Royal Navy Face the Army in their First Hurdle in Retaining the U23 Inter-Service Cup

The U23s will rely on quick line out ball from Dan Mason.
The half back partnership of Rees and Burgess will be key to success.
Ben Watson’s leadership and experience will be missed.
Greg Loydall, last season's U23 team captain.

One year ago the Inter-Service (IS) Cup was presented by Admiral Sir Philip Jones to Under 23 captain Greg Loydall who accordingly hoisted it into the air having beaten the Army 26 – 22 in one of the most exciting displays of rugby seen at Burnaby Road in recent memory. On Wednesday, with the battle lines drawn against the Army, the side will be missing the likes of Hayler and Dimmock-Williams, both having made the transition to the senior squad, however some experienced players who know how to hold on to a lead and win have been retained with Dan Mason, Rory Penfold, Nick Burgess and Gareth Rees providing the nuclei and know-how. Preparations have been hindered by the loss of team captain Ben Watson to injury so the team will need to look to these four to provide the experience and leadership to take the team across the line.

So to the season so far – a difficult and testing fixture list against County sides, the students of Cambridge and a number of revered Academy sides from some very well established professional clubs. Both the Army and the RAF play similar teams on their way to the end of season finale. A lot can be read into the results and assumptions made, however the Training Support Group (TSG) are well aware not to presume too much once the first kick off is in flight.

The Army coming into the IS matches have not yet won a game!  Having only played four games during the build-up perhaps they will arrive under-prepared but they have had a two week training camp at Brunswick to gather their thoughts and iron out any problems. Losing to the likes of London Scottish, Ealing Trailfinders and Hampshire U20s parallels can be drawn with the Navy performance to date – the U23s drew with Ealing but beat the County side during their first run out of the season and they did so by a significant margin.  Against the Academy sides both sides performed admirably but lost out by the smallest of margins.  

Asked to reflect on how the team’s preparations have gone, U23s Head Coach Elvet ‘Taff’ Williams replied,

“With a very compacted season from the trial weekend to the last warm up game vs Ealing Trailfinders, we the TSG have had to ask a lot from all of the young sailors and marines, especially with the number of injuries we received in almost every game.  I also feel that the standard of teams that we have played throughout has helped us prepare a strong and hardworking rugby minded squad.  Player selection has been very difficult during the season and to be honest in some fixtures we have had our hand forced due to injury, however every single player within the inter service squad totally deserves to be there and will not disappoint.”

Both the Army and RN sides have been scoring tries so creativity has not been the problem with the RN scoring through the forwards up the middle or using the pace of the backs out wide. It is as with all things in rugby that the strongest defence will gain the initiative and more than likely take the match. The noise from the stand has resounded with “Stay Connected”, a cry for the defence not only to have awareness of their opposite number but also, and more importantly, to know where their team mates are. Whether blitzing, drifting or man-for-man in defence without having the trust that those around you know the systems and will put in those all-important tackles, the cohesion will crumble.  Whichever team turns up and maintains a robust defensive structure will have the upper hand and to discount the Army in this regard would be rash.

At what juncture does the TSG hand over responsibility to the players?

“The stage where myself,” says Taff “and the TSG know that we have done everything in our power and hand over the baton at the end of the final warm up prior to kick off.  That's when we leave them to go back to the changing room for their final preparations under the captain’s lead, because even though every member of the TSG would love to be on the park representing the Royal Navy with this year’s great squad, we can only influence the game by making changes when required and passing on information from the side lines.”

The spectators can anticipate passion, commitment and drive, after all potential places in the senior squads could be up for grabs so all will be keen to put in a good shift.  Bonfire night may have passed but it is highly likely there are still some fireworks left.
The last word belongs to the Head Coach,

"This year’s RN U23 squad have worked hard every training session or game, and knowing that the Army U23s who are after revenge from last year are a hard, well drilled squad, I have the knowledge and confidence that every single player who steps onto the pitch will give everything they have in their tanks right up until the final whistle.”

Words by J Campbell-Baldwin
Images by Royal Navy Rugby Union © John Walton