This is the first of three posts that looks back at some of the history of the Commonwealth Cup and hopefully will help Navy Rugby followers to understand that though the Royal Navy has always won the trophy, the tournaments themselves have been close and often full of tension. In this first blog I focus of the 2003 tournament in New Zealand including looking at the key game through the eyes of the Royal Australian Navy. Part 2 will look at the only four team tournament held in South Africa in 2006 and finally part 3 will revisit the last Commonwealth Cup held in Plymouth in 2009. By then it will be Wednesday 3 October and the 2012 Commonwealth Cup will be underway as the RNZN seek to keep hold of the Shelford-Stokes Shield in the first match against tournament hosts RAN.
3 May 2003 was not a good day for Navy Rugby. The annual Army Navy match had left the Navy team out on the turf in more ways than one as the Army’s backs had shared five tries, their new star in the back row, Isoa Damudamu had bagged two and the Navy despite a try and three penalties had endured most of the 80 minutes well and truly on the back foot.. The 53-16 defeat had been hard to endure, the 2001 Inter Service victory seemed to belong to a bygone age and unfortunately the Commonwealth Cup squad had to depart almost immediately for the only tournament to have been played in May.
CNRC 2003 – the First Match 12th May
RNZN v RAN
Like 2012 the first match in the New Zealand hosted 2003 Commonwealth Navies Rugby Cup was played between the RNZN and the Royal Australian Navy. Though today these sides play for the Shelford-Stokes Shield in those days the match was for the Lou Smith Cup. The Lou Smith Cup that is still played for whenever a New Zealand ship and Australian navy ship meet and play a game of rugby union.
The RNZN started the match, in front of their home crowd, with a ferocious onslaught through their forwards and established a deserved 15 – 5 lead. With the breeze on their backs the Kiwis kept the Breakers pinned down deep in their own half and the safe bet was for the home side to increase their lead. However the match and the result probably turned on a piece of individual skill from talented Aussie fullback Chris Bohan who not only forced the turnover but then managed to race the 90m up field to score and with the conversion bring the Aussies to within 3 points. A penalty just before half time squared the match up, buoyed the RAN and equally deflated what had been a determined RNZN team.
The second half was not pretty but was an absorbing struggle – physically and mentally. An exchange of penalties was all that was to show for the titanic battle that the forwards were enduring. Like the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle the Kiwi’s were Foremanesque in their repeated battering of the Breaker pack but the Aussies would not yield and like Ali were sharp on the counter. As the match wore on the Kiwi pack began to tire and falter and soon the RAN could escape the stranglehold, make use of the breeze and begin to exert some territorial dominance. As the game entered its last ten minutes the transformation was complete and it was now the Kiwis who were defending for all their worth. However a penalty conceded allowed Andrew Thorpe to kick the winning penalty to give the match to the Breakers 21 – 18. Chris Bohan was deservedly made man of the match.
Match 2 – 14th May
RAN v RN
The Royal Navy made their debut in the tournament against an Aussie side with their tails up but who had endured a demanding physical examination only two days earlier. It was clear from the outset that the RN’s preparation had been spot on, the opening quarter was all about RN pressure. Twice they were thwarted by last ditch Breaker defence when the Aussies held the RN up in the In Goal area. It seemed as if with the front five dominant it was only a matter of time before the RN would take command of the fixture. However on one of their few excursions from stedfast defence the RAN side won and converted a penalty goal to finish the half with an unexpected 3-0 lead.
As the first half had ended so the second started. The Aussie defence was once more heroic in its rear guard action. The Navy pack continued to lay siege but the RN could not easily unpick the defence. A try midway through the half was scant reward for their dominance but it looked as if the game was secured when Matt Parker (?) the RN No 8 was driven over following a 30 m lineout. RN scrum half Dave Pascoe missed the wide out conversion but the Brits at 12 – 3 had a seemingly commanding lead.
However as with the first match so the second. Chris Bohan was again to show his class and another fine individual piece of skill was rewarded with a score under the posts, an easy conversion and the game pegged back to 12-10. Entering the last quarter it was all to play for more so when the Breakers engineered a well worked try in response to a Dave Pascoe penalty. Scores tied 15-15 with the conversion to come. Ball struck well, held up by the wind, fades wide. RN restart with the wind behind them and two minutes left on the clock. Aussies filled with pride and passion scenting a final score and the 2003 Commonwealth Cup. The clock seemed to stop.
The restart is fumbled and the RN awarded a scrum.. Ball kept tight and taken up in to the RAN 22. The referee gets in the way. RN scrum. Collapsed, reset, RN scrum. Penalty? No reset RN scrum. The game is tight the RN feel their pack is dominant but the Breakers will not yield they drive the RN back only to concede a penalty from which the RN can set up an attacking lineout. RN miss their jumpers and the Aussies snaffle the ball and look to release their dangerous backs for one final counter attack – would Bohan be able to get his third try of the tournament. However hope turns to despair as the Breakers infringe at a tackle and Dave Pascoe cooly lands the winning penalty deep into added time. RN win 18-15. Chris Bohan wins his second man of the match. The Aussies, with two games in three days had showed fantastic heart and no little skill, were within two minutes of winning the Commonwealth Cup. The RN lived to fight another day but now had the short turn around before facing the Kiwi’s looking to salvage something from their home tournament.
Match 3 – 17th May
RNZN v RN
The two earlier matches had shown that match 3 was going to be a titanic struggle up front. Could the RN scrum hold the power of the Kiwi front row. History showed that the answer was yes. The four props used that day were John Court, Dan Parks, Nick Bartlett and Bill Parry. Dan and Nick are of course well known and rightly lauded for their achievements in the RN’s colours. John Court later went on to win his Navy cap whilst Bill Parry will always be remembered for his cameo role on the tour of 2003 as kit man and player. Those early scrums were painful to watch but like the oak spars to be found on board HMS Victory though he may have creaked and groaned he did not yield.
The match was in its way another classic. The RN made a comfortable start and established a 12- 0 lead through two tries. However as the match wore on tiredness and frustration set in and the game became more of an arm wrestle and with fifteen minutes remaining the score showed the RN with a 22 – 17 lead but defending for their lives. A penalty from the Kiwis gave them a lineout 15m out and another opportunity to get a game equalling score. At he front of the line the RN throw up Glen Cavanagh who intercepts and wins probably the most important lineout of his brief career in the RN shirt. The lineout steal allows the RN to releive the pressure and to make progress up the field where another penalty from Dave Pascoe gives them a match winning eight point lead. 25-17 the final score and the Commonwealth Cup is retained.
Behind the Scenes
The RN side that toured New Zealand in 2003 set out in a soulful state. It returned victorious but the matches had been close and the fragility of their play was, at times, laid bare for all to see. Naturally the players deserve credit for getting the job done on the park but the 2003 win was as much to do with behind the scenes as what unfolded on the pitch. The job of restoring moral and building the team fell to Team Manager, Soapy Watson. He along with Bill Parry; kit man and honorary conditioning guru, team captain Nick Bartlett and senior player Bob Armstrong brought the squad together and ensured that following the heavy Army Navy day defeat on the 3 May the team returned home some three weeks later with happier memories, having played two tough test matches and also having retained the trophy. Sadly Soapy is no longer with us but his memory burns bright throughout Navy Rugby and the trophy in his name rewards those who work tirelessly behind the scenes is most apposite. He achieved much in his time with the RNRU but for me the part he played in retaining the Commonwealth Cup in 2003 was his finest hour.
Part 2 – South Africa – Kiwi Triumph and Disaster
Next week part 2 looks at the 2006 Commonwealth Cup hosted by South Africa.