For Scott Ashley and Kai Blackett (far right), this season’s head coach and coach of the U23s respectively, the rematch against the RAF could not come to soon. The blustery afternoon, last year, at RAF Cosford no doubt holds some painful memories. It was an afternoon that a Navy team let victory pass them by. It produced a first RAF win at this level for four years and history may well show it to have a significant place in the slow re-emergence of RAF Rugby. Friday night at Burnaby Road will provide some more answers.
I am sure most readers are aware that the RAF won the match by a single point but for those of us who were there, and regrettably that was too few of us, the story is not that simple. I do not hold too much store in U23 results but I do believe
performances count in the longer term development. The stark truth is that following a match when they had every opportunity to win that they did not was predominantly through failings of their own design. An inability to make use of the two occassions when they had a man advantage or indeed to bring their game breakers like Ben Clark and Toots Vakalutukali in to the match cost them dear. It was an afternoon when scrum half Jack Foster showed all of his combative qualities that later in the season was to result in him becoming the 700th player to be capped by the Royal Navy Rugby Union when he came on as a replacement at the 2012 Army Navy game at Twickenham. Jack was clearly a class act during the match but he allowed his own personal frustrations to get the better of him and as a consequence his decision making and execution dipped and allowed the RAF’s tenacious defence to defend their 10-3 half time lead throughout the Navy’s second half continuous onslaught.
Of course it is not the first time that matches have been won like that. In 2007 the boot was on the other foot when, led by Cowboy John, the Navy U23’s held on to a slim lead against the Army at Burnaby Road. The resultant win was as much due to the Army’s poor execution as the stirling defence of the Navy’s backrow and centres that day. However the win was enough to spark a mini revival in Navy Rugby fortunes that was to see their most successful period in the last four decades of Navy Rugby. Could history show the same for the RAF?
Since that U23 victory at RAF Cosford, RAF Rugby’s fortune has been on a slow but steady upward path. Although the conditions did not help the Senior Inter Service match at Burnaby Road was a close affair and one which both sides will have left the ground feeling they could and should have done better. Since then the RAF Spitfires, their sevens team, have had a very successful summer campaign finishing with a very credible third place at the International Defence World Sevens held in the USA.
Already this season the RAF have completed a successful regional tournament. Though this was won by the Eastern Eagles, the real point was that it involved a good selection of players who were exposed to the pathway for further representation. Players from this competition will feed in to both their U23s and their Senior’s, who incidentally started their Inter Service campaign last night at Henley.
The match against the Henley Hawks showed that the RAF are in reasonable shape for so early in the season. Perhaps as a result of the recent visit from Saracens. As to the match; a penalty and two goals to two tries gave the RAF a 17-10 halftime lead and forced the Hawks to bring on some better players from the bench. Though the RAF could not maintain their intensity in the second half they did make Henley work very hard for their eventual 29-17 victory.
The weekend before, the result had been different for their U23s. They were the third Service side to play Cambridge University LX and like the Army proved victorious. However it was far closer than the Army match or indeed the Navy U23 v CURFC LX match. The RAF U23’s nicked the match with a last minute penalty. This was kicked from the half way line by the hooker. Navy – you have been warned!
As ever you can not read too much into previous results when it comes to Inter Service rugby. However I am sure that the RAF U23 team will travel to Portsmouth in the most confident mood for some years. How the Navy respond will be interesting.
Already this season they have shown remarkable progress in their three warm up matches. Navy Rugby will not confirm the captain yet but with Tom Davies captaining the last couple of matches he is surely in the prime seat to be given the honour. Whoever gets the role will need to ensure that the lessons of last year, where Tom played fly half are learnt. They also need to ensure that they do the simple things well.
They did this for a short period against Cambridge and looked a potent side but over eagerness and ill discipline has hit them hard at times. On Friday with goal kicking hookers around it is something they can ill afford.