Lancashire media manager Dave Parkinson has reflected back on their tour of Serbia in May.
It was a cloudy Tuesday morning in May when Lancashire flew into Belgrade on a Serbian mission. Led by head coach and former Leigh half-back Michael Blakeley, the Red Rose BARLA squad – winners of the 2018 Tri-Counties Series – arrived on a two-game tour.
Due to injuries and player unavailability, a depleted 18-man squad landed to take on the might of Red Star Belgrade and a Serbian Select XIII.
The first gameday was quickly upon the team. Wednesday – the day after our travel and warm welcome from the delegates of the Serbian Rugby League. The squad enjoyed some traditional Serbian food that night while the committee sampled the local beverages.
We all went down to our training field together on the morning of the game. It was set against the stunning backdrop of Belgrade Fortress, easily one of the most spectacular settings any of the guys had seen for a pre-game run through.
While there, Haydock’s Jordan Gibson was named captain with Ryan Hilliard of Pilkington Recs as his deputy.
Sadly, there were further tests for the team to overcome. Rochdale Mayfield’s Jimmy Connaughton was ruled out with illness and Josh Yates of Wigan St Pats suffered a debilitating migraine.
The two injury blows left the team a little short-handed, with the Red Rose already unable to call upon Matty McGeown after he broke his thumb the week before the tour. This resulted in Leigh Miners Rangers Masters player Paul Evans being drafted in for his debut from the bench – but he let nobody down.
Red Star played host to the game on a 3G surface next to the main stadium, with both teams getting changed inside the main ground, which had an incredible view from the window.
The first game also proved a triumph for Leigh Miners Ladies coach Gareth Paine, who led in carries from the wing after answered an SOS. It was fitting that the veteran showed up so well. He had originally been picked to tour Canada in 2016 with the North West Lionhearts, only to suffer a spiral fracture that cruelly denied that opportunity.
Great efforts came in the pack from the likes of debutant Zac Nicholls of Leigh East, who made himself a real nuisance for Red Star, while Rochdale Mayfield’s Zac Baker and Aaron Smith of Wigan St Judes terrorised their opponents. Smith picked up the man of the match award from the hosts, who affectionately christened him “The Russian”.
Lancashire overcame some stubborn resistance from Belgrade and won 38-20. Try scorers were: Adam Holland (Leigh East), Luke Belshaw (Wigan St Pats), Gareth Paine (Leigh Miners Rangers), Ryan Hilliard (Pilkington Recs), To O’Loughlin (Shevington Sharks), Owen Scholes (Thatto Heath Crusaders), Zac Baker (Rochdale Mayfield). Jordan Gibson (Haydock) kicked five goals.
McGeown kept himself involved, leaping to the aid of the referee and becoming a tough judge after learning that the match official squad was short.
Post game, the team were well received by Red Star and were given the chance to see behind the scenes at the famous Rajko Mitic Stadium.
For the next two days, the squad were given time off. Everyone enjoyed a team bonding night on Thursday and then on Friday, the squad visited a boating lake and walked miles before having a meal.
With the weather turning from slate grey skies to scorching blue, sun and 25 degrees – the team trained well on Saturday morning and looked sharp with Yates jumping into action, all again in the shadow of the Belgrade Fortress. The players then had the rest of the day to themselves.
Some opted to explore the historic city and others prepared quietly, while much of the team reconvened in the evening to watch the FA Cup Final.
Sunday soon came around and it was gameday number two. Coach Blakeley and assistants Craig Farrimond, Chris Murphy and Pete Eccles assembled the squad for a light session and captain’s run, where the team was named.
Mid-afternoon, Lancashire were transported by bus to the second playing venue – the Jacinci Stadium, home of FK Heroj. A women’s football match was in progress and the squad lent their vocal support while they awaited access to the changing rooms.
The Serbian Select XIII gave a good account of themselves for the first 15 minutes and scored a try, before the Red Rose pulled away, eventually crossing for 11 tries. Hilliard claimed a zippy hat-trick, with Deane Meadows of Shevington Sharks and Baker both bagging braces.
Other scores came from Belshaw, O’Loughlin, Smith and Matty Whitehead of Oldham St Annes. Leigh East’s Adam Holland kicked eight goals in an impressive 60-6 victory.
The Lancashire squad were set to return home on Monday but air traffic chaos in Germany saw the Red Rose spend an unscheduled night near Frankfurt.
After an extremely early start on Tuesday, the team had to fly from Frankfurt to Munich, before taking a further flight back to Manchester. It was an exhausting end to a successful tour which will also benefit the development of the Serbian competition after Red Star made their Challenge Cup debut earlier this year.