Laying Foundations for Success, Holding A Little In Reserve
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 this first, of three articles, I critically look at the recent unprecedented success of the Navy’s youth side from its foundation, through to its historic achievement in 2017. Subsequent articles will summarise the last five years of matches before looking at what the future may hold.
Fifty years after the Royal Navy Rugby Union implemented Alun Meredith’s vision of a Colts side, their latest incarnation, the U23 XV delivered a third successive Inter Service title in 2017. The achievement matched the previous best, by a Royal Navy team, the men’s victories from 1920 through to 1922. It was closely aligned to Meredith’s original vision and was the first sustained success in a history that had seen sporadic highlights but was often more a case of missed opportunities or a struggle for relevance.
Alun Meredith joined the Navy after completing his diploma in education in 1947. Capped in ’48 and ’49 he was destined to be the man in charge of Royal Navy Sport and Physical Training, the culmination of a career where he always challenged and looked to champion sporting development. During his time as Navy Rugby’s Sole Selector he convinced the committee of the need to form a Colts side and the first match was duly played in March 1967 at Falmouth. The purpose for the Colts was clear, recorded in the Union’s minutes, but never really implemented. Unfortunately, the aim of developing future players capable of making a difference to the Royal Navy’s men’s team was partially compromised by first Command requirements, a focus on Inter Service results and from the 1980s the problems associated with integration to the RFU’s age group strategy. Structurally, at least in the Inter Services, the Royal Navy team was also hindered by the different age profile and structure of the Navy’s training pipeline. This was mitigated by the introduction of the U21 XV and probably removed when the age group side moved to be an U23 XV.
In 1989 the Colts ended a long period without success, which included the withdrawal from RFU sponsored competitions, with a rare Inter Service win under the guidance of then head coach, Dave Palethorpe. The win allowed Brian Weeks to write a hard hitting, and brutally honest, report to the RNRU Committee about the ongoing structural issues within the Navy’s age group set up. Brian, who was to give his name the trophy for the Navy Young Player of the Year, was Chairman of the Colts at the time and his report was supported by Phil Noble who was the U21 XV Chairman.
The next building block that eventually led to structural change was a report from Billy May in 2005. Billy, at the time, was the Youth Development Officer for the Royal Navy Rugby Union, and penned some thoughts on the role of the coaches, rather than selection and players, in the U21XV structure. These thoughts along with many of Brian’s observations were implemented in 2007 when under the on-field leadership of Wayne John and the off-field leadership of Doc Cox an Inter Service victory was unexpectedly delivered. It was to be repeated three years later when Clayton Patilla, as head coach, and Dennis Scotthorne as captain were the architects of the follow up Inter Service win in 2010. This win was probably the first that could be assigned to the structural changes and a return to Meredith’s ideals of finding and developing players who could go on and add value to the men’s team. It was also noteworthy in that it included a rare Navy win at Aldershot and the first for many years.
2011 was to reveal an under lying issue that has blighted much of the history of Navy Rugby; an inability to back up an Inter Service title. The Army’s revenge at Portsmouth was brutal and the team’s performance at RAF Halton was poor. The disappointment of the campaign was only further highlighted the following year where the Royal Navy very nearly produced back to back wins at Aldershot and only missed out on the title by a points’ difference.
The back to back title break was made in 2016 a year where the Aldershot fortress was again breached by a team that had been shaped by three unheralded stalwarts of Navy Rugby. At the helm for both the 2015 and 2016 title wins was former Navy player Rob O’Kane, who provided the strategic direction with little ‘soft’ coaching input. Another who spanned the two years was assistant coach, Neil Evans. Neil must be one of the most underappreciated coaching talents in recent Navy Rugby history and had also been involved with the 2010 U23XV Inter Service win. His impact is best found out by talking to the players who he has coached, and their comments are often supported by the results his coaching has produced. Though Neil wasn’t head coach his influence was clear to see, and he shared with Clayton, from the 2010 win, an understanding of Navy Rugby that was forged through a knowledge of unit and Command rugby, which more than compensated for not being a capped player.
The final piece of the jigsaw in the leadership team that finally retained a title was another unheralded player but whose captaincy in the 2016 campaign was thoughtful, passionate and grounded in a deep understanding of Navy Rugby. Rory Penfold joined some impressive Royal Navy Reservists, and I include the Volunteer Service from the War, who have led a Royal Navy team. His leadership in the 2016 campaign stood up to this scrutiny even though it is never easy to lead from the back three. The team contained a number of big personalities yet his authority, and understanding of his side’s heritage, ensured that unlike so often before, the team of 2016 delivered when it mattered and at last retained an Inter Service title.
It was the end of an era in many ways with Rob O’Kane, Neil Evans and Rory Penfold all moving on. If the foundations of success are built on structures, culture sitting alongside playing / coaching talent, then 2017 would be a test. A test of Meredith’s vision. A validation of Weeks’ critique and May’s coaching observations. A test of whether the young players within Navy Rugby were not only the players of today but also the players of tomorrow.
In the next article we will look more closely at ten U23 XV Inter Service matches between 2015 and 2019 which delivered eights wins, one draw and only a single loss. Covid19 really did come at a time when the Navy U23’s were enjoying the most successful period in their history.
By line: Geraint Ashton Jones
Images credit: © Alligin Photography