Keel Laid, In Search of the Sternposty

An early fixture against Marine Nationale this season means that this week’s match, away at Cambridge University, is probably the last chance for the coaching team to mix and match their options before the serious requirements of building the team begins.  In the matches against Oxford University and Esher, it is clear that the Navy side of 2014 have already laid a strong keel as their foundation upon which they can build their attack and defensive games.  Considering the number of players used this is a significant achievement, and is testament to the U23 development systems in place, as well as how hard those players new to Navy representative rugby have worked.

For those unaware of the turbulence, in terms of player availability, the Royal Navy faces each season the importance of the early games can never but overstated.  So whilst the core of the side often remains, it is important to find those players able and willing to step up and be counted.  This season Andy Kellett, as Selector, has been fortunate in that the finals of both the Inverdale Challenge tournament and the Navy Cup showcased some good talent that had been lost amongst the recent high operational tempo experienced by the Royal Marines.  These players, augmented by the usual handful of U23’s eager to display their talent, has ensured a number of new players have worn the Senior shirt for the first time this season.

Against Oxford University it was HMS Bulwark’s winger Matt Bowden and 42 Commando’s lock forward Tom Cowley who caught the eye.  A week later, Eldon Meyer and Edd Pascoe pressed their cases as they stepped up from U23 rugby, whilst 45 Commando’s strong running Number 8, Dave Fairbrother, made another telling contribution from the bench.  The games also gave returnees, like Jonny Stephen and Gareth Cadmore, an opportunity to remind the coaching staff of their capabilities.

The Royal Navy will be the third of the Service teams to visit Grange Road this season.  So far the pen has not proved to be mightier than the sword as both the Army and the Royal Air Force have left with wins.  No doubt the students will not lack for motivation, and will be seeking to ensure that the Services do not get a clean sweep of victories.  This should provide the perfect examination for the Navy, particularly if Cambridge start the game at their traditional high tempo pace.  It will be important for the Navy players to show that they can match this pace whilst remaining disciplined at the breakdown, something they lacked in the opening encounter against Oxford University.  For some of the new players it will be their final chance to impress, an added pressure, but it is when under pressure that they need to show that they can still perform.

One of the key components in any team is the 8, 9, 10 axis.  With Pascoe yet to join the squad and Fleckney, Stephens and Shuttleworth all in good form the scrum half position is not one of concern.  At fly half, newcomer Cadywould showed some good touches, whilst incumbent Nathan Huntley continues to develop his all-round game management and also continues to be pushed by Josh Jones.  Which just leaves the Number 8 position.  In Nelson’s day, the forests were scoured to find the perfect oak to become the sternpost which when fixed to the keel become the strongest part of the ship, and provided the framework around which the fighting and manoeuvring capability was built.  Gaz Evans and Ian Cooper shared this role over the last couple of season’s but will come under a very real challenge from newcomer Dave Fairbrother, who is certainly a significant lump of timber.  His strong performances for the Corps was rewarded with a call to the Senior XV and so far his form has continued in the early warm-up matches.  A strong performance against Cambridge University would certainly put him in prime position to win a first cap in Toulon later in March.

A truism in sport is that the most important game is always the next game.  For a number of players, Wednesday’s match is indeed a very important game.  It is also key for the coaching staff as they cast a final weather eye over the squad before some hard decisions are required.  They will face a fired up Cambridge University side determined to avoid a Service white wash.  It is a game the squad can approach in the knowledge that if they build on their Oxford and Esher matches, and perform to their growing ability, then an away win is well within their grasp.

Cambridge University v Royal Navy, Grange Road, Cambridge on Wednesday 5 March, KO 1915

A full list of the Senior XV fixtures is available here.

Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones & © John Walton