The Re-emergence of RN Rugby post the COVID-19 Pandemic – RNRU U23s

RNRU U23 TSG met on HMS Queen Elizabeth.
RNRU U23 Asst Director of Rugby Lt Owen Salmon RN.
Team Manager CPO Ollie Dugmore.
Head Coach Lt Cdr Andy Vance.
Defence Coach LH(CIS) Nathan ‘Pony’ Moore.
New Forwards coach Chris ‘Sumo’ Thompson.
Backs’ coach Lt Dane ‘Benjamin’ Smallbone.
Strength and Conditioning LPT Sam Davies.
New team Physio Capt Rachel Baxter (Army).

Having won 4 of the last 5 IS competitions, the Royal Navy Rugby Union U23s squad has made steps towards embracing innovative ways of learning game plans and systems added to the remote monitoring and measuring of individual strength and conditioning programmes whilst balancing roles as professional servicemen. Meet the team behind the team…

“You're only a success for the moment that you complete a successful act.”

-       Phil Jackson, former Chicago Bulls Head Coach

As we look to a future where COVID-19 (C-19) is not totally behind us, but being managed, we need to plan for a time where sport is out there again and PDev and NavyFit return to the fore as vital force multipliers. With the traditional U23s Rugby Inter Service (IS) Competition due at the end of the year as a pre-cursor to the RN Senior XV season, there is much more planning required than normal to manage the limitations that a post C-19 world will leave us. With the added pressure due to the increased weight of expectation that comes with winning 4 of the last 5 IS competitions, the RN U23s squad will need to embrace innovative ways of learning game plans and systems added to the remote monitoring and measuring of individual strength and conditioning programmes whilst balancing day-jobs as professional servicemen.

Tasked with ensuring this multi-faceted and challenging undertaking is a new TSG, led by Lt Owen Salmon, dipping his toes in the waters of Director of Rugby for the first time. He brings valuable experience as a Navy capped player as well as Fleet Air Arm (FAA), U23s and Senior XV Head Coach. 

He expressed: I am incredibly excited to be the new ADoR for the RNRU U23s this season, having previously been the Head Coach of the U23’s and the Senior XV I know how important new blood is to the development of Navy Rugby. It is therefore vital we try and get some game time this season but do it in a safe manner and follow the guidance correctly. This will bring its own unique challenges, but we have a very professional and passionate TSG who will ensure things run smoothly”.

Owen will be ably assisted by Team Manager CPO Ollie Dugmore, returning for his second season with the U23s. The meticulous planning required from Ollie and his interaction with players and their Line Managers, sporting facilities owners, accommodation allocators etc will make or break the season whilst also ensuring all Risk Assessments are correct, present and appropriate and all is carried out in line with RFU guidelines.

Lt Cdr Andy Vance returns to RN U23 TSG but now as Head Coach as he progresses through his ‘Coaching Pathway’. He brings experience from his playing days as a RN and UKAF capped rugby union and rugby league player as well as coaching experience with the FAA, RN Mariners, the last two seasons with the RN U23s and within civilian rugby. His coaching team include LH Nathan ‘Pony’ Moore as the Defence Coach who brings much continuity as part of the RN U23 TSG as both Manager and Coach, now focussing on the latter in addition to his role as RN Presidents coach.

The new additions to the coaching staff are CPO Chris ‘Sumo’ Thompson (Fwds Coach) and Lt Dane ‘Benjamin’ Smallbone (Backs Coach). Both have vast playing experience as RN-capped union players and UKAF-capped rugby league players. They bring good coaching experience having coached at various levels and clubs, within the Service and in civilian rugby. LPT Sam Davies (S&C Coach) and Capt Rachel Baxter Army (Physio) make up the TSG and will be integral in team selections, advising on the players’ health and fitness and drawing on their vast experience with Sam’s senior squad experience and Rachel’s experience working with Ulster and Ireland Women’s rugby squads. This TSG demonstrates an already established regard for ‘giving back’ within Navy Rugby; a self-sustaining oranisation utilising volunteers that have received the benefits of sport in the Service and are now giving up their time and effort (much time is required at weekends) to help develop the youth of RN sport.

Firstly, there is a real need for the TSG to instil an environment for the squad to be as good as it can be, to ensure success - something Andy is very keen to address. In referring to the above Phil Jackson quote, he stated: “Despite the U23s success in recent years, this group of players has not won anything yet. It is not the same group of players that won the IS last season, so they are not trying to retain anything, they are not champions – they are trying to win it for the first time. That is the mindset I want to create, that hungry desire to motivate themselves to do whatever it takes to produce the right performances when it matters. Not only do we need to deliver improved rugby players, but we also need to deliver better leaders; players who can make the right decisions at the key moments and inspire each other – they will not have the coaches with them on the pitch at pressure moments. These are also the qualities that we want to enhance in them as we have a secondary role to return these young sailors and marines as better servicemen and inspirations to their peers – a responsibility I value very highly.”

For more information on RNRU U23 Rugby please contact

By line: Hugo Mitchell-Heggs / Andy Vance
Images credit: © Ministry of Defence