HMS Argyll RFC Tour 2014
Havana Howlers RFC
HMS Argyll RFC Tour 2014 - 6 Months, 11 Games, 10 Countries, 3 National Stadiums, and over 50 Players.
HMS Argyll arrived in Havana, Cuba, on a sunny morning, firing 21 guns as she passed the Cuban Naval Academy Fort. Members of the Cuban Navy lined the walls of the fort as Argyll gracefully sailed passed and into port to a warm and welcoming reception from the local people, with the jetty lined with a brass band, Union Flags flying and people cheering and waving.
If the entry into harbour had been surreal then the journey to the rugby fixture would blow the minds of the Argyll players. In a country where the majority of the cars look good for nothing but scrap (not including the Cadillacs and Zephyrs cruising round) the team were escorted to a coach fit for an Aviva Premiership team and it didn’t stop there. As the coach pulled out of the port, passing hundreds of people lined up for ‘Ship Open to Visitors’, it was flanked by 4 police motorcycles. The coach cruised through the Havana traffic as the police cleared the route, while everyone looked on with curiosity – just who was on the coach?
On arrival at the sports ground the Argyll players were introduced to the opposition Coach, the Cuban National Coach, the 3 officials and key members of the Cuban Rugby Federation. They were extremely happy to be hosting Argyll and the opportunity for the fixture. A lot like in Mexico, rugby in Cuba is a growing sport, although the interest just hasn’t quite grown enough to allow an established league. There are 3 main teams in Havana, but they struggle to field regular full 15 a-side games so the majority of the rugby played is 7's. When an opportunity like this arises the 3 teams join together to make one - The Havana Howlers RFC.
The sports field backed onto their national baseball stadium and a little league stadium where a game was in full flow, with hundreds of people looking on and cheering on their children. The rugby pitch also doubled up as a 'Soccer' pitch, with the rugby posts strategically placed against the goals and as expected, the ground was extremely hard. LPT Sam Sims named the starting 15 and made preparations on the pitch side before team warm up.
At 1500 local both teams lined up ready to face off. Argyll started the game and within 30 seconds it was clear they were still suffering 'fatigue' from their brief stop in Key West 2 nights before. The Howlers caught the kick and you could their surprise with just how much time they had on their hands before Argyll even attempted to catch up with the play. Unfortunately for Argyll this set the tone for the early part of game and they were going to have a tough 40 minutes ahead of them. It did not take the Howlers long to capitalise on Argyll's lacklustre start and make a breakthrough. With Argyll committing players forward and the Howlers defending strongly, they swiftly turned the ball over and turned defence into attack. Within the blink of an eye Argyll were on the back foot and chasing the game as the Howlers’ inside centre (who was definitely one of their national players) skipped inside 2 attempted Argyll tackles and sped forward towards a helpless Lt Cdr Charlie Wheen who was playing his first game for the ship. At that moment he must have been cursing his decision to play and as he attempted to tackle the Cuban bearing down on him, the Howler offloaded to his outside centre who ran in unchallenged to put the first points on the board. The resulting conversion was missed but 2 minutes into the game Argyll were 5-0 down and this was just the beginning of the onslaught.
For the first 30 minutes the Argyll performance was a far cry from that produced to stand toe-to-toe with the French in Martinique or to beat BVI for the first time in 15 years. With the Howlers turning over the ball at will they put Argyll on the back foot and made them chase the game. With 10 minutes left to go the Howlers had scored 7 tries and converted 4 of them without any sort of response from Argyll, who were now 43-0 down and in a rut. To say it was a long 30 minutes of rugby for Argyll was an understatement, but credit where credit is due, the Howlers were playing extremely well and Argyll were contributing to their own demise.
The Cuban mentality was very similar to that of the Mexicans in Vera Cruz and the Red Dragons of Santa Domingo; they were short of facilities and equipment, but what they lacked in amenities they certainly made up for with passion and sheer determination. Every try they scored was cheered like it was the winner in the Heineken Cup final, and when their fly half missed a conversion he was genuinely disappointed and apologised to all of his team mates. It was clear to see that they loved the sport and they loved to play it just as much. Argyll maintained a level of dignity despite the impending defeat and though they could have easily crumbled under the circumstances, they maintained their composure.
With 10 minutes remaining of the first half Argyll finally turned up. The ball began to move more freely along the backs and the support play began to work. Lt Cdr Grant Dalgleish was finding his range with the boot and the pressure was now firmly on the Howlers. Instead of giving away unnecessary penalties, Argyll was now forcing them from their opponents. Tackles were stopping any advance from the Howlers, balls were being turned over and Argyll was slowly creeping back into the game. For the last 10 minutes Argyll managed to shut the Howlers out, forcing them back deep into their own half. The scrums began to come together and the forwards were bossing the lineout, with LCH Matthew Roberts and LAET Dan Carroll at the forefront of the attacks. Unfortunately for Argyll the halt time whistle was pending and they went into half time 43-0 down.
Argyll gathered for half time and made some changes - Sims was replaced by O/C Christopher Gray; Props AB(SEA) Josh Burdett and ET(ME) Martin Allatt were replaced by WO1 Graham Bastow and Lt James Cooke; Lt Cdr Tim 'the Grim reaper' Grimley replaced Willey on the flank; L/Cpl Ollie Moran and ET(ME) Owain Jones came on the either wing and; AB(WS) Kieran Dennis moved to full back. Bastow, who had come out of semi retirement for this fixture, had a few choice words for the Argyll team and was not shy about expressing his thoughts and frustrations at the spectacle he had witnessed during the first 40 mins.
So a 'warmed up' Argyll returned to the pitch determined not to repeat the performance of the first half. Starting the second half as they had finished the first, they carried the momentum forward. Bailey and Oliver were now seeing more of the ball, the support play was commendable and finally there was some communication between the players. Argyll now looked like a team who had come to play a competitive rugby match and for the first time in the game the Howlers were continuously on the back foot. It was a good feeling and not just for Argyll, but for the spectators who were now experiencing a competitive game and not a white wash. Argyll's persistence was soon to pay off and 10 minutes after the restart they finally had something to cheer about. They won a scrum just outside of the Howlers 22 and Carroll showed his versatility and some good football skills. Seeing an opportunity he picked the ball up and drove towards the Howlers line, as he had been doing all deployment, but was stopped agonisingly short of the line. However, unlike the first half, he had a brother in green backing him up, his No. 8 Roberts, who peeled off the side of the scrum and followed Carroll towards the try line. As Carroll presented the ball from the tackle Roberts picked it up and mad a dive for the line, sneaking in under the attempts of the Howlers tacklers to chalk up 5 points for Argyll. Dalgleish missed the resulting conversion but the score was just the lift that they needed and they began to look like a team wishing to contest the fixture.
Putting phases together, Argyll began to enjoy the game and dominated play for the next 10 minutes, keeping the Howlers deep in their own half as they struggled to answer Argyll's play. With both teams contesting every tackle, Bastow certainly made a difference as every charge forward he made took 3 of their players to stop him. LAC Robert Richards was having a good second half in the second row, putting his body on the line with every tackle, although it was clear they were beginning to take it's toll on the big Geordie No. 4. Eventually he signalled to the bench and he was replaced by Lt Ben Eglington who moved to the flank and Roberts assumed his usual role in the second row. Argyll began pressing again and it wasn’t long before their determination paid off and forced the Howlers back as they attacked in numbers. With Carroll at the heart of the attack, he picked the ball up and seeing Moran open on the wing he fizzed the ball out to him straight between the open hands of one of the Howlers for him to sneak in behind enemy lines and put the ball down unchallenged. Dalgleish made the kick from a tight angle and Argyll were now 12 points to the good. Howlers caught Argyll on the break and ran in a try that was easily converted and took the score 50-12. Argyll powered through the second half, but to no avail, as the Howlers had done the damage in the first 20 minutes of the game and were now defending their try line like their lives depended on it. Finally the referee blew for full time to applause from both teams and cheers from the crowd. The players formed their tunnels, exchanged handshakes and hugs with lots of smiles, but Argyll had gone down 50-12 to a very happy Havana Howlers.
For Argyll the result was a disappointing one and it certainly was a game of 2 halves. The result was a combination of tiredness, an under estimation of the opponent and perhaps a lack of respect for their determination and talent. The Howlers had certainly earned their place on the field that day; they played with passion and determination that earned them the respect of every Argyll player and affiliate at the game.
Although a loss for Argyll, this fixture brought to an end their deployment rugby programme. In the 6 months they have been away they have enjoyed highs and lows, played some amazing rugby, have met some amazing people on the way and experienced rugby at its finest at both ends of the spectrum. Every player that has pulled on an Argyll jersey since the 20th June 2014 will have a story to tell and that is what rugby is all about, bringing people from all walks of life together with a passion for a sport, regardless of race, nationality or background - for 80 mins everyone speaks the same language. HMS Argyll RFC are closer than ever as a team and are looking forward to their return to Devonport to continue their progress right up until they see HMS Argyll into the sheds for re-fit.