With most eyes focused on tomorrow’s opening game of the 2012 U23 Inter Service Championship it will not be just the emerging players of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who sit in the changing room with a nervous sense of excitement and anticipation.
The Navy match will be in to its second half when the Army’s Ricky Reeves runs out at Sale hoping to make his Saracen’s debut. For the thirty year old it is another step in a remarkable late surge up the rugby development ladder. His rugby education started in his Corps side of the Royal Engineers and club side Cambridge RFC. He rapidly progressed through the Army’s development system which coincided with a move to Championship side Bedford Blues and last week continued with a strong debut performance in CS colours.
Reeve’s emergence will no doubt have been noted by the Navy’s coaching staff. However it is not just one that they have to worry about. Chris Budgen, the Avivia Premiership’s oldest player, remains a powerful impact replacement even if 80 minutes may now belong to matches past. However ahead of him in the pecking order the Army have Ken Dowding who was alongside Roko in the Bath team at Newport last week and between them Matt Dwyer has gained Heineken Cup and RoboDirect experience with the star studded Ospreys team.
If that is not enough to contend with it may well have been worse! It is only a couple of seasons ago that the Army U23’s had a certain Ryan Grant in their midst. Fortunately for Navy followers everywhere he could not resist the lure of blue. And though he did not cross the divide completely he did leave the Army and since his debut in June this year has cemented his place in Scotland’s starting front row.
With such possibilities in their front row it already looks as if the 2013 Army Navy match may be an explosive affair and one which I am sure the Navy front row hopefuls will be relishing.
When looking at the available Navy front talent it is important to look beyond their clubs as this is very often more a reflection of their professional commitments than their ability. Some of course, like Gaz Evans, have also made it to the highest levels of the game. His ability to play in any of the three front row positions (let alone No 8) makes any predictions of front row permutations nigh on impossible. Not far behind Gaz is Navy loose head prop Kyle Mason, who has been tested against some chiselled props when representing Malta.
Taking those two aside the Navy mix is proving to be potentially the most exciting of recent times. In Ben Priddey, Tom Blackburn and Kye Beasley the Navy have three players all now with Combined Services experience. All are very comfortable with the ball in hand as now seems to be the way with the modern day front row forward. However there may well be an apt word of advice for them from recent England debutant, Mako Vunipola’s father. Fe’ao who used to captain Tonga watched with pride as his son came on as a second half replacement and promptly continued the dominance that England had established up front. After the match he revealed that he had repeatedly told his son that his priorities were wrong and though he loved to get to carry the ball that “if you can’t sort out your set piece then forget about England”. Wise words indeed.
On his day Ben has proved himself the match of any front row player in the Services. His ability proved in both Navy and CS colours. No doubt he will relish the opportunity, when he returns to rugby from professional training, to set about preparing himself for the Inter Service challenges ahead. For Beasley and Blackburn if they apply themselves they have the makings of excellent props in the traditional Navy mould. And if they don’t? Well they only need look over their shoulder where both Josh Terry and Chris Davies had a solid Commonwealth Cup campaign which they will look to replicate in the Navy U23 IS campaign and after Christmas back again in Senior colours. Finally and if his duties as a submariner do not impinge too much there is Dale Smith. Dale, who can play both hooker and tight head, proved a revelation at the end of last season. Despite his ‘submariner fitness levels’, following a last minute call forward, his appetite for work and intensity at the breakdown added a harder edge to some of the Navy’s play.
The pathway for them is clear. For Ricky it took him until he was thirty before developing the alround strength and game requirements to meet the needs at the highest level and those of Saracens. When the Navy supporters look at he young props on show both tomorrow night at Burnaby Road and throughout the rest of the season think what they may well develop into over the next five years.
The Battle for Pompey Harbour
In last night’s enthralling quarter final encounter, Portsmouth Naval Base defeated its Clyde rival to book a Navy Cup semi final against HMS Sultan.
Though the home side dominated the early possession it was the scottish visitors who forged an early lead through two well taken tries which started from deep. However with neither conversion being successful a Nelson goal reduced the lead to 10 – 7 mid way through the first period. This was further extended to 22 – 7 early in the second half through a try and a goal either side of half time by HMNB Clyde.
With an away victory looking likely it is to HMNB Portsmouth’s credit that they rescued the match. As the game entered its final quarter they at last managed to keep hold of the ball and convert possession in to points. Two goals reduced the deficit to 21-22 as the match entered its last five minutes. Neptune seemed to have clinched the game when they crossed in the closing minutes but the score was ruled out due to a knock on. From the resulting scrummage the home side maintained possession better than they had done all night and worked their way up field to produce the match winning score. Probably a deserved victory 28-22 but the visitors from Scotland had given them a mighty scare.
A key reason for the change of fortunes of HMNB Portsmouth was the arrival of Navy Number 8, Ian Cooper, as a replacement. Not seen much on the rugby field this season, due to professional courses, he not only scored Nelson’s third try but also provided some forceful direction. Amongst the watching Navy U23’s squad and coaching staff was Kye Beasley who, knowing my views as to Coopz’s best position, pointed out that he had come on at prop! It confirmed what I already believed that deep down in his psyche there is a tighthead prop waiting to burst through. If last night wasn’t evidence enough I have included an image from last season’s match in Toulon where he tried his hand in the hookers role. As is highlighted above, there is plenty of time for Ian’s front row development.