Apo Satala – Big Hit With All Three Services

In 2002 I had the privilege to referee my second Senior XV Inter Service match, the RAF v Army at Rotherham RFC.  For most the game will be remembered for a one sided score line, 74-3, which was the biggest ever winning margin at the time.  For some who were there it will also be remembered as the first cap for a very humble man from Lautoka, Fiji; Apolosi Satala.  Apo made a try-scoring debut for the Army Senior XV having already made an impact for the Army at the Cwm Tawe Sevens.  Over the next decade his rugby was to enthral and excite Service rugby followers and earn Apo the enduring respect of those within Navy Rugby who had the misfortune to try and contain is destructive game changing exploits each May at Twickenham’s Army Navy show piece.

Apo’s rugby record stands up to scrutiny by any yardstick.  He has been given the honour of captaining his country in the XV-a-side game and has won a World Cup and a Commonwealth Games Bronze medal in the shorten version of Sevens.  As an active Serviceman who has seen operational duty in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan he has also managed to play rugby in both the Aviva Premiership and the Rabo12 leagues.  As a Service rugby player he has been part of successful Army sides at sevens, including twice winning the Middlesex Sevens whilst also being part of the Army Senior XV’s longest winning streak at Inter Service level from 2002 to 2009 inclusive.  During this time he was twice awarded the man of the match accolade at Twickenham.  His achievements have been acknowledged at the highest level including winning the Combined Services Sports Control Board’s team of the year with the Army Sevens.  However most importantly of all, his play has been acknowledged and won the respect of his peers, throughout the world.

The Combined Services v Barbarians match will be Apo’s last representative match as a serviceman.  A fitting stage from which to take his final bow.  No more will I watch from the stands as he lines up some unsuspecting man in blue and makes one of his trademark bone shuddering tackles.  Nor will I have to endure him shambling aimlessly across the pitch, in a lethargic state, before exploding to take the inside ball through the smallest of holes in the defence.

Apo, you have caused many a Navy supporter (RAF too I suspect) much angst and heartache but once the second eye is opened there has been much admiration also.  Even in defeat at the 2010 Army Navy match you managed to be the cause of angst.  Amid general Navy euphoria someone at Sky TV felt it apt to award you your third Army Navy man of the match!  Clearly the defeat on his record rankled as Apo returned the following year to win his 18th cap for the Army and claim another Inter Service title.

Apo has earned the respect of all involved with Navy Rugby not least the players.  Dave Pascoe has lined up against Apo at every Army Navy match in which Apo appeared.  This is how he describes the experience:

6ft 4" 17 ½ stone, socks always rolled down, fast and can hit hard.  Enough to strike a tremble of fear into any opponent.   A true legend of services rugby quiet and humble off the pitch but a fierce attacker and defender on it.  I recall the army used to have a move from our kick off.  If we kicked long they would shift the point of attack wide where Apo would be waiting to line break as he does on the edge of his 22 leaving me the cover tackle.  We would always meet at about my 22.  I always knew the collision was going to hurt.  Apo represented the Army and the forces at the highest levels, captaining his country and playing in the Premiership in doing so raising the calibre of Services rugby as a whole.  An honour to have played against and alongside one of the great names in Services and world rugby, an ambassador on and off the field I would like to personally and on behalf of Navy Rugby wish Apo all the very best for his and family's future.”

In 2002, current Navy Rugby Chairman, Chris Alcock OBE, was Director of Rugby, and watched Apo’s first cap from the Rotherham stand. He has followed, and at times cursed, the quality of Apo’s rugby ever since, he says:

" Apo has been a remarkable player and has enjoyed a very impressive career.  A continual thorn in the Navy side but a delight to watch.  Boots have to be hung up eventually, but we should celebrate the departure of a great player from Service Rugby.  Well done Apo and from all of us in Navy Rugby we wish you every success for the future."

It is appropriate that Apo will be saying farewell in Combined Services colours.  A couple of seasons ago he missed out, through a hamstring injury, playing in front of his home support at Gloucester’s Kingsholm, when the CS met the challenge of Samoa.  Obviously heartache for any Fijian.  But more importantly it gives a welcome opportunity for rugby supporters from all three Services to acknowledge his immense contribution to Service rugby over the last twelve years.

Apo – vinaka vakalevu, vakanuinui vinaka vei iko keina nomu matavuvale.

Combined Services v Barbarians, 12 November 2013 @ Plymouth Albion RFC, KO 1900

Tickets for the Annual Army vs Navy match which will be played at Twickenham on 3 May 2014 are on sale now.  Tickets can be purchased at www.navyrugbyunion.co.uk/tickets

By Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © John Walton, © Crown Copyright, © Roger