It’s In The Blood

Glynn Thomas (right) was the Selector who gave Mike Connolly his first cap
The Team of 1982. Mike Connolly captain, Rob Thompson 6th from right standing
The unbeaten Team of 1986 – Mike Connolly coach
Mike Connolly receives the Combined Services Sports Board Award for Team of the Year
Glynn Thomas on the touchline at US Portsmouth, keeping a weather eye out for new talent

There are two people who through my association with Navy Rugby have always stood out with their enthusiasm for the game of rugby and the special nature of Navy Rugby.  The way they speak about matches, former players and escapades is full of passion, their eyes sparkling with the deep rooted belief that, whatever the result, Navy Rugby remains the best club in the world.  Both are now Life Members of the Union, rightly acknowledging their achievements and contribution to the game within the Royal Navy.

My first encounter with Glynn Thomas was after a ships’ game on the Navy’s old Hilsea pitches.  As a newly qualified referee I had just whistled no side at my first game.  Glynn, who I had never met before, introduced himself after the match and we spoke about the game.  It was the start of a relationship where Glynn’s advice, which was mainly heeded, helped to shape my future as a referee.  I knew little of Glynn’s background at the time apart from he had been a Navy referee.  It wasn’t until much later I found out that his words of wisdom were born from success as a Navy player, captain and Selector.  The following year, 1988, he was to be made a Life Member of the Royal Navy Rugby Union, something I knew little of at the time.

My meeting with Glynn Thomas was not long after my encounter with Mike Connolly.  The previous summer I had helped out with some pre-season training at Devonport Services.  Having been in the Royal Navy for less than a year my knowledge of Navy Rugby, Field Gun and what was or was not important was limited at best.  Having taken a couple of sessions I arrived one Tuesday evening to notice a significant spark of anticipation amongst the Devonport players.  Mike was back and was going to help out.  I am not sure what Mike Connolly made of my inputs but his certainly lifted the players and injected a real sense of purpose to pre season.  Again I knew little about Mike Connolly at the time, although our coaching paths crisscrossed many a time over the following twenty-five years.  Like Glynn, I learned that Mike was a former Navy player and captain.  He went on to become a Navy Selector and earlier this year his contribution to the Royal Navy Rugby Union was publically acknowledged when he was made the latest Life Member of the RNRU.

Mike’s elevation to Life Membership of the Union only highlights how tight knit and intertwined Navy Rugby is.  As the newest member I am sure he will hark back to another, previous occasion when he was the ‘new boy’.  In March 1974 the then Selector, Glynn Thomas, decided that the time was right to introduce Connolly into the Navy’s Inter Services backrow, three years after his Senior debut.  The history books show that the team of ’74 were the last Royal Navy team to retain an Inter Service title.  For Glynn it was just reward for a thoughtful and impressive Selector, for Mike it was the first year of many in the famous Navy jersey and but for injury his eight year senior playing career would have earned more than the twelve caps he achieved.

In Mike’s last playing season for the Royal Navy he captained Rob Thompson, another who was made a Life Member last year.  The two should have been united in 1980 when Rob won the first of his caps, but injury ruled Mike out (although he managed to return for the Earls Court Field Gun season).  Now whilst Mike shares an infectious enthusiasm of the Navy Game with Glynn, that has no equal, he also shares a number of other attributes with the like of Rob Thompson.  Connolly with his deep welsh roots, and the Irish temperament of Thompson are just two in a long line of Navy Rugby backrow forwards who can best be described as hard as nails.  Both forthright on and off the field, they were, and are, part of an enduring legacy of abrasive Navy forward play that has ensured that the Navy has always managed to punch above its weight come Inter Services.  Long may it continue?

Each year the Life Members meet to dine together before the RAF match.  It has become tradition for the Senior XV to receive their playing shirts during the evening.  With Rob Thompson, last year, and Mike Connolly this year, joining a number of great former navy players like Glyn Thomas, Dave Hambrook, Binge Gatehouse and Roger Godfrey they will share the evening with those who carried the torch so brightly before them.  Hopefully the enthusiasm of Thomas and Connolly, about all that is good with Navy Rugby, will resonate with today’s players and the rich history of Navy Rugby will be carried forward.

Congratulations to Mike Connolly on becoming a Life Member and a Trustee of the Royal Navy Union.

A fuller account of Mike’s contribution to Navy Rugby can be found by clicking here.

Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images © Crown Copyright  Courtesy of Trevor Gatehouse and Mike Connolly / Alligin Photography © Geraint Ashton Jones