Time for Queen Elizabeth or the Prince of Wales to Step Up?

Is it time for a second ship to win the Navy Cup? Image credit: © Ministry of Defence 2020.
The HMS Heron & HMS Ark Royal teams in 1973 after Heron had beaten holders Ark Royal in the 2nd Navy Cup. Image credit: Trevor Gatehouse.
Binge Gatehouse with the cup after the first of Heron’s 8 Navy Cup victories. Image credit: Trevor Gatehouse.
John Lamsin and the HMS Seahawk pack have been the foundation of their recent Navy Cup dominance. Image credit: © Alligin Photography.
Holding the Navy Cup final in December has resulted in many wet and muddy celebrations over the years. Image credit: © Alligin Photography.

The Navy Cup is approaching its 50th anniversary and in the illustrious list of winners the only ship remains HMS Ark Royal from the inaugural competition.  With two new carriers the pride of the Fleet is it time that a ship once more has her name engraved on the trophy?

It could have been so very different.  Before the Royal Navy Rugby Union was formed the Rugby Football Union, wanting to establish rugby as the sport of the armed forces, offered to provide both the British Army and the Royal Navy a trophy for a cup competition.  The Army accepted believing that it would bring their men and officers together, the Royal Navy declined believing that the sport should remain true to its Corinthian ideals.  It took the Royal Navy another 64 years before they finally introduced a Royal Navy Rugby Union cup competition which was won, in that first year, by HMS Ark Royal who defeated HMS Neptune 12-10 in a tense final.  They so nearly retained the cup as they remained unbeaten through to the next season’s final when HMS Heron claimed the first of their many cup wins.  Heron ended Ark’s 18-month unbeaten rugby run with a 15-3 win which united both the soccer and rugby trophies in their Somerset trophy cabinet.  It was to be the start of HMS Heron’s love affair with the Navy Cup and they remain, to this day, the most successful team with 8 wins, closely followed by HMS Seahawk on 7 wins. 

Technically HMS Ark Royal’s win was not in the cup competition but rather the cup trial.  When the Royal Navy Rugby Union finally bowed to pressure and decided to look at introducing a cup, they formed a committee under the chairmanship of Capt Beardon.  The committee recommended a trial competition and so in 1972 the notice went out for entries.  For Ark Royal the competition fitted in well with her programme as she returned from her Atlantic deployment in time to face the engineering students of Manadon and the ship’s team surprised many with a hard fought 12-9 victory.  Perhaps Ark had the element of surprise as they had been playing together in the United States, including a televised match in New York.  Despite losing their driving force and rugby officer, McKerrow, they steamed East, clearly in good form, and ready for the cup.  Having despatched RNEC Manadon they met CTC Lympstone in the 2nd round and we think they drew that match, 7-7, but went through as the away team.  HMS Bulwark were then well beaten before Ark beat HMS Raleigh to become Plymouth Command champions and win through to the semi finals.  During these early rounds Ark’s programme had meant she was at sea for much of the time so the team were pleased that for both the semi final, against HMS Daedalus, and the subsequent final against HMS Neptune they had a period alongside and could prepare properly.  The 11-6 win over Daedalus was on a very heavy Rectory pitch in a game played in torrential rain and strong gusting winds before the weather eased slightly for the December final.  The team from Ark were heavy favourites for the final, a testament to the rugby they had played through the Autumn.  However, not for the first time, a side travelled South from Scotland determined to cause an upset.  And they nearly did in a close and tense final eventually won by HMS Ark Royal.  To celebrate their inaugural Navy Cup win, the Ark’s rugby team went on to complete a remarkable unbeaten (Navy) season, retaining the Fleet cup through wins over HMS Kent, HMS Blake and HMS Tiger.  A short tour to South Wales was followed by a tour of East Anglia before the side played Oslo and then Barcelona before finishing their ‘European’ rugby with a mini tournament in Malta.  The successful 72-73 season finally ended back in the USA with three wins in Miami, New York must have seemed a life time ago. 

And the committee?  The official report suggested that the cup was a success and should be retained.  But!!  The wheels of committees can turn quite slowly and it was felt that the 1973-74 season should continue with the trial before a commitment was made.  52 sides entered the second Navy Cup with HMS Ark Royal looking to retain the trophy.  They so nearly succeeded once more reaching the final, following a semi final win over HMS Neptune (10-8), where they were to meet HMS Heron.  Heron were led by the fiercely competitive Binge Gatehouse who was also to lead the Royal Navy and Combined Services teams.  He had put together a pack built in his own image that had powered Heron through to the final.  HMS Collingwood, who had easily won the Portsmouth A Division, were no match in a semi final that Heron won 10-0.  However the Ark Royal pack were one of the few, in the Navy, that could match up to the Heron forwards, and so, in the final, it proved as both sides produced high class forward play that was skilful and bruising in equal measure.  Dusty Miller, could not fault the efforts of Ark Royal’s pack but he and the side were unable to contain the man of the match performance from Heron scrum half, Dudley Jones.  It was Jones’ intelligent kicking game which turned the match along with two superbly taken drop goals.  It was these drop goals which were the difference at the break as Heron led 9-3, both sides having kicked a penalty.  Ark Royal had two kickable opportunities early in the second half, which could have levelled the match but Southon missed them both before Jones was successful with two more kicks to take HMS Heron in to an unassailable 15-3 lead.  Not only did the win start HMS Heron’s love affair with the Navy Cup, it ended HMS Ark Royal’s unbeaten 18 month run in Navy rugby fixtures.  In fact, their only losses had been in Malta and during the South Wales tour the season before. 

By now the committee were finally convinced and at the 1974 Annual General Meeting approval was given for the Navy Cup to be an official competition of the Royal Navy Rugby Union and for the two trial winners to be considered the first winners of the cup.  HMS Heron have since gone on to win the cup a further 7 times but have recently had to cede their dominant position as cup kings to HMS Seahawk who 3 times in the last decade have produced back to back wins, including a record score in 2011 when they beat HMS Sultan 74-6.  This recent success means that Seahawk are now only one win behind their Fleet Arm rivals with 7 wins to HMS Heron’s 8.  They would clearly like to overhaul that record by the time the 50th Navy Cup is played in two year’s time.  History though is against them because though a number of teams have retained the cup, no team has yet to win it 3 times in a row.

If history is against HMS Seahawk is it again time that a ship once more lifts the trophy?  With the Royal Navy now having two large carriers at the centre of the Fleet there is surely not a better a time for a ship to again put together a winning Navy Cup run and join HMS Ark Royal on the winner’s honour board.  Both carriers have busy programmes as they continue their work ups but then so did HMS Ark Royal in that very first cup run.  When rugby resumes then time will tell.

By line: Geraint Ashton Jones