THE ROYAL NAVY RUGBY UNION 'FAMILY' REUNION - TWICKENHAM 2015
The Royal Navy Rugby Union 'Family' held its annual reunion at Twickenham on 9 May and celebrated with a festival of rugby in front of a record 81,116 crowd. Three matches took place against the Army, a Combined Services U23 match against Oxbridge U23 and a Services Youth Festival, all for the princely sum of £20; this was a day of sunshine (eventually), great rugby, comradeship and fun.
Twickenham, the heart of English Rugby, hosted the oldest and most passionately fought competition in Service sport. The Army Navy rugby fixture commands a worldwide following of ardent supporters and is only matched in attendance by International fixtures. That the 2015 Army Navy match was sold out in March, in the Rugby World Cup year, is astonishing.
The Inter-Services Championship has been contested since 1920. The Babcock Trophy was introduced in 2003 for the winners of the Championship which is fiercely contested by the three Services during the months of April and May each year. The Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force each field three teams: a men's Senior XV, a Women's XV and a Veteran XV. Usually each of the teams play their matches on the same day. The Army and the Navy play the RAF in the weeks prior to the Army v Navy match at Twickenham on a rotational basis at HMS TEMERAIRE, RAF Halton or the Army Rugby Stadium in Aldershot
There is a feast of rugby - 4 fixtures over the course of Army Navy Day with over 180 players, officials and team management proudly wearing their Service colours, be it shades of Blue, Red or Purple. That the players, coaches and support staff continue to juggle operational deployments and Service commitments with representing their Service, while keeping match fit whilst deployed, is testament to their commitment and skill.
The weekend started, at least for the Royal Navy players, on the eve of the Army Navy fixture with the presentation of shirts to the teams. At the Team hotel the players and management were joined by Maggie Alphonsi MBE and Danny Grewcock MBE, who not only presented the shirts to the Royal Navy Senior XV, Women and Mariners, but gave inspirational 'Team Talks' and shared ‘dits’ while mingling with the players. Danny and Maggie also presented the Mike Connolly Trophy to Guy Pallett and the Soapy Watson Award to Paul ‘George’ Hillan. It was a great pleasure to have Maggie and Danny join us and to welcome them to the RNRU Family.
Match day started early for the RN Women and the Mariners with a 10:30 kick off at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music. Breakfast was at 06:00, with the transport leaving at 08:00. It was a fairly cold, overcast morning with a hint of drizzle in the air, which no doubt the players didn't even notice as they prepared themselves mentally and physically for the matches to come. The two Royal Navy sides went to Kneller Hall with different goals and aspirations, but with the same pride in representing the Senior Service. A large, enthusiastic and appreciative crowd gathered at Kneller Hall, and the 'Family Reunion' kicked off in style, as did the festival of rugby
The Masterful Mariners Soared to the Inter Service Title, having beaten the RAF 39-15, earlier in the Championship and the Army 20-15 at Kneller Hall, they lifted their first Inter Service Championship since the inaugural tournament twenty years earlier. Captain Jamie Phillips received the trophy in his last game in a Navy shirt before making the transition to Australia Armed Forces. He also collected his Mariners cap along with Sam Halofaki and Paddy Gore. For the RN Women this season has probably been the most difficult in recent years, with busy operational programmes denying access to many established players throughout the Inter Services. While the Army Women Maintained an Unbeaten Inter Services Record, the Women’s XV performances against Marine Nationale (F) and the Army clearly demonstrated that though it was a very hard year for the side, they never gave up, remaining up for the fight in adversity. Three more players, Kate Parkman, Nik Williams and Nikki Elvide, all won their caps and as such the depth of the squad continues to slowly grow.
Stands, stalls and socialising dominated the area surrounding Twickenham and with so much going on during the day many perhaps do not know that there is a lunch time game inside the stadium. Each year the future players of the single services don the purple shirts of the Combined Services (CS) U23s and take to the field against Oxbridge U23, a combined Oxford and Cambridge University XV. The Royal Navy links with the CS are strong, with Commodore Paddy McAlpine both the CS Chairman and a Vice-President of the RNRU. The CS U23, headed by WO Billy May Royal Navy turned round losses in the previous two years to win in 2015, beating Oxbridge Students 34-29.
