A Point of Difference
RN Senior XV
RAF Senior XV
Two games, twelve months apart, amazing similarities but an important and solitary point of difference. Last year, at RAF Halton, as the game reached its climax the RAF monopolised possession, challenged the Royal Navy’s composure and found it wanting. A winning lead had evaporated and the match was drawn with the last play of the game. Roll forward to Portsmouth and the Royal Navy had far less of a lead to defend but they maintained their composure in a last quarter shut out that restricted the Royal Air Force to two long range penalties which were both missed. Victory by a single point, 9-8 but in terms of preparation for the end of season finale at Twickenham the point of difference is massive. The Army have their own set backs to overcome but at Burnaby Road the Royal Navy firmly laid their RAF demons to rest.
Springtime in Portsmouth does not have quite the same ring as Springtime in Paris and only the most hopeful romantic would have arrived at a sun-kissed USSG Portsmouth expecting champagne rugby. Too much was at stake, two teams seeking their own very different goals. The RAF knew a win gave them back to back Inter Services, and for the first time they were playing a game with pressure on their shoulders. The Royal Navy knew that defeat was simply not an option.
The opening quarter ebbed and flowed and both sides found that rare commodity, space, albeit it fleetingly. The Navy with ball in hand forced the RAF to concede penalties, the Navy in defence allowed the RAF fly half, Tom Rook, to unpick them for a soft try. The conversion missed and a Royal Navy lead 6-5, a lead they were to extend to 9-5 with a third Jon Humphrey penalty. During this opening quarter the Royal Navy had to reshuffle; first to compensate for Greg Welling’s yellow card, given after a swinging arm in the tackle, and the second when Ben Fox was forced from the field of play following a nasty knock to the face by the knee of a team mate.
Fox’s withdrawal brought Dom Taylor in to the game far earlier than expected and gave him time for a man of the match performance. It was reminiscent of the man of the match performance he produced in Dublin in 2013. That day he earned himself a fine bottle of Irish Whiskey but against the RAF all he earned himself was a body full of bruises and some knowing nods of appreciation from Navy men past and present. Time and time again he buried himself at the bottom of the tackle and ruck, leaving the RAF scrumhalf, Rory Wood, wondering where that promised quick ball had disappeared to? On the sidelines there were some great former Navy backrow forwards looking on. Connolly, Sheldon, Armstrong, all famous for their abrasive games, were backrow men with ball in hand, alongside them Steve Jones an openside with eleven caps from the early 90s, who was of the same cloth as Taylor, and his connoisseur’s eye would have appreciated Taylor’s work on the ground. The timing was impeccable waiting for Jarrard Hayler or Dave Fairbrother to bring their man to ground before attaching himself as firmly as any barnacle on a ship’s hull to ensure if the ball was ever going to be played back, it wasn’t going to be before the defence was set. It is not always the eye catching performances that are the most effective but Dom Taylor certainly has given some food for thought as the Navy ponder over their Twickenham options.
The half time question was always whether a 9-5 lead was going to be enough especially as the breeze the Royal Navy would now be playing in to was beginning to freshen. An early penalty from the RAF’s kicking prop, Brad Cook, closed the gap still further and the tension at Burnaby Road ratcheted up another notch. Cook, at 20, is clearly an RAF star of the future, and catches the eye not just with his kicking but also his open field play. However, rugby still remains a game that can accommodate a huge variety of skills and styles. John Court had done a sterling job at tighthead for a Navy pack that was never fully comfortable at the scrum. But his days of eighty minutes, unless in extremis, are past. So as the pressure began to build and with the RAF maintaining possession for large periods of time it was always going to be a baptism of fire for Navy U23 prop, Chris Robinson, on winning his first cap. With the Inter Service winning U23s he had shown many of his undoubted qualities, along with Rhys Dimmock-Williams another U23 winning his first cap, but could they stand the more searching test of Senior XV rugby?
Robinson’s first scrum and then his first tackle answered the question with a resounding yes. Again, like Taylor, his was not an eye catching performance but solid set piece and solid close in defence were as important as any other contribution as the Royal Navy maintained their discipline and composure to close out the match. With Chris Warner also having gone well earlier in the season the Royal Navy just may have found a couple of props that will take the team forward in to the future.
That the Royal Navy played so much of the second half without the ball defending a one point lead and looked for long periods so comfortable doing so is a credit and a change to their early season form. Too often their game has been undone with needless penalties and indeed cards. Though the match again saw them playing for twenty minutes with a man down, the defensive performance was both intense and disciplined. The RAF maul that had undone the Army was neutered close to the goal line and there was a discipline to concede ground when they had to rather than cheap penalties. Welling with a swinging arm was a technical issue, which should be easily rectified and though Cory Moore’s tip tackle was a clear card it was not through reckless play as previous cards have often been.
It was ironic though that the player with so much to prove and too many cards to his name was mistakenly singled out to take the sanction. As Dave Fairbrother took the card he did not utter a word in protest, as for once he knew rather than felt the need to protest his innocence. He returned after his ten minute break to continue what was probably his best match in the Navy shirt since Christmas and certainly the most composed. His work rate as the Navy closed out the game was significant and when the ball was turned over he was first on hand to run the ball back to the RAF and make the first few but hardest yards.
With tension, so time seems to slow, and the final whistle seemed an age in coming. With the last play having been called the RAF were trying to prise open the Navy’s defence for one last time. They were camped on the Royal Navy’s 22m line knowing that one error from the home team’s defence would give them the opportunity to kick for goal and for the Inter Service title. Phase after phase they kept the ball alive but the Navy defence neither buckled nor lost its discipline and eventually the RAF ran out of numbers and conceded the penalty themselves. A kick to touch, a long blast of the whistle and the raw emotion of sport was allowed to spill out. In light blue the agony of what might have been. In navy blue the elation of victory, hard fought, tight, tense but a victory. A victory from which they can build towards their next match against the Army at Twickenham on 30th April.
The Navy players will have understood the anguish of their RAF foe. Twelve months ago the final whistle had been their hammer blow. A raw harsh sound that brought a numbness to the mind and an emptiness to the soul. In Portsmouth’s dimming light the whistle had a far sweeter tone and in many ways signaled the start and not the end. What a difference a point makes!
Royal Navy Team: Gareth Evans *, Ben Priddey * (Capt), John Court *, Edd Pascoe *, John Lamsin *, Ben Fox *, Jarrard Hayler *, Dave Fairbrother *, Cory Moore, Nathan Huntley *, Matt Bowden *, Mat Tichias *, Sam Davies *, Greg Welling *, Jon Humphrey *
Reps: Harry Collins * for Ben Priddey, Kyle Mason * for Gaz Evans, Chris Robinson for John Court, Ben Watson for John Lamsin, Dom Taylor for Ben Fox, Gareth Rees for Cory Moore, Rhys Dimmock-Williams for Matt Bowden, Silvenusi Buinimasi * for Sam Davies
Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones, © Lee Crabb, © John Walton