Postcard from Latvia
Latvian National XV
After a fairly bruising bus ride south against an extremely fierce Baltic Summer Gale, we arrived late at the National Defence Academy and were shown to our Barracks. Very reminiscent of a ‘Full Metal Jacket’ setting with bunks all around and wash rooms at one end, the lads quickly established themselves under the watchful eyes of the management. As a place to hole up for a rugby squad overnight – this wasn’t too bad, all the lads together, plenty of space for our kit, and even enough room to rehearse those last minute lineout changes! A squad of 30 all snoring in unison is interesting though!
For the game - Unfortunately the National Stadium was being re-seeded, so our fixture had been switched to the Stadium Upesciems (Livonia Rugby Club) – which while showing signs of old age and some wear and tear, no stand (or changing rooms) - it was relatively flat, the grass cut was even and we were shielded from the Summer gales on all 4 sides. A short training session in the morning gave the squad a chance to shake out the long bus ride and get a feel for playing to the corners. By the end, the intensity had definitely grown, the precision had come back and we were certainly looking like we were ready for our evening Kick-off.
A standard pre-match players afternoon rest at the barracks taking the weight off their feet, taking in some food and getting the fluids back into their bodies, a few final words about the likely change in standard and we were heading back ready to take on the Latvian National XV. Nominally heading Group 2A of the European Leagues, the Latvians are known for their powerhouse type play and clearly build their game around a heavy pack. We knew what to expect!
Right from the off – it was a battle of two systems; the Latvian ‘Route One’ power and strength war of attrition, while the Navy looked to manipulate the defence, tie up the big lads in the contact and create some space to exploit for our runners. Despite a very upbeat early period by the Navy camped in the Latvian 22, with plenty of opportunities – the Latvian Defence looked strong and capable of handling all but the sharpest of attacks - only a penalty kick by Kurt Gledhill resulted.
Then much against the flow of the game, it was the Latvians who turned over possession and sent the ball wide for their winger to break free from inside his own half - finishing off the first try under the Navy posts with a strong powerful run on the outside (7-3). The Naval response was workmanlike and unrushed – it was a period of well-constructed phase play, holding possession and allowing them field position to be established – before Stew Barrett was able to break free from the breakdown and although chased hard by the Latvian backrow, slipped an exquisite offload to Lewis Cooper who subsequently piled over with 2 Latvian tacklers in attendance for the Navy’s first try (7-10). The conversion was duly executed by Gledhill and the Navy looked to be finding their groove .
The Latvian response simply demonstrated their prowess and experience in European rugby, they simply sought to regain possession and established themselves deep in the Naval half forcing the Presidents to defend again and again against the ‘Heavy Gang’. As the attacks increased and the pressure intensified – so the Presidents found themselves working harder to manage their defence, eventually giving away a series of penalties (none converted) and finally losing a player (Alex Cragg) to a yellow card for infringements in the ruck (he wasn’t actually in the ruck in question, but we had been infringing – so no complaints!).
Now with only 14 men on the pitch and the Navy seemingly frustrated at being put under this amount of pressure their return to the Latvian half with a measured series of phases was good to see – so to the option to go for goal when subsequently awarded a penalty just short of the Latvian 10m line. Gledhill’s measured kicking style left us in no doubt that he would convert this effort providing a calming influence across the squad and at 7-13 we finished the first half in ascendancy, but a man down. With no panic at halftime, the simple message was to tie in the Heavy Gang, retrieve the ball from contact quickly and start to exploit all the space we had been generating. Simply Rugby.
Following the game plan to the Tee – the opening salvoes of the second half demonstrated the power and pace available in this President's XV squad. Before long we were running clear lines onto quick ball, into good space. Manoa Satala, Roko Kurasasa, and Luke Cooper all began to see more of the ball as the distribution improved around the breakdown. While the Latvian defence was still strong a dominant performance from the Navy backrow ensured the possession was quick and clean, and then in amongst the intermittent heavy rain the Presidents took hold of the game – gradually building their score into what was a full 80 minute running performance. The final output sealed their win at 7-55 against a tough Latvian side. Owen Salmon (Head Coach) was delighted at the intensity created, the standard of the game and most of all - the squads desire to deliver – ‘they played for 80 minutes and they played hard throughout, against a big side that were no fools’.
This was a good performance from a relatively young President's XV and a real measure of our developing potential within the union. With lots of good solid performances across the squad – it is still worth mentioning the backrow who worked tirelessly all game against difficult opposition, highlighting their very real potential for Navy Rugby.
Post-match, we socialised happily with our very accommodating hosts ashore in downtown Riga, presenting those who had helped the orchestration of this fixture with President's XV Training tops, and even managing to achieve our 100% record of getting the local Ambassador to dress in RNRU colours for one night! Latvia was good - we are now safely back in Estonia getting ready for tomorrows International XVs competition. The boys are tired, they are carrying some knocks but are fit and tthey are up for it! Next up - the Estonian National XV and The South West Select.
Presidents XV Scorers:
Lewis Cooper 1x Try
Roko Kurasasa 4x Try
Greg Loydall 1x Try
Manoa Satala 1x Try
Kurt Gledhill 6x Conversion
Alex Cragg 1x Yellow Card
The Rugby Spectator