Combination to Unlock the Secrets of Navy Rugby
22-14-32-11-0. Spin the numbers on the tumbler, and as the safe door is opened, then some of the secrets of Navy Rugby past and present are revealed. When the Royal Navy Mariners, Women and Senior XVs host their Royal Air Force counterparts on Wednesday the day will bring its usual heady mix of pride, passion, heartache and joy. However, across the three Navy teams, there will be some personal milestones that will make the day a little more special.
Dave Sibson in the shadow of Mike Connolly at a Mariner’s coaching session, 66 years of playing and coaching Navy Rugby between them.
Twenty Two. The Mariners open the day’s rugby when they host the Vultures on Temeraire’s artificial pitch, the first occasion an Inter Service match hasn’t been played on grass. As the twenty-two players of the Mariners team line up, they will have a tiger in their ranks, whose contribution to Navy Rugby is already assured in the record books. Dave Sibson’s 22 Senior XV caps are their own testament to his contribution but the 2014 Inter Services also mark 22 years of representative rugby since his first cap against the Army in 1992. With three years of age grade rugby for the Navy Colts before then, it will also be a quarter of a century representing the Senior Service at all levels in his trademark style of strong running and stronger tackling.
Sam Halofaki proved a handful for the RAF Vultures at RAF Halton last year and has been in good form earlier this season.
Dave will be hoping that the Mariners finally bring all the good parts of their game together, as the Vultures showed enough against the Army Masters to suggest that this will be a close game. In last season’s comfortable win it was Sam Halofaki who proved too much for the RAF, particularly his running from broken field. He has again been in good form this season and if the likes of Dom O’Conner and Justin Doney up front, can assure the Mariners backline of some good possession, then with Sibbo, Mariner’s captain Jamie Phillips and talented newcomer Max Boyce, they have the midfield talent to ensure that Sam on the wing can once more be a thorn in the Vultures side. The fast pitch should suit the Mariners but they will need to ensure that they maintain their discipline. This season too many penalties have been conceded at the breakdown and last year the pressure of Inter Service rugby got the better of some; with the game likely to be closer, the Mariners will not want a repeat of last season’s red card.
Dom O’Connor and the forwards need to produce solid ball from the set piece and quick ball at the breakdown to allow the Mariner’s backs to take advantage of the 3G pitch.
The last of Dave Sibson’s 22 caps was in 2005, a year that Mariner’s physio, Wendy Briggs, remembers well. Playing for the RN Women, her match and playing career was cut short with a bad leg injury on the day that the Women’s XV recorded their first ever Inter Service win, 10-5 against the RAF at Newbury. Since then, the matches between the RAF and the RN women have been close affairs, with the RAF holding a narrow 6 – 5 lead in the series.
Wendy Briggs, as a player was part of the first RN Women’s team to win an Inter Service match but was forced to retire injured. Her time is now spent trying to keep the Mariner’s on the pitch.
Fourteen. Last season Paula Bennett-Smith became the 14th player to be capped for the RN Women, a reward for a player and former captain who has been one of the mainstays of, and driving force behind, the steady growth of the Women’s game in the Royal Navy. On Wednesday, she will be making her seventeenth Inter Service appearance in a career that whilst disrupted by operational commitments, stretches back to the very first matches of Women’s Inter Service rugby.
Paula Bennett-Smith has been a driving force behind women’s rugby since the start. Last season she was able to make a come back with the side and win her long over due ‘cap’.
Having twice had stints as captain, Paula remains one of the most influential players in the squad; her driving play often gets the team on to the front foot and provides the quality possession that current captain and flyhalf, Sarah Jenkins, can thrive on. Jenks knows that if the likes of Paula and fellow forwards Helen Stevenson, Peanut Park and Caroline Penrose play at their best, then the Navy Women have, in Loz Morton, a player who is at the top of her game and quite capable of cutting open the tightest of defences.
Peanut Park is supported by Caroline Penrose, both will need to play to the best of their ability in what is always a tight contest against the RAF Women
There also exists the possibility of seeing Loz joined in the centre by her twin sister, Francesca, another potential first for Navy Rugby. If the Women get the balance right, between their forward and back play, then a third successive win to level the series 6 – 6 is quite within their grasp.
