rugby clubs in Sydney and Brisbane, or currently playing with the NSW Country or Queensland Country representative teams.
“We are picking the side on an Origin basis and selection will be on merit.
“We want the best side out there and anyone who fits the criteria is in the running.
“We still have to sort through the availability of some Super Rugby based players we might be interested in, and we hope to have that finalised over the next 10 days.”
A 40-man Combined Country squad will be announced on Friday 24 May with numbers culled to a game day 22 by the following Friday, 31 May.
“It will be a great opportunity for players from different team environments to mix together with the common bond of being Country blokes – boasting a hard work ethic and down to earth attitude,” said Blades.
“I’ve got real confidence we can give the Lions a fantastic challenge.”
Nelson Bay-based Todd Louden, who was in charge of Sydney University when they won last year’s Premier Rugby competition, has been appointed as assistant coach to Blades.
Louden has previously coached at the NSW Waratahs, in Japan and with the Randwick club in Sydney.
Also joining the Combined Country team’s preparation will be Queensland Country coach Garrick Morgan – a former Wallaby lock who also spent several seasons in France – and NSW Country coach Col Jeffs from Cowra.
Blades is in his fourth season on the coaching staff at Southern Districts and was also a technical consultant to the Fijian national team on their European tour last year.
While he played only one Test, against England in 1997, Blades also made three end of season Wallaby tours to Europe in 1996, 1997 and 1998.