Championship Rugby at USSG as Royal Navy U23 Capture Services Title
RN U23 XV
In 2010 the title was captured with a dogged, scrappy display. In 2015 the Royal Navy U23 entertained the strong and vocal home crowd to an enthralling and thrilling game of championship rugby. The Army played their part in one of the best U23 Service matches for a long time but a rousing finish to the first half put the Navy in command at the break, 15-10 and a professional second half performance was enough to close out the match and secure the Inter Services trophy.
A dry but heavy pitch with a strong wind blowing end to end was the backdrop to the game as Greg Loydall rallied his team before the kick off. Playing into the wind meant that the Royal Navy team required composure and discipline to ensure they reached the break in contention. His team understood the requirement and by the end of the first quarter they were good value for a 3-3 score line. An early Army penalty, followed by an Army miss had been cancelled out by an assured kick from Gareth John Rees on 18 mins. The wind had ensured that the Army had dominated much of the territory but the Royal Navy had showed the more clinical rugby as, with ball in hand, their driving play had posed the Army a number of questions in defence.
However they put themselves under added pressure when Rhys Dimmock-Williams mistimed a tackle on Army winger Miller and the referee had no option but to send him to the sin bin. The Army capitalised almost immediately. Electing not to kick at goal their skipper Ross Perkins led the bombardment of the Navy line. Unable to lift the siege it was only a matter of time before the defence was simply outnumbered and in the end it was Army lock forward Mitchell who claimed the try. Fullback Wilson added the conversion to his earlier penalty and the Army had the lead 10-3 and still a good period with the man advantage.
Rather than look to see out the time for the sin bin, the Royal Navy were bold and unrelenting as their forwards took the game back to the Army. Ben Watson, Ben Roberts and Lewis Cooper were repeatedly called upon to carry and make the hard yards with scrum half Rees always keeping the point of attacked varied. Patience and possession began to draw the Army penalties and after a warning had been given it was Army captain Parkins, who was forced in to a miss timed tackle, without arms, to become the second player to see the referee’s Yellow Card.
This time it was the Navy who went to the corner but the lineout was miss-directed. The Army should have cleared their lines but under pressure they only managed to get he ball just passed the twenty-two and having been given a second chance the Navy were determined not to let the opportunity slip. First Harrison Marsh, then Cooper, then Watson all made strong carries before tight head prop, Chris Robinson, crashed over from short range to close the gap to two points. A difficult touchline conversion was missed but the Royal Navy were certainly in the ascendancy.
From the kick off they again trusted their driving game but then caught the Army defence unawares and on the back foot as their put the ball through the hands with Luke Cooper making good ground on the left wing. The ball was brought back inside and Loydall was able to make the half break in midfield before the ball was lost forward. Everyone thought that from the resultant scrum the Army would easily clear the danger but Gareth John Rees exerted massive pressure on the Army Number 8, Parsons, and his opposite number Cannon. The pass could not find Peck and it was Greg Loydall who reacted first to the loose ball. With turnover possession barely seven metres out he was not going to be denied and he crossed for the Royal Navy’s second try. Rees added the conversion and the Royal Navy were 15-10 in front as half time was reached.
The twelve points in the last five minutes of the half had turned the game on it’s head and having played in to the elements the Navy knew that in the second half all they had to do was keep playing their game and the elusive Inter Service title would be theirs. Their cause was certainly helped at the start of the second period when the Army remained at fourteen men. As Parkins was due to return, Lamont, the openside flanker was guilty of another tip tackle. This time it was man of the match, Lewis Cooper, who was upended as he made yet another strong run in to the heart of the Army defence. However a high tackle from Gareth John Rees saw him become the fourth player to see Yellow and both teams were down to fourteen men. The loss of Rees was a huge blow to the Royal Navy and they temporarily lost the ability to control the tempo of the game. The Army added to the Navy’s woes as left wing Campey crossed to equal the scores, 15-15 with just twenty-three minutes to play.
With Rees still off the field the Navy regained the lead through a Greg Loydall penalty only to make a hash at the restart and concede a soft try to the Army, as Miller was given too much room down the right and went around under the posts to give Wilson an easy conversion. The Army had regained the lead 22-18 as the match entered the final quarter.
With Gareth John Rees back on, the Navy once more found their rhythm and penetration. As the heavy pitch began to take its toll on the players more space began to be found and exploited by a Navy team who now were playing a heady mix of driving rugby interspersed with exciting back play. First Dimmock-Williams and then Rory Penfold both made incisive breaks before replacement centre James Griggs was worked clear and had an easy run in from fifteen metres. Though the conversion was missed the Royal Navy had regained the lead by the narrowest of margins, 23-22. With ten minutes to go this was extended by skipper Loydall who landed his second penalty when the Army strayed offside.
With the Army unable to get hold of the ball it was all Navy has they were relentless in their pursuit of the score to seal the game. Unable to break through a resolute and disciplined Army defence, fly half Nick Burgess tried for the snap drop goal. Though he pushed the kick wide it was more precious minutes from the match clock. With the game going in to the last five minutes the Army finally secured possession but they had to play from deep. With Royal Navy players cramping up the defence was all about desire and working for each other. The shape may have been missing but it remained effective and as each Army ball carrier was taken to ground time ticked away relentlessly. Finally the error was forced, a pause and the full time whistle was greeted with deserved jubilation.
Both sides had produced a game that will long live in the memories but for the Royal Navy squad those memories will be Inter Service winning ones. The twenty-four players used in the two matches had secured the two victories that makes the final game academic. Five years since the last title they were deservedly crowned Inter Service Champions. For a number of the players Twickenham awaits. Many, will no doubt be in the UK Armed Forces side that play Oxbridge before the Army Navy game. One or two may well remain in the Navy shirt that day and be part of a Senior squad that will surely be buoyed by the U23’s success.
Royal Navy U23 XV: Harrison Marsh, Mark Dowds, Chris Robinson, Ben Watson, Dan Mason, Ben Roberts, Jarrard Hayler, Luke Cooper, Gareth John Rees, Nick Burgess, Rory Penfold, Greg Loydall (C), Luke Warrington, Luke Cooper, Rhys Dimmock-Williams.
Replacements: Sam Norton, Charlie Bennett, Alex Cragg, Gavin Elsam, Tristan Trehan, Rob McGregor, James Griggs, Harry Bates
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones