Last Gasp Agony As RAF Salvage A Draw
RN Senior XV
RAF Senior XV
A blistering opening twenty minutes gave no clues to the finale of this match where the RAF staged a remarkable comeback in the last ten minutes and salvaged an unlikely draw. For the Royal Navy it was the cruellest of blows and the draw will seem like a gut wrenching defeat. However an Inter Service championship dream is still alive and the opening quarter gave ample evidence that they can still achieve it.
This game will be talked about for some time. For the RAF they will refer to the Great Escape for the Royal Navy perhaps they may turn to the horror category with their typical gruesome twists at the end. If they do they would be miss guided and perhaps a more appropriate metaphor would be Charles Frend’s the Cruel Sea. At the start Jack Hawkins, playing the role Lt Cdr Ericson says: “This is a story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the story of an ocean, two ships, and a handful of men. The men are the heroes; the heroines are the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel...”
And so, like the sea, sport can be cruel. Yesterday’s ending was cruel but not devastating. Many a ship has ridden out a storm and found safe harbour to take time to repair a battered hull only to return once more to the sea that remains its calling and once more carve through the oceans with clean lines proud and prominent.
From the first whistle the Royal Navy were in the ascendancy. The opening quarter they played the game with a pace and precision that has not been seen this year. They ran in three tries and there could have been more. With Johnny Stephen and Nathan Huntley pulling the strings at half back Greg Welling and Matt Tichias were running angles that bamboozled the RAF defence and allowed Jon Humphrey to score a twenty minute hat trick. With both sides having a penalty each the Royal Navy deserved their 20-3 lead, which could have been more.
From this onslaught the Royal Navy should have kicked on but the intensity dropped and the remainder of the half was more even and when the Navy had to absorb some RAF pressure, penalties were conceded. Though Andy Byrne missed a comparatively easy attempt he was on range for one and also the repeated indiscretions saw Navy captain Ben Priddey sent to the sin bin. 20-6 was a comfortable half time lead but not truly a reflection of the Navy’s supremacy. If they were to score first in the second half you felt it would be hard to see the RAF coming back in to the match as on the whole the Royal Navy had been resolute in defence.
And so it proved to be. Nathan Huntley was once more the architect with a break that took him clean through the RAF’s first up defence. Though he was stopped by the covering defender, Edd Pascoe, was on the shoulder to receive the offload and go under the posts. An easy conversion and at 27-6 the RAF were three scores behind and the Navy playing with a controlled tempo and variety between forwards and backs even though still reduced to fourteen men.
However a soft exit strategy from the restart allowed the RAF to gain possession and inexplicably the Royal Navy’s defence stood off some of their tackles. Jim Challenger, at scrum half, kept the play going first through the backs then bringing the forwards into play before Dave Manning crashed over for the try. With McRobbie converting the RAF had cancelled out the early Navy score and at 27-13 were behind but still had that glimmer of hope.
With Ben Priddey back on the field and replacements being made the Royal Navy team just needed to continue doing the basics that had served them so well. However too often now the ball carriers found contact not space and in defence the odd miss tackle was creeping in. When the RAF had the ball they were keeping it for longer periods and it was they who backed up their earlier try with a second through centre Leroy Queeley. Though the conversion was missed the lead was now down to 9 points with just over a quarter of the game left.
As if to prove a point, from the restart the Royal Navy lifted their game. Back on the front foot Stephen and Huntley again provided variety to the Navy’s play that probed gaps in the RAF defence before Huntley again broke clean through to head for the goal line. Again the RAF managed to stop him just short of the line only for Seta Raumakita to be on hand to cross and extend the Royal Navy’s lead to 32-18.
Did the Navy ease off a little? Did they try to defend their lead as the game entered its last five minutes? Whatever the answer a couple of needless penalties gave the RAF field position and a 5m lineout, from which they drove over for the score. The conversion brought the game back to 7 points with a minute to go. The Navy just required to control the game from the restart but having closed to a single score the RAF were feeding off their own support and probably many years of Inter Service hurt. Like the tide coming in they moved forward relentlessly towards the Royal Navy goal line, the move starting some 80 metres out. Surely it was not happening, the Navy’s defence so secure early on, was holed as players fell off tackles, and as the noise reached a crescendo Toby Mann crossed for the try. The conversion levelled the match and the final whistle was lost in the noise of RAF jubilation. It was a draw but for the home team and supporters it was celebrated as a victory. Last year against the Army they had showed their promise but in the last minutes fallen short, in 2015 they had broken their losing sequence and taken a huge monkey off their back as they travel next to Aldershot.
For the Royal Navy they will have a few days in a safe harbour. How they re-act to Wednesday’s game will be hard to predict but with the Inter Service Championship still in their own hands they should just remember that some of their play yesterday was of the highest order and to which the RAF had no answer. Perhaps they need to again look to the sea and remember before Trafalgar there was Santa Cruz. Nelson knew that his team of sailors had the capabilities but at Santa Cruz the full on frontal attack was found wanting, they reverted to the agile game plan that relied on the timing of the gun crews to inflict such devastating damage from lighter ships cutting great lines in attack. In the first twenty minutes the Royal Navy showed that what ever happens at Aldershot on 30th April the 2015 Inter Service championship is alive and will not be concluded until the final showdown at Twickenham on 9th May
Royal Navy: Mason *, Collins *, Terry *, Cowley *, Cormack *, E Pascoe * Priddey (Capt) *, Fairbrother *, Stephen *, Huntley *, Welling *, Tichias *, Buinimasi *, Bowden, Humphrey *
Reps:, Beasley * (for Mason), Blackburn * (for Terry), Puleston *, Raumakita * (for Collins), Marlin * (for Welling) S Davies *, T Davies * (for Humphrey)
Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones & © Lee Crabb