“It's a Ruck, Not a Beach, Don't Just Lie There!”

Tackling was ferocious throughout, here a Viking up-ending a Sultan
Finalists HMS Seahawk and Winners HMS Heron with the Royal Navy Rugby Union Beach Rugby Festival trophy
Viking Squadron Royal Marines take on HMS Sultan at the Beach Rugby Festival
The winning Women's team HMS Ocean 'B' pictured with Royal Navy Rugby Union Director of Communications
HMS Ocean v BRNC in the women's touch rugby competition
An athletic leap to avoid touch

“It's a ruck, not a beach, don't just lie there!”

Ironically referee Andre Watson said that in 2001, perhaps unaware of the exponential growth of beach rugby’s popularity across the rugby-playing world.  Now in its fourth year, the Royal Navy Rugby Union Beach Rugby Festival returned to Weymouth hoping for favourable weather akin to the previous tournaments.  However the fickle British climate dictated that the sun-cream and floppy hats were ditched for umbrellas and warm jumpers, though this did little to dampen the spirit of the sailors who made the journey down to Dorset to participate.

The Royal Navy Rugby Union publicised the event in the weeks leading up to the event via social media and Royal Navy Rugby Union Regional Development Officer, Ady Cherry was delighted with the response to the call.  The news obviously got around about the previous tournament with a 50% increase in the player body both in the Women’s and Men’s events; 13 teams arrived to compete in the men’s full contact matches with HMS Heron providing two sides and, with representation from ships, establishments, air-stations and commando units, the breadth of the Royal Navy was covered.  The women arrived in strength for a touch rugby tournament with HMS Ocean looking to replicate their inaugural 7s victory.

The matches were planned for four minutes per half with a thirty second respite.  Using rolling subs, each team fielded 5 players a-side. ‘Tap and go’ replaced the more technical aspects of the game (scrum and lineout) and there was a no kicking rule in force, though why anyone would want to do that in cold and wet sand…

The emphasis was on fast, expansive, open rugby though that didn’t stop zealous rucking, mauling and strong tackling; the resultant play was exciting to watch.

Overlooked by Weymouth Pavilion, the matches were played across 4 pitches with the men’s teams placed in three groups and once the results were in the teams would be seeded for the knock-out phase of the competition.  The women played a round-robin and the top two teams would compete in the final.

In the group stages the matches were competitive.  HMS Seahawk took League 1 with two wins and draw against the Medics.  HMS Heron ‘B’ bizarrely failed to secure a single win.  HMS Daring, the only ship in that league, had one of each result and must have been delighted with their draw against the Medics.

League 2 saw HMS Heron ‘A’ confirm their position as favourites for the tournament with a strong showing (tries for 19, tries against 2).  HMS Sutherland was at the wrong end of an eight try thumping.  42 Commando came second but did not present the stiff opposition expected when they took on Heron.  In the battle of the Dukes, HMS Somerset took the plaudits against her sister ship.

League 3, the largest league consisting of 5 teams was closely contested by Brittania Royal Navy College (BRNC) and Viking Squadron Royal Marines with the Officer Cadets topping the group. HMS Ocean, back from her deployment and home town visit to Sunderland, was steady throughout but took a pummelling from the Dartmouth side.  HMS Sultan came fourth, by dint of their win over Sutherland ‘B’ (BZ for bringing two teams) who were unlucky in two matches losing by solitary tries in both fixtures.

In the Women's touch competition the barbarian nature of ‘HMS Mixie-Blob’ caused surprise by coming first (try count back).  Adhering to the Regional Development Officer’s mantra of ‘Pitch Up and Play’, they put in some strong and creative performances.  Tied with HMS Ocean ‘B’ they outscored the ship side by 3 tries to win the group. BRNC and Ocean ‘A’ formed the rear guard and were competitive throughout.

The sequencing of the matches was administered by the RDO and his two glamorous assistants, Spider Kelly Royal Navy Rugby Union Community Rugby Coach (West) and Dave ‘MC’ Wakefield, Royal Navy Rugby Union Community Rugby Coach (East); making huge technological leaps the information was promulgated by spreadsheets and PowerPoints onto a big screen.  The passing tourists were stimulated and keenly engaged with the sailors and marines.

In the knock-out stages things turned serious as silverware was up for grabs.  In 2003, when winning the Rugby World Cup England had a call: ‘Hit the beach’ – this was a defensive call for scramble defence to stop quick ball and a probable try.  During the elimination matches, ‘hit the beach’ was interpreted differently as the strength and intensity of the tackle increased ten-fold, testing the limit of the Royal Navy Rugby Union referees’ charity as they were called upon on numerous occasions to brandish a yellow card to diffuse some of the exuberance!

A good showing from the ships saw Somerset, Daring and Sutherland all make the quarter finals for their journey to halt there.  Viking Squadron played well to defeat fellow marines 42 Commando and as the only non-establishment in the semi-finals they were unfortunate as HMS Seahawk denied them by one try.  In the second semi-final Heron ‘A’ and BRNC had a bruising encounter with no-quarter given.  The Air Station’s experience and strength in-depth shone through as they took the tie 5 – 3.

Given time for a breather, Pitch 2 was surrounded for the Women’s final, a match though non-contact was equally robustly contested with players strewn all over the beach!  A keenly contested final saw HMS Ocean ‘B’ take the plaudits over BRNC.

The final of the Men’s tournament was played on Pitch 1 closest to the Pavilion with more opportunity for the spectators to get a bird’s eye view as the two air stations squared up.  An attritional confrontation followed with Seahawk taking a try advantage into the half time break.  A composed Heron returned to the fray and in the dying seconds of normal time scored to level 1 - 1 at the whistle.  A quick gulp of air and the match was decided in extra time with the final say from Heron as they retained the trophy 2 - 1.

Royal Navy Rugby Union Weymouth Beach Rugby Festival Winners 2017 – HMS Heron.

Commodore Nick Roberts said of the festival, “As a Royal Navy Rugby Union Vice President I really look forward to the beach rugby in Weymouth.  The enthusiasm for this abridged form of the game resonates strongly particularly with the Royal Navy Sharks performing so well around the country on the 7s circuit.  The matches have all been competitive, played in a great spirit and tough - I noticed a real cutting edge in the knock-out phases.  I am particularly delighted to see the women’s numbers on the up and the final between Ocean ‘B’ and BRNC showed what a talented sporting group of women we have.”

The Royal Navy Rugby Union were delighted that QinetiQ agreed to sponsor the event with Head of Mission Support, Harry Finnie, presenting the medals and cup alongside Commodore Roberts.  The festival was deemed a great success due to the large volume of participants, volunteers and spectators involved witnessing this very competitive event and it is quite rightly assumed that this event will remain the focal point of community rugby over the summer months.

Article by J Campbell-Baldwin
Images by RNRU © Keith Woodland