Life Before Twickenham

A hundred years ago Service rugby was very different on and off the field.  In February 1914 new Royal Navy Rugby captain, Lt Guy Royle, would have been deep in conversation with Navy Selector, Capt John Kelly, about the make up of that season’s team to play the Army at Queen’s Club.  They would have been looking to build on the Navy’s 6-1 series lead.  Royle’s was a tall order as he was taking over the reigns from Navy and England captain, Norman Wodehouse, who was later to see action at the Battle of Jutland before becoming one of fourteen England Internationals killed in WWII.

Royle would have been pleased that Wodehouse would be taking the field with him alongside other notable internationals ‘Dickie’ Davies, Frank Oakley and Arthur Harrison.  However, he would have been concerned that Harrison’s namesake, another powerhouse of the England scrum ‘Dreadnought’ Harrison, would be lining up for the Army having returned to shore service since the 1913 match.  Such was the lot of the Royal Marines in those days.

As to the match, regrettably it was lost.  It was the last Army Navy match to be played at the Queen’s Club.  Also, it was the last Army Navy match before the Royal Air Force joined and the instigation of the Inter Services Tournament .  The six year break, caused by the Great War, witnessed huge change.  The RFU had deliberately aligned the growing game of rugby with the values of Service life, the Royal Navy Rugby Union had insisted that the game leave Queen’s to the bigger capacity of Twickenham and the Army Rugby Union had asserted that the teams should be allowed to select from outside of the officer corps.  A hundred years on and the bonds between rugby and Service life are stronger than ever; the end of season Inter Service finale, the Army Navy match, brings record crowds of over 72,000 to Twickenham and a Naval rating, CPO Dave Pascoe, has captained the team more times then anyone, surpassing former record holder and Navy Chairman, Capt Chris Alcock OBE, last year.

However, for all the change, there remains stability in the ways of Royal Navy rugby.  As the team meet this week and prepare for the season ahead, John Kelly would recognise and appreciate current selector’s Andy Kellett’s plans.  John Kelly was the Superintendent of Physical Training in 1914 and would not recognise HMS Temeraire or it’s artificial pitch today.  However the matches against Oxford University, Cambridge University and Bath Rugby played at the famous venues of Burnaby Road, Grange Road and the Recreation Ground are all those that he himself prepared for.  Indeed like the Army Navy match, Oxford and Cambridge’s varsity match moved from Queen’s to Twickenham to cater for the larger crowds.  John Kelly, later as Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, would also go on to appreciate the unique challenges that the Navy team face in bringing its best players together in a maritime environment.  No doubt Andy Kellett will hope that when the squad meet up, the players who have been deployed afloat have made wise use of today’s modern fitness facilities onboard.  Finally John Kelly was acknowledged as possessing excellent personnel management skills, a fact he demonstrated when the Navy had a minor incident over pay at Invergordon.  His abilities and views would no doubt have been in harmony with today’s coaching skills and practices where assembling a squad and putting together a team performance is so much more that just selecting good players.

Last season the team came together when it mattered and produced performances that were worthy of the shirt.  A solid away win at RAF Halton built on a convincing win over the French in the first capped game of the season.  Twickenham’s Naval followers were given plenty of reasons to feel pride and raise a cheer before seeing their budding hopes dashed by the individual brilliance of England Saxon winger, Semesa Rokoduguni.

This season will be no easier, particularly as Roko is likely to be joined by Combined Services and Bristol star winger, Sammy Speight, on the Army’s other flank.  However last season showed, quite clearly, that the Navy are able to build a team that can compete for the Inter Service crown.  This season a third trip to the claustrophobic and intimidating atmosphere of the Stade Mayol, in Toulon, will add real intensity to the Navy’s preparations.  A first ever win here, in the face of the famous ‘pilou pilou’ chants of the home fans would be the perfect springboard to launch the 2014 Inter Service challenge.

For this to become reality for those players selected for Senior XV squad, their life before Twickenham will be very busy indeed.  Preparation will require commitment to the cause that has led current England Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster, to introduce an award in memory of Navy great Arthur Harrison VC.  The facilities at their training camp of HMS Collingwood meet all the requirements of modern day sport.  The dedication and desire to win have long been considered personal essentials for those who wear the famous Navy Blue shirt.  As the team comes together we will bring you all their results and performances on the Royal Navy Rugby Union website and via Facebook and Twitter @RNRugby.  Inter Services 2014, the journey begins and there is a lot of life before Twickenham in May.

The Royal Navy Senior XV’s first fixture is at USSG, Burnaby Road on Wednesday 12 February, KO 1915

A full list of the Senior XV fixtures is available here.

Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones