History is Made as the Royal Navy U23 Dominate the End of the Decade

Three current U23 players were key to 2016 Senior XV success.
Scott Makepeace was captain of the triple winning Inter Service team in 2017 and led the Senior XV at Twickenham in 2019
Aidan Riley, an Inter Service winner in 2015, took the helm from Rob O’Kane.
Neil Evans, part of the coaching team for the U23 Inter Service wins in 2010, 15 and 16.
Holding court. John Court (R), part of the coaching team in 2017, head coach for 2018 and 19.

This month the Royal Navy Rugby Union U23XV should have been defending their 2019 Inter Services title, but as with the men’s and women’s 2020 Inter Service championship, the U23XV tournament was cancelled due to Covid19.  In the second of three articles, I reflect on the 2015 U23 Inter-Services success and the influence it went on to forge in the senior squad.

It started at Twickenham, well the Twickenham Stoop to be precise.  The 2015 U23 Inter Services build up was overshadowed by the International Defence Rugby Cup which culminated at the Twickenham Stoop as the Army were beaten by Fiji for the title.  Earlier in the evening Joe Burton and Jarrard Hayler, both U23XV players, received awards for their contribution to the senior side.  Later in the month Jarrard, in particular, was to be to the fore as the Navy comfortably beat the Royal Air Force 24-6 to set up a winner take all clash with the Army at Portsmouth.  With the Inter service title as the prize.

The Royal Navy U23 entertained the strong and vocal home crowd to an enthralling and thrilling game of championship rugby.  The Army U23XV played their part in one of the best U23 Service matches for a long time but a rousing finish to the first half put the Navy in command at the break, 15-10 and a professional second half performance was enough to close out the match and secure the Inter Services trophy with a 26-22 win.  Greg Lloydall was to lift the trophy with Gareth Rees being awarded the Brian Weeks Trophy, as young player of the year.  Later in the season Gareth Rees was to lead the charge of the youth from the bench as he, Ben Watson, Chris Robinson and Rhys Dimmock-Williams provided the impetus that salvaged the match at Twickenham.  The 29-29 draw against the Army ensured that along with Jarrard Hayler, who had started the game, five players had won two Inter Service titles in six months.

Gareth Rees was to further extend his run as he retained his place in the 2016 U23 XV side which retained the youth title, the first time they had achieved this.  In 2015 Rory Penfold’s runs from deep had been a highlight of the U23 championship as he regularly combined with Rhys-Williams.  Rhys-Williams was to win his full cap whilst Penfold was to be the influential captain for the U23 XV and a key reason they retained their title.  He led a side that included the very experienced Eldon Myers but also another crop of exciting youngsters.  Jack Basher and Scott Makepeace were to go on to win senior caps, but it was players like Brian Weeks Trophy winner, Tom Hughes, who encapsulated the strength of the side.  A team that played for each other and contained a number of players which could as easily have gone on to win further Royal Navy honours.

It was the team’s togetherness which had ensured they squeezed to a tense and narrow win, 20-18 at Aldershot.  The game at Portsmouth was not a classic but the Navy dominated possession and were well deserving of their 10-0 win over the Royal Air Force and for Rory Penfold a fitting end to his long service for the U23XV.  A title retained was a new experience for Navy supporters, who had not celebrated such an achievement since 1974.  In the team that day was a certain Leigh Merrick, who provided the Royal Navy Rugby Union with the Cossack Sword.  He would have appreciated the play off the 2015 U23 captain, Greg Lloydall as a youngster and certainly have approved that the skipper who started the current run of success was also the first player to feed through and be presented with his sword as Navy Rugby Player of the Year, in 2019.  Very much in keeping with Alun Meredith’s vision, way back in 1967.

The great thing about sport is there is always another challenge.  As the dust settled on the 2016 title then a new team started planning for a third title in 2017.  Aidan Riley took the helm from Rob O’Kane and put together and balanced coaching team led by George Hillan, who Aidan had worked with during their time with the Royal Navy Mariners team.  The off-field team included developing coaches John Court and Silivenusi Buinimasi.  Scott Makepeace stepped up as captain and it was no accident that this trio would all become very influential in the Senior XV in future years.

The 2017 Army v Royal Air Force match had been close.  But when the Royal Navy travelled to RAF Halton the home side were to be no match for a Navy side that were simply too strong in all aspects of the game.  The Navy defence was too powerful and organised whilst a James Griggs hat trick was just reward to a backline who ran with pace and subtly to cross for six tries.  The 43-7 win did not flatter the quality of the Navy’s play.  The disappointment of a draw with the Army was overshadowed by the third consecutive Inter Service title it delivered.  As Scott Makepeace lifted the trophy, he joined the magician, that was flyhalf Dave Davies, as the only Navy captains who had lifted an Inter Service title after a third consecutive successful campaign.  Both Davies in 1922, and Makepeace in 2017, would have shared the view that the performance at Portsmouth, from the team in 2017, was not what it should have been.  They were unable to shake of a determined Army side, and whilst always in the ascendancy they could never control the game and were sloppy in letting the Army rally late on to level the scores, 19-19.  They closed the game out reasonably comfortably and fortunately it was an evening that was about the title not the performance.  Scott Makepeace lifted the trophy and was also presented with the Brian Weeks trophy, reward for a season where he led from the front.  Later in the season he was to be presented with the Proud Heritage Exciting Future Trophy by the Senior XV.  It was a remarkable year for the lock forward and a remarkable achievement by the U23XV.

The 2017 win was a third successive Inter Service title, 50 years after Alun Meredith had introduced the Colts side.  To date it is the pinnacle of their achievement and followers of Navy Rugby were probably not too surprised that they were unable to maintain their dominance in 2018, where they were second best to the Army.  However, that they bounced back to a 4th title, in 5 years in 2019 shows how well embedded some of the structures are now in place.

The 2019 title was very much part of how the U23XV needs to look to the future and this will be examined in the 3rd and final article looking at the recent success of the Royal Navy Rugby Union U23 XV and beyond.

Click to view part 1 - Laying Foundations for Success, Holding A Little in Reserve

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