Either at scrum half or centre Loz Morton has the running ability to win a game and remains ferocious in the tackle
Thirty Two. Whether in the front or back row the manner in which Paula has been the foundation stone around whom the RN Women’s pack has been built, is reminiscent of Bob Armstrong and his record-breaking contribution to Navy Rugby. When Dave Pascoe leads his team out on Wednesday evening he will eclipse Bob’s record as he wins his 32nd cap. Dave’s experience will be vital as the RAF will travel buoyed by a very good performance against the Army last week, a match they so nearly won. Only Marsh Cormack and Dave remain from the last Navy side to lose to the RAF and they will both need to be at their best to ensure that the team of 2014 is on its mettle.
Dave Pascoe supported by Marsh Cormack, the only two survivors from the last time the RAF beat the Royal Navy. Dave will be setting a new record for caps, 32, whilst Marsh will be winning his 24th cap.
Eleven. For three of the squad, Jack Fleckney, Sam Laird and Dale Sleeman it will be their last home match in the Navy shirt before leaving the Service. Sam will be winning his 11th cap and despite his slow start to the season is now back to the form that saw him win the Cossack Sword in 2012. He has been pushed back to form by Dom Taylor the other openside in the Senior squad and last year’s Cossack Sword winner. Sam and Dom will need to boss the breakdown on Wednesday as the RAF backs looked dangerous with ball in hand against the Army.
A last outing for Sam Laird at what will hopefully be another packed US Portsmouth, a ground he has left his mark on as a Command, U23 and Senior XV Navy player.
Eleven (again). However the Royal Navy also have the ability to damage the strongest of defences, none more so that Dale Sleeman, the third player who will be playing his final home match for the Royal Navy. The first of his 11 caps was the corresponding match in 2010, a try scoring debut, and the start of a short but very influential career in the centre for the Royal Navy. Dale’s representative career was shaped by his early mentor Dave Sibson, the two of them serving on HMS Cumberland. Right from the start it was clear that Dale was going to leave a rich legacy to Navy Rugby and for those that have watched his progress it is evident that his early promise has been fulfilled. Like Sibbo, Dale is a strong running and strong tackling centre whose absence through injury this season has certainly been felt by the team. He is back fit and should return to the squad on Wednesday where his experience will be welcome; he will no doubt be seeking to add to his four Inter Service tries.
Dale Sleeman scores his second career try against the RAF last season. Another who will be playing his last home game for the Royal Navy, a provider of four Inter Service tries and many happy memories.
From pupil to teacher and the final number in the combination, zero. As Dale Sleeman learned from Dave Sibson so he now becomes the teacher. Outside Dale on Wednesday there will, hopefully, be a debutant in Navy colours, Eldon Myers. From his first run out for the U23s earlier this season to his four games in the Senior shirt, Myers has demonstrated his quality. Though most of his games have been on the wing he showed enough in the centre, against Bath, to convince that he will be a Navy centre of influence in the future and worthy of carrying on the legacy of Sibson and Sleeman. Eldon missed out on the match in France as he was still under training, but the 18 year old again looked the part in the searching examination offered by Worcester last week.
The new kid on the block, 18 year old Eldon Myers looks to break the Worcester defence. A talented player who surely has a promising Navy Rugby future ahead.
Overall a great day of rugby lies ahead and for Dave Sibson, first up, he can set the tone for the day. He will certainly approve of the talent and skills set of Loz Morton whether at scrum half or centre, before cheering on his pupil, Dale, on his last outing at US Portsmouth. Hopefully he will also appreciate that in Eldon Myers there is a young talent who might one day challenge his record number of Navy caps for a centre.
A penny for those thoughts. Dave Sibson as coach of the Senior XV before the lure of playing again pulled him back to the Mariners. An eye for talent then, lets hope his eye for a break remains as sharp as ever.
Royal Navy Mariners v RAF Vultures 10:30 HMS Temeraire
Royal Navy Women v RAF Women 14:30 USSG Portsmouth
Royal Navy v Royal Air Force 19:00 USSG Portsmouth
All matches Wednesday 23 April 2014, free entry.
Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones