RNRU Life Member Captain John Jacobsen Royal Navy - Obituary

In 1973 John (far left) secured the Inter Service title as selector.
John in 1962 in his final match playing at Twickenham.

The Royal Navy Rugby Union has recently been informed of the sad news of the death of one of our Life Members, Captain John Jacobsen, who passed away in October 2020.  John’s naval career and contribution to Navy Rugby was significant and so we have compiled a short summary to share with you. 

John Jacobsen was a former player, selector and chairman of the Royal Navy Rugby Union whose contribution to Navy Rugby was recognised through his appointment as a Life Member on retiring from the Service in 1982. During his Naval Service he was instrumental in the development of the Royal Navy’s nuclear propulsion programme and this significant involvement prevented John from winning more than his four caps. However, it did not prevent him from becoming one of the most influential administrators in the Union’s history. 

Born in Wallington, Surrey in September 1930, John attended the famous rugby playing Whitgift School and represented their 1st XV for two seasons in 1947 and 1948. During his second year of 1st XV rugby, he also won his Surrey Public School’s cap before he furthered his academic studies at Queen’s College, Cambridge. On graduation, he joined the Royal Navy as a Marine Engineer as a trainee and played his rugby with United Services Portsmouth RFC.  He stayed at United Services throughout his training which included specialist submarine training at HMS Dolphin in 1955. 

Despite winning Combined Services recognition in 1954, on their tour to France, where he played against France B and their Armed Forces, and also representing Hampshire in 1953 and 1954, John could not break into the Royal Navy Senior XV. He had to be content with being a travelling reserve in both 1954 and 1955. It was not until 1956, now playing for United Services Chatham and serving on the submarine, HMS Trump, that he won his first Royal Navy cap under the captaincy of Alex Valentine. 

Further caps would surely have followed as John impressed at both loosehead and tighthead prop. However, in 1957 the programme of HMS Trump restricted rugby opportunities and in 1958 John was posted to the Ministry of Defence, Bath where he immersed himself fully with the developing Nuclear Propulsion programme. His work in Bath limited his opportunities to wear the Navy shirt though he did find time to make 73 appearances for Bath RFC from 1958, leading the team in the 1959-60 season. It was during this time that John’s clarity of thought and understanding of what was important and what wasn’t came to the fore. It was a trait that was to serve the Royal Navy Rugby Union well in the future. 

Following his time at Bath, John was appointed to HMS Forth, the submarine depot ship, at Devonport. A season with Devonport Services RFC completed his collection of ‘Services’ sides and also saw him recalled to the Navy team for a final cap in 1962, shortly before taking HMS Valiant to sea as the Marine Engineering Officer. 

Valiant was the second of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines and the technology, which John had been so instrumental in developing, continued to experience teething troubles. One of the issues experienced was with the carbon monoxide burners, which were quite an important safety component in the submarine. They were building a thin layer of residue which was impeding their use. No doubt the Ship’s Company were pleased with the unexpected stop-over in Mauritius but a requirement to generate heat at 1500 degrees fahrenheit to remove the residue probably resulted in the local crematorium’s most unusual request!

By the time John left Valiant in 1966, to return to Bath, he had retired from playing and swapped the front row for the touchline, as he took up refereeing, first with Furness Referee Society and then with Somerset. It was as a Somerset referee, in 1968, that he became the Team Manager for the Royal Navy Senior XV. Though he held this post for only a season he became the selector in 1970 and secured the Inter Service title in 1973, before stepping down to become the honorary secretary of the Royal Navy Rugby Union later that year. 

John’s tenure as secretary was the last before the post was moved under the control of the Royal Navy Sports Control Board, where Mike Vernon took over. In moving aside John became the Union’s first chairman, a role he handed over to Sir Ted Horlick before undertaking a second period as chairman from 1980 – 82. 

John stepped down as chairman in 1982 at the same time as he retired from the Service, his last appointment was as the Captain of HMS Raleigh. However, his career had been shaped by, and indeed shaped, Royal Navy Nuclear propulsion. After his second assignment at Bath, he served twice on the staff of Flag Officer Submarines and was also the Nuclear Power Manager at Chatham. During this time at Chatham, he became chairman of United Services Chatham, and he also held the role of chairman at Devonport Services in his last two years of Service. 

He was made a Life Member of the Royal Navy Rugby Union on his retirement and remained closely involved with Navy Rugby and Rugby in general. He served on the Surrey RFU Committee and became their chairman of selectors in 1987. However, he also found time for other sporting pursuits including a successful completion of the Fastnet Yacht Race, where he humbly described his role as ‘moveable ballast’. Similarly, self-deprecating, he described the attainment of his Offshore Skipper’s Ticket as linked to the fact that the examiner was on his staff at HMS Raleigh!

As with so many who have been so involved with the Royal Navy Rugby Union, the Army Navy match remained one of the highlights of his year, a trip he always looked forward to.  His final match against the Army was in 1962, one of the most physical encounters there has ever been. The Navy pack that day were small in stature and faced an Army pack with five International players in their ranks. The Navy cause was further hampered by both flankers being injured, in the days before replacements were permitted. Though ultimately a three-point loss, John was part of one of the Navy’s great forward efforts, even in defeat. He wore the number 10 shirt that day, when numbering was different, but clearly, as many props do, he hankered after the freedom of the wide-open spaces of the back line. Once when asked about his favourite rugby memory in the Navy he recalled his time in Valiant at the Singapore VIIs where his team lost in the final. He attributed the side’s success to their fifth hand, a young aspiring player who was later to become the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Boyce, and no doubt underplayed his own personal contribution.

Throughout his thirty-year Royal Navy career, Captain John Jacobsen, was a true Navy Rugby man and the Union will remain indebted to his contribution as player, administrator and leader. This continued during his thirty-eight years as a Life Member. He thought Navy Rugby was special because, in John’s own words, “It has the same ethos as a good Ship’s Company, fostering loyalty, dedication and top performance and also tremendous enjoyment”. John Jacobsen was himself a special person who provided tremendous enjoyment through his play on the rugby field and did so much to forge the Navy Rugby ethos of today. He will be sadly missed by all the Royal Navy Rugby Union family. We send his wife Vicky our sincere condolences.

By line: Geraint Ashton Jones.
Images credit: © Crown copyright.