From Lacklustre to Lustre as Navy Hold Court Before COVID-19 Hits Hard

Unprecedented success for the U23XV. Where next when rugby resumes?
Meredith’s vision seems to have finally been realised. Captain of the Navy side in 1949.
Billy May in thoughtful mode, a key influence within Navy coaching.
Binge Gatehouse - Winning in Pau for Combined Services. He never accepted it couldn’t be done.
Following Rob and Aidan the responsibility is now with Owen Salmon.
And then the music stopped! The last action before Covid-19 for the U23XV.

In the third and final article, I reflect on the U23XV’s 2015-19 period, where the defining factor has been the performance of the players around it’s beacons of talent, the quality of the preparation, the organisational structure and an understanding that more often than not Royal Navy rugby success has come from when the team have looked within, not over their shoulder.

Where do you go from the high of the 2017 Inter Service win?  I am sure it was a question that the newly promoted head coach, John Court asked himself more than once.  The answer was a poor campaign that deservedly saw the Army reinstated as champions.  What should have been a convincing win over the Royal Air Force, wasn’t.  This was due to fault lines in the squad which were exposed when under pressure.  In the end a 34-31 win was not a fair reflection of the two sides potential but was a hard lesson in how a game is never over.  A team that relaxes and loses concentration can lose far more besides.  A lack of cohesion, that was never hinted at the season before, gave the RAF a route back into a match that should have been out of sight.  It also gave the Army an easy ride to a 37-34 win.

It was lacklustre, in the truest sense of the word, which in a way was a blessing.  Better lacklustre than structural.  It is to John’s credit that he saw the season for what it was and understood the issues were his to fix.  If the play is uninspiring then who is going to provide the inspiration?

Twelve months later and the Inter Service championship was another that did not live up to its promise of an exciting championship.  The reason was simple.  The Navy team had been transformed, there was a lustre to their performance.  Nothing was flash.  No-one was a standout star.  The rugby was simple yet brutally efficient.  The defence was watertight and based on a prodigious work rate for each other.  Similarly, the desire to provide options in attack gave the captain, Jake Hanley, plenty of options to control the game.  John had been an honest grafter as a player who year on year kept improving himself, understanding what he was good at and mitigating his weaknesses.  The 2019 team he fashioned was hewn from the same Cornish granite and the reason why the Championship did not ignite was purely because the Royal Navy simply controlled both matches and in turn the championship.  It was a lesson in how honest self-assessment can transform performance.

The 2019 win was important because it gave the Navy parity with the Army, each having five titles in the decade.  A rare event in Navy history and testimony that the success was earned and not delivered through good fortune.  Without doubt there has been some exceptional players during the 2015-2019 period, and some will make their mark at senior level for years to come, but they have not been the difference.  Instead the defining factor has been the performance of the players around these beacons of talent, the quality of the preparation, the organisational structure and an understanding that more often than not Royal Navy rugby success has come from when they have looked within, not over their shoulder.

Followers of Navy Rugby can read for themselves what Dave Davies had to say about what made his Navy side so successful in the 1920s.  And despite his international success with England the Navy success was built on the attributes of Matelot and Marines; not of anyone else.  Alun Meredith, a continual student of performance development, formed the Colts because he knew that to regain parity, with the Army in particular, the RNRU had to do more to nurture its talent in the ‘Navy Way’.  This way, based on introspection and internal strength and belief was personified through players like Binge Gatehouse in the 70s whose play as a Serviceman generated an intensity that few could match: on retiring from the Service, Binge’s exceptional contribution to Navy Rugby was recognised through his appointment as a Life Member. Sometimes the benefit of individual skills can be undermined and negated by sheer force of togetherness and common bond.  It was this unique blend of what makes Navy sport special, and able to compensate for its in-built disadvantages, that Brian Weeks articulated to in his report in 1989.  There could only ever be limited room to compromise.  If Navy rugby wished to be successful, then the age group side had to be run to produce better Navy Rugby players ready for a senior XV championship.  And if it did this well then it would also be effective in the age group Inter Services.

When rugby resumes the U23 XV will have a completely new look and set up.  Owen Salmon has been appointed to be in charge, as Assistant Director of Rugby, with Andy Vance as head coach.  Both capped players and both underrated in their time.  They are part of an exciting TSG which was introduced to followers on Navy Rugby from the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.  I found the quotes provided in the media release intriguing and dare I say it a little contradictory.  On one hand talking about development of new blood for Navy Rugby whilst on the other hand a very narrow focus on winning at U23 level.  The two are not necessarily complementary.

However, with rugby still on hold perhaps they have time to take inspiration from HMS Queen Elizabeth, herself.  Not R08 but rather the 1913 battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth (00) commissioned into the Fleet in 1914, shortly before the first occasion that the Army v Navy match was interrupted and not played.  Her 44 years of service provides a good metaphor for Navy Rugby and it was by no means all plain sailing.  Throughout her service she was rebuilt twice and developed, incrementally, continually.  Throughout this development never once did the work deviate from her primary goal of being the most effective, she could be, to the wider Fleet.  This included withdrawing from the fight at Gallipoli when the greater strategic goal was at risk.  She returned from maintenance to manage the internment of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow.  The inter war years saw modernisation of her to make her design (and tactics) more applicable to the evolving requirements of Naval warfare.  In World War II she started the war as part of the Mediterranean Fleet in Crete, survived a near fatal blow, to return to the war in the Far East, via the USA, to provide Naval strategic bombardment against Japanese naval bases.  Eventually sold for scrap in 1948 her time in the Fleet was characterised by a clear understanding that it is not an individual battle that counts but winning the war.  And change is a necessity, but it has to be for clearly identified purposes.

Navy Rugby currently has a rich pool of talent in or close to the Senior XV squad that are used to winning Inter Service titles, albeit at age grade.  It must be hoped that they develop into a side that, like the side of the 1970s, can sustain success at the senior level.  Today’s talent pool was fed, partly, through an U23XV system that understood what it needed to provide upwards.  It also understood that if this remains the primary focus then other titles will always remain a distinct probability.

Alun Meredith was a visionary.  Brian Weeks was an engineer who understood systems.  Billy May was a coach who understood wider development.  Whilst Binge Gatehouse was just a Matelot rugby player who had an unshakeable belief that there wasn’t a single problem that Naval resourcefulness, bloody-mindedness and at times artfulness couldn’t overcome on a rugby field.  Capturing the spirit of them all would serve the U23XV well as they look to re-establish themselves and remain the preeminent U23XV side in the Inter Services.

Click to view part 1 - Laying Foundations for Success, Holding A Little in Reserve
Click to view part 2 - History is Made as the Royal Navy U23 Dominate the End of the Decade

By line: Geraint Ashton Jones
Images credit: © Alligin Photography