Navy Rugby’s Extended Family at Gosport and Fareham RFC

Royal Navy and ex-service personnel swell the coaching staff numbers. Image © Neil Fisher
Rory Penfold lifts the trophy as U23s team captain against RAF in 2016. Image © John Walton

When asked to think of rugby clubs with strong Royal Navy Rugby Union connections you immediately think of Devonport Services RFC in Plymouth and United Services Portsmouth.  Now let’s add Gosport and Fareham RFC to the mix; not because of anything enshrined by official decree but because of the significant number of RN, MOD Civil Servants, Military Contractors and ex-service personnel having a huge influence on the club.

Gosport and Fareham RFC, for those not in the know, is a rugby club located in Hampshire, with home games and training taking place at Gosport Park on Dolphin Crescent in sight of Haslar Hospital, the Institute of Naval Medicine (ish) and Fort Blockhouse (formerly HMS Dolphin and now where the RNRU training facility is based).  The men's first XV suffered a difficult season in 18/19 interrupted by injury and player non-availability eventually being relegated to London 3 South West (tier 8 of English rugby); the men's second XV also struggled while playing in Hampshire Premier (tier 9) and have dropped down a league.  A women’s team is coming along nicely.  As participant numbers continue to grow, the club is excited about them becoming competitive in very short order.  While the 1st and 2nd XV teams play in recognised leagues, the 3rd XV play friendly matches but are looking to return to weekly home and away fixtures; this side forms an important bridge to allow Colts (U18s) to play adult rugby in a physically challenging but slightly less intensive context.

The club is almost certainly one of the focal points of the community with a very active mini-youth section from U6s up to Colts.  Almost without exception there are either serving personnel or ex-forces represented in each of the age groups but perhaps this is not particularly unexpected as the RN’s largest training establishments, HMS SULTAN and HMS COLLINGWOOD are on the doorstep.

Toby Shaw, a MOD civil servant and GFRFC Mini-Youth Chairman, thoroughly enjoys working with the Senior Service in a rugby environment: “Having deployed with RN personnel abroad as a POLAD (policy advisor), I like to think I am reasonably in tune with service personnel. As with all clubs, we rely on the energy and enthusiasm the volunteers bring; this is always on show with our past and present RN colleagues.  I love what they bring to the club and welcome any others who would like to get involved in coaching or volunteering.  We have a history of strong links to the RN and are keen to maintain the relationship.”

But Navy influence is not just limited to the mini youth section.  In his first season (18/19) in charge Warrant Officer Paul ‘George’ Hillan has taken charge of the 1st XV in his first civilian head coach role, having enjoyed a fruitful time with the RNRU U23s, Women and Mariners’ squads.  Outside of work, splitting his time between his Harlequins community rugby role and his Gosport duties means that George’s diary is invariably full.

If Hillan is the Buffer then he is supported by a side party of matelots with Dane Smallbone as backs coach and Mark Knoll-Pollard and James Mclauchlan the forwards’ and defence coaches; all they need now is Dean Fentum as kicking coach!  These coaches also lace up their boots to take their place on the field.  Away from Gosport, most are also playing for the Navy veterans, “Mclauchlan! You’re over 35 now aren’t you?”  with Mariners’ stalwart Andy Vance and RNRU Presidents’ and Sharks’ player Rory Penfold bringing the average age down significantly.

“It is a great community club to be involved in and one I have grown up with being a military child myself.  I knew when I took up the player/coach role that I would face different challenges to those I experienced with the RNRU, Smallbone said, “I know where George wants the club to be and together with the rest of the coaches, we are keen to civilianize and adapt some of the core navy values and standards – not exactly an easy task.  A civilian club is at times polar-opposite to a RN team.  There is significantly more individual sacrifice when putting a team together.  In the winter months there is the night time training sessions; the less than state of the art facilities and the lengthy travel to away fixtures, our furthest last season was 80 miles and all of this takes place outside of the working week!  While playing for the Navy, the Physical Training Instructor and visit liaison teams organise the matches and all the players have to do is check their studs and get on the bus. Due to the healthy competition within the RN, players feel a sense of pride and achievement to play for a representative side, community clubs rarely have the strength in depth to promote similar feelings.  That being said a rugby player is a rugby player wherever you are with the same fortitude and drive whether they are civilian or service.”

Rob Batley, Club Chairman, and Manager of Costcutter in Collingwood, said of the Navy influence: “Gosport and Fareham RFC is ever-graced by its location being so close to the Naval Base, Collingwood and Sultan and always has a warm welcome for visiting service personnel.  We have seen George bring a more analytical and inclusive approach to coaching the senior squad this season and feel sure we will profit from his experienced approach in the longer term.  The links between the RNRU and Gosport and Fareham RFC are closer than ever, which is beneficial for both parties.”

Coach: George Hillan (Navy Command).
Player/ Coach: Dane Smallbone (Portsdown Hill), Mark Knoll-Pollard (Sultan) and James Mclauchlan (Collingwood).
Players: Dean Fentum (Collingwood), Rory Penfold (RNR), Andy Vance (Sultan), Jerry Rodelana (CLYDE).
Mini Youth: U15s - Tom Joyce (NCHQ). U13s - Mike Reid (HMS St Albans), Dave Duran (Just handed in his RNID), Dan Turner (Collingwood); U12s - Mark Headley (FOST MPV), Toby Shaw (MOD MB), Tony Stevenson (CNR). U11s - Nigel Fleetwood (Pheonix). U10s - Ian Hopper(MOD MB), James Spencer (HMS St Albans), Jez Usher (HMS Raleigh), James Simpson (Sultan).
Referees: Chris Blockeley-Webb (NCHQ), Lewis Brooker (RNAS Culdrose).

Words by J Campbell-Baldwin