And yet there was more rugby - the children of servicemen and women are a huge part of the Army and Royal Navy rugby family and on Army Navy Day they become an important part of this great event. Four teams representing their Service played tag rugby during the half time of CS U23 match, with the final and playoff during half time of the Senior XV match. The competition is all about the Children, Coaches and parents having that ‘Twickenham Experience’. The Army teams comprised of children in Service education from Garrisons in Germany and the Royal Navy teams were from our very own Devonport Services Plymouth and United Services Portsmouth. The result: 1st United Services Portsmouth; 2nd Ridgebacks; 3rd Mastiffs; 4th Devonport Services. A truly memorable occasion for these young players, their families and the capacity crowd.
As this year's Army Navy Day was a 'home' fixture for the Royal Navy, the links to the Royal Navy 'Family' included the entertainment. The music was provided in great style by the Band of the Royal Marines, Portsmouth, and a unique view of Twickenham from the Band of the Royal Marines can be seen on the Royal Marine Band Facebook page. Jay James joined the Band of the Royal Marines to complete the entertainment and lead the singing of the National Anthem. A finalist with the X Factor 2014/15, Jay is a former Royal Navy Physical Training Instructor. After serving 9 years Jay was badly injured and while on sick leave decided to learn and play a guitar he had bought 3 months previous. After discovering and developing his new found love for music and song writing, Jay was placed on the Royal Navy Role Model Scheme and awarded a 'Career break’ to pursue his musical talents. Jay became the first ever musician/artist to be awarded this by the Royal Navy.
And so to the main event. Although the Navy were Unable to Hold Army Surge Tide, the 98th Army Navy game, in the sell out stadium of 81,116 passionate supporters, was played in a fantastic atmosphere. Although the character and determination of the Royal Navy team shone through, the Army side, who were playing without pressure having lost to the RAF, proved to be a dangerous foe and they posed too many questions for the Navy. The 18 - 36 score line seems harsh, but the Royal Navy showed that they have Hearts of Oak, including new cap, Jarrard Hayler. With the Army win the Inter Service Championship went to the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy Rugby Union congratulates them on their first win since 1994.
But that's not the end of the story of the Royal Navy Rugby Union 'Family' Reunion 2015. The RNRU presented awards to stand out players from the 2014/15 Season. Women’s Skipper Scoops Sherratt Award - when Loz Morton won the Roger Sherratt Memorial Trophy in 2012 it was for a series of battling performances at scrum half. However her winning of the Roger Sherratt Trophy in 2015 is not just a reflection of her performances on the pitch as those off it. Loz is now only the second player to win one of the Royal Navy Rugby Union’s major awards twice. The other being the Royal Navy’s 28 capped lock forward Marsh Cormack; the only man to have been awarded the Cossack Sword twice. Navy’s Cossack Sword Returns to its Spiritual Home - selected by his peers, Dave Fairbrother is a deserving 2015 winner of the Cossack Sword. A previous winner of Navy Rugby League’s Man of Steel his ability has been acknowledged by his peers in both codes and his performances this season rightly earn him the right to have his name engraved alongside the fourteen names that have gone before. And last, but not least, the Proud Heritage, Exciting Future Trophy - Pascoe A Name for both Past and Future. For the last fifteen years followers of Royal Navy Rugby have taken for granted the name Pascoe appearing on the Royal Navy team sheet and with emergence of another man of Kernow, Edd Pascoe, this may well remain the case for the next fifteen years.
So the Army Navy Day is over for another year. However, that is not the end of Royal Navy rugby for 2015. In addition to the Shark's season, which has just kicked off, the Royal Navy Rugby Union is proud to be hosting National Teams for RWC 15 as they prepare for the event. The USA Eagles will be based in Portsmouth at HMS TEMERAIRE and the Namibian Welwitschias (African Fish Eagle) will be down in Devonport. Synchronised with RWC 15 is the International Rugby Defence Competition. The inaugural Defence Rugby Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand in October 2011 and the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force Rugby Unions will host the 2015 competition, which will consist of 12 national military teams from around the globe. HMS TEMERAIRE, Aldershot Garrison and RAF Halton will host the pool matches, with the semi-finals on 23 October and the final on the 29 October at Harlequins’ home ground, Twickenham Stoop.
Rivalry is an important part of the Army Navy Day, but so is the mutual respect between the players, which is why the Army Navy Day remains so special. No matter what the result, the comradeship and friendship that Service rugby creates is a fundamental part of our military way of life, which is reflected in the great atmosphere that surrounds Twickenham for the entire day. Great rivalry, great rugby and great friendship.
The date for the 2016 Army v Navy Day is 30th April 2016. Tickets will go on sale in November 2015 at www.navyrugbyunion.co.uk.
Article by: Mark Walker, with acknowledgement to Alligin Photography / Geraint Ashton Jones.