The annual Army v Navy match played at Twickenham stadium was never going to be about the final result and who had the bragging rights for another year; it was more about the occasion. Ex Royal Navy head coach and former Rugby Football Union Premiership referee Geraint Ashton Jones and the Inter Services Sponsors Babcock, renewing their support to this magnificent fixture for another five years on match day had produced the ultimate, ‘who’s who’ of 100 years of Army v Navy as a commemorative book, the reference section in it is simply staggering, it shows every one of the 658 players that have pulled on the Royal Navy shirt to combat ‘the chosen enemy’ , it shows every team that has represented both services since 1907 when the Royal Navy beat the Army 15-14 at the Queens Club.
There were also some special events that would ‘bow out’ as the final whistle blew, Army prop Ricky Reeves would shake the hands of the ‘dark blue’ for the final time, stepping down after playing for Bedford, Wasps and London Welsh, and both Service Head Coaches, Ash Coates and Andy Sanger were both stepping down from their second periods in the role, their impact to the Inter Services rugby will only probably be recognised when the 200th commemorative book is written looking at around 2116 referencing what both teams will have achieved in the coming 100 years.
It’s not about the crowd; this year will show that ticket sales for this year’s game were sold out in four days, where in the world can you sell out an amateur sports event attracting 81,400 fans in under four days? Those fans were as noisy and boisterous as ever, the imaginative fancy dress and banter that occurs is as ‘special’ as the contest on the pitch. It wasn’t about the pre match razzmatazz that had the INVICTUS foundation choir and the crowd singing along to some classic songs; it wasn’t about HRH Prince Henry of Wales, attending as Patron of this most worthy charity who was introduced to the teams pre match, and made both the Army and Navy mascots days as he chatted with them along the line of players raring to go.
The match itself was an ebb and flow affair, the Army opened strongly and dominated the first 15 minutes of the game, Lance Corporal James Dixon was at hand to open the scoring with a penalty and it was his boot that was to be the final difference in the score line. The Army had selected a mixture of experience and youth; the powerhouse in the second row had a handful of caps between them, Corporal Lewis Bean and Lance Corporal Ross Parkins didn’t stop running all afternoon, they drove restlessly into the dark blue shirts, they chased back and tackled until they could run no more; this partnership is truly one that will serve the REDs well for the coming years. Skipper Captain Rob Lennox also playing his last game before he leaves the services was the epitome of what every player was trying to achieve, run, tackle, jump, catch, repeat, a truly inspiring performance.
The Royal Navy had their moments, both teams gave and took no quarter, skipper Ben Priddey and Dave Fairbrother, playing his rugby with ex England skipper Bill Beaumont’s National league Fylde were the pick of the bunch for the dark blue, Fairbrother was to have the final say as he crashed over after the clock had gone red to make the score reflect the effort the Royal Navy had put in.
The Army have a class three quarter line, Signaller Rav Fatiaki who left Worcester Warriors to join the Army was playing in his first Twickenham experience and with Ranger Chris Leathem and Private Junior Bulumakau on either wing and a certain Lance Corporal Semesa Rokoduguni roaming wherever he wanted to; so it was no surprise that all three featured in the three Army tries; Bulumakau scoring two and in the 79th minute sprinting back to put in a try saving tackle that would see him be awarded the Babcock man of the match.
We mustn’t forget the other two matches that had finished three hours before the senior teams had kicked off on the Twickenham turf. Kneller Hall the School of Music hosts the Women’s and Masters matches kicking off at the very early time of 1030hrs. Not many fancy a ‘game of rugger’ at this time of the morning, these games though are as much a part of the furniture as the ‘main event’, over 6,000 people make it into the grounds to wander between the two pitches and reunite with friends that they haven’t seen since the previous year, and in that simple sentence you can sum up why this match sells out in four days! These games are played with the same pride and passion as the senior game, the over 35s had early ‘handbags’ before they settled down to play some attractive rugby, the Army running out comfortable winners, the Womens game was always going to be a struggle for the Navy ladies. The Army had defeated a very strong Royal Air Force team at Aldershot 10 days before, they in turn had put a large score on the Navy women two weeks previously in RAF Halton. Capt Gemma Rowland, a Wales XV and VII’s cap told her team to be ruthless, the team obeyed and by the time the RAF referee blew for full time they had racked up 95 points without one being scored against them, two nil to the REDs in this 3 game series.
Returning to the stadium and in years past, the spectators would start to dwindle back to their Corps bars and Navy coaches a good fifteen minutes before the final whistle, the presentations would be witnessed by only those sat in the RFU Council Box; not last year when a pulsating 29 all draw was played out and not this year. This was the 100th match, everyone wanted to see and be part of it until the very final moment.
So the 100th Army v Navy match was never going to be about the final result and who won was it? …….whatever, really, ………ask the 46 players that pulled on their Navy and Red shirts, their lungs bursting with pride and passion as they walked out of the tunnel, it wasn’t just about the occasion was it? The shirts that they now hold and will pass to their children and grandchildren, all having the special 100th match logo on, those shirts will be on display in 100 years when our successors proudly play out the 200th match. HRH Price Henry of Wales delivered the Babcock Trophy to Lance Corporal Maku Koroiyadi playing in his 25th and final game, before presenting the Babcock Inter Service Championship bowl to skipper Captain Rob Lennox, the photographers clicked and history was made. As for the men in RED, their names will be added to the 709 that have stood before them, side by side, not taking a backward step. What a great day!