Tour to South Africa Concludes Season of Firsts

The Women’s Royal Navy Rugby Union team concluded their historic 2022 season, which saw them play at Twickenham, with a first southern hemisphere tour.

In a year where the annual Army v Navy match was a double header and the Women also played at the home of English rugby the Royal Navy Rugby Union (RNRU) have continued to provide a platform for the women’s game to flourish with a tour to South Africa.

As with many things that have happened in 2022, the Twickenham debut and inaugural tour were both delayed from previous years by the global Covid-19 pandemic. But the Women’s side used that playing pause to identify and grow new talent which provided greater strength and depth to the playing pool.

There had been tremendous growth throughout the year which had not always been reflected in the results and so there was a confidence heading into the Inter-Service Championship. The Navy pushed a strong RAF side to their limit in a pulsating encounter where the last 15 minutes swung in the favour of the Light Blue and despite showing moments of individual brilliance at Twickenham the Navy were well beaten by an excellent Army team.

Just a few days after the Army v Navy match and without time for the adrenaline to subside the women were on a flight to Cape Town where they would experience a range of opposition, cultural experiences and collective growth that only occurs through such opportunities. With the tour gaining endorsement of Springbok legend Bryan Habana, through a chance encounter on the flight, the omens were good that the tour was going to be special.

There was little time to settle into the new surroundings for the tour party before they were on the pitch for the Royal Navy Women’s first ever competitive outing South of the equator against Stellenbosch University. Playing in the shadow of Table Top Mountain against an institution famed worldwide for it’s rugby calibre the rugby was of course fast paced and free flowing, especially in the shortened format chosen by the hosts. The effects of the Army v Navy match the week before were still apparent and Stellenbosch sneaked the match but it gave the Navy a good idea of the standard to expect in South Africa.

It was a very different setting 4 days later when the Navy travelled from the manicured grass of Stellenbosch University to the township of Langa to play the Busy Bee’s, a club whose history places them as a bastion of rugby amongst the black community in South Africa. The visit to the township was part of a programme that was more than just a rugby match and included a tour of the area and an outreach session where the players and staff took a fun coaching session with local children from Siyabulela Primary School. The team’s coach, Chief Petty Officer Sarah Jenkins had organised the session and was certainly impressed by the talent displayed by the young players and certainly thought there could be a few future Springboks!

After the coaching session the side were pleased to donate items that had been brought from the UK to support young people and women associated to rugby in Langa, an area where over 50% of the community is unemployed and there is significant amounts of domestic violence. The RNRU brought items that included rugby boots through to clothing and feminine products. These were brought out from the UK together with a children’s football strip donated by Fareham FC.

The focus then shifted to the fixture against the Busy Bees Women. It was great game to watch and both teams were fairly evenly matched, despite the Busy Bees being the largest contributor of players to the Western Provence team and the Springboks. In a match reminiscent of the RAF fixture the Navy kept the game close until the home team pulled away in the last 15 minutes and the final score was 27-19.

The post match reception was one where the touring party were treated to a banquet of African delicacies, traditional entertainments by local musicians and for the Siya Hani Chairman and Head coach of the Busy Bee’s team, to exchange kind words and gifts with Captain Suzi Nielsen, RNRU Vice President and Commanding Officer of HMS Raleigh.

Despite the highs of being on tour the party were very much aware that the team had lacked a win in their Inter-Service Campaign and tour matches of 2022 with the opportunity to get one now resting on the match against False Bay RFC. This was due to be their toughest encounter of the tour but the ladies were battle hardened and by now very much in tune with each other. The team that took to the field started with a bang unlike their usual slow start! Engineering Technician Sian McLaughlin, Leading Air Engineering Technician Abi Sondack, Lieutenant Abi Ashby and Petty Officer Sam Alderson crossed the white wash to give the team a 22-15 victory, it was a moment of truth in False Bay as the last playing moment of the season was the high the team’s hard work deserved.

Lieutenant Commander Paula Bennett-Smith, the Assistant Director of Rugby for the RNRU Women, said “This was a great fixture to watch. Both teams committed to open rugby and were evenly matched. A well fought game from start to finish! It’s fantastic to achieve a win at the last game of the tour, and the last of the 21/22 season. Many memories have been made this season, and I’m so proud to have been involved in this momentous season!”

The tour has provided the squad with memories to last a lifetime and the cohesion that it has created will hopefully have a long term effect on the playing calibre of the Royal Navy Women. The Tour itself can be summed up eloquently by Leading Hand Rose Dixon the 2022 Inter-Services Captain, “The tour was humbling and emotional, it made us feel so grateful for what we have in life and the realisation that so many struggle for basic necessities. It has been the experience of a lifetime, completely unforgettable and has capped off an incredible year to be part of the Women’s Navy Rugby team.”