Heart and Minds – The Inverdale Final

Dane Smallbone has been playing some of his best rugby. Having steered BRNC to the Navy Cup win he will hope to cause another upset in the Inverdale Challenge
Marsh Cormack may well be playing his last game in Fleet Air Arm colours. His strong running game brought him two tries when the sides met earlier this year
Sumo Thompson (left) knows that there is one more hurdle to overcome as he aims for an unbeaten season as FAA captain
Ben Priddey hopes to be fit in time to be part of the Fleet Air Arm side. He was the last FAA captain to lift the trophy
Owen Salmon has re-focused the Fleet Air Arm side this year but the final will be his last in charge before professional requirements take him away from representative rugby
Dave Sibson is aware that his team start as massive underdogs but has seen his side grow game by game

When RN Western Region edged an unlikely victory, away to the Royal Marines, they set up an Inverdale Challenge Cup Final that mirrors this year’s Navy Cup Final.  At the Rectory the pre-match favourites, HMS Seahawk were not able to use their dominant pack to bully a mainly youthful BRNC side to submission.  That the college students won was not only a reflection of their attacking ambition but also an accomplished performance by their captain and flyhalf, Dane Smallbone.  The Inverdale Challenge final is another match where, once again, he will need to blunt a powerful Fleet Air Arm Pack if he is to lift more silverware, two years after he retired from representative rugby!

The RN Western Region team will be looking to win the trophy for the first time in a decade.  Motivation enough to ensure the final will be a full-blooded encounter.  It is no coincidence that RN Western Region’s resurgence in fortune has coincided with Dane Smallbone producing some of the best form of his career.  Along with half back partner, Johnny Stephen, Dane has provided the game management that has allowed the team to maximise their potential and has coaxed the best out of some of their younger talent.  However, they will start the game very much as the underdogs, but will approach the game optimistic that they can reverse the loss earlier in the competition when the Fleet Air Arm won 33 – 15.  At Keyham, RN Western Region were quickly into their stride and started the game the better of the two sides; opening up a 15-0 lead before allowing the Fleet Air Arm to come back into the game just before half time and then ease to victory in the second half.

That day the Fleet Air Arm comeback was helped by two tries from the Royal Navy’s most capped lock forward, Marsh Cormack.  Having missed the last few finals, Marsh will be fired up to regain the trophy the Fleet Air Arm last held in 2012, in what may well be his last representative Command game.  A number of recent deployments have restricted his appearances for the Fleet Air Arm and his last final was back in 2010, a winning year for the FAA.

FAA skipper Chris ‘Sumo’ Thompson, another like Dane Smallbone who is in the form of his life, will be hoping to welcome back hooker/flanker Ben Priddey to what is sure to be a very powerful ‘WAFU’ pack.  Priddey has missed all of the season so far due to an eye injury.  Having been the captain last time the Fleet Air Arm lifted the trophy he will not only bring dynamism to their game but also huge experience.  His return will also be welcomed by the watching Royal Navy coaching staff as they take a final opportunity to look at some of this season’s potential players before they announce the team for the opening game against Oxford University on 4th Feb.

Last season the Royal Marines comprehensively beat the Fleet Air Arm in the final.  It clearly forced the FAA to take a hard look at themselves and the re-building under Thompson’s on field leadership has been impressive.  They have clearly been the form team in this year’s Inverdale Challenge.  Another reason for the change in fortune has been the return of Owen Salmon for one last season as FAA Head Coach before work commitments curtail further Navy Rugby involvement.  As competitive as ever he will no doubt be sending out his team with a very clear game plan and a mind set to play to their strengths.  His opposite number, Dave Sibson, will no doubt know what to expect and the RN Western Region forwards will have to be prepared to play the game of their lives; there will be no hiding place in the final where the Fleet Air Arm are sure to get their big ball carriers in the game early.

Ten years is a long time since the last Guzz Inverdale Cup victory.  It was the same year when ‘Sibbo’ won the last of his 22 Royal Navy caps and in a season when he earned another, though unexpected, Combined Services cap he knows that in cup rugby anything his possible.  As does Dane Smallbone, after the Navy Cup final.  However the key question remains - do Chris Thompson, Ben Priddey and Marsh Cormack believe in fairy tales?  Or will their power play rugby prevail?

Inverdale Challenge Cup Final, Fleet Air Arm v RN West, Burnaby Road, Wednesday 28 January 2015 KO 19:00

Images Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones © Mark Andrews © John Walton