When HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful landed their guns to help the besieged British Army at Ladysmith during the Boer War two modern day legacies were born. The first was Naval Field Gun which nurtured so many matelots with the second legacy. A grim doggedness and cussedness that no challenge was too hard and no foe unable to be tamed. At Aldershot tonight the Navy U23’s showed in achieving a fine 17-17 draw that the spirit lives on and any watching Field Gunner would have been proud of the modern generation.
The Army came into this match as favourites having won all their warm up games comfortably. The Navy with just one win to their credit in the opening round against the Air Force new that they could not afford to be anything below their best. With a crisp evening and a very wet pitch the conditions were as good as could have been expected given the huge amount of rain during the week.
Right from the kick off the tone of the match was set. The Army won the ball, looked comfortable with it, were forced to come in the side to prevent a Navy steal after strong tackling and RN captain Tom Davies stepped up to kick a simply penalty for a 3-0 lead. For the next 78 minutes the Navy gave a master class of defending a lead, knocking an opposition out of their game plan and issuing one or two surprises of their own on the counter attack.
Immediately from going behind the Army were on the attack but so to were the Navy. However the Navy’s attack was through the tenacity of their defence and their willingness to work for each other and literally swarm over successive Army attacks. An early penalty miss from Blaine Groves was soon put to one side as Josh Madigibuli glided over for the Army’s first try on 11 minutes. With Groves missing the conversion the Army had a slender lead and for any one having watched their ball retention and the openings they had created it was simply a matter of the margin of the win, not the win itself.
However the Navy had forgotten to read the script. From another Army transgression just after the restart Tom Davies landed his second penalty to restore the lead by the slenderest of margins. Again the Army looked to get straight back in to the match and again their backline looked ominous with ball in hand. However continuous pressure in both first up and scramble defence was beginning to have an effect. Slowly the Army began to loose their early fluency, the odd ball passed behind the man, taking contact when the pass was on and also knock ons. It was the knock ons that the Army front row and Joe McLean in particular were beginning to dread more than anything. For when it came to scrum time there was one very dominant man and he was wearing Navy Blue. Time and time again the Navy’s Josh Terry launched the bigger Joe McLean skyward with far less grace than any Flying Angel at Earls Court. For much of the remainder of the first half this sight alone seemed to sap some of the composure from the Army and allowed the Navy to keep regaining field position whenever the Army’s backs looked to break free. As the half drew to a close Tom Davies was off target with a long range penalty but there was enough time for Matt Horton to land a closer effort and give the Navy an unexpected 9-5 half time lead.
The second half soon had the Navy on the back foot and having been stretched down the left flank they ran out of numbers as the Army moved the ball across the pitch for Ross Edwards to cross in the corner. Another miss by Groves meant the Army , this time, had the one point lead. However again this was short lived as a further penalty transgression on 51 minutes allowed Horton to land his second penalty of the night. Navy once more in front but still nearly thirty minutes to go.
Most of the game was now being played in the Navy’s half and it was only a rapidly rising penalty count, in favour of the Navy, that gave the RN the opportunity to keep the Army out of strike range. This rising penalty count led to their senior capped flanker, Matt Bowman to be yellow carded for yet another offence at the tackle. However it was during his absence that the Army scored their third try though Lady Luck (who can look both ways) had a hand in this morale breaking score. Again pressure defence from the Navy caused the ball to be spilled and with no defence in the back field the Navy went for the fly hack. However the ball wasn’t kicked well and spiralled into the hands of flanker Rob Burnell who for once did not have an organised Navy Blue wall in front of him. He managed to slip one tackle as he surged forward and a simple off load pass allowed Dee Ditoka to scamper in under the posts for the score which was converted by Grove. 17-12 lead as the match entered its last quarter.
Again though the Navy would not kowtow and be broken. Despite a number of excellent chances being created the Army simply could not finish any of them off. Again penalties and a second Yellow Card came to the Navy’s rescue. This time it was Burnell who was forced off for a ten minute rest. From the kicks to touch the Navy started to enjoy some better field position which obviously lifted them. For the first time in the match they curbed their tendency to kick away precious possession and allowed the forwards to make yardage before releasing the backs who for the first time this season began to look sharp.
For the first time in the match the Army had to absorb some Naval pressure close to the line. To be fair they reacted well but as with their earlier defence the Navy were relentless in their pursuit of a score. A 5m lineout looked to have given them the perfect launch pad but the throw missed the target and the Army secured possession. However the Navy pack hit the ruck with such ferocity that they knocked the Army back to their own goal line. A mix up at the back of the ruck allowed the ball to roll from the field of play on to the goal line. Their scrum half had time to clear and was setting himself for the box kick but with the ball on the goal line the long arm of Josh Terry reached through and put the downward pressure that assured the score equalling try – bizarre yes but no-one in blue was complaining.
A difficult touchline conversion for the lead was narrowly missed. As was a later long range attempt from Josh Jones. So with the match into its last minute the Army were once more looking to attack from deep and provided, once more, a stern test for the Navy defence. Though desperate at times it was holding firm until the referee’s patience ran out and found fault at the tackle. A long range kick to win the game for the Army. If it had gone over it would not have changed the way the guys played. They had given everything for each other, their coaching group and the shirt. With the kick being missed they had earned themselves a draw. Never the best way to end a match but it was a game that both sides will rue opportunity lost. For the Navy U23’s the season is over. For the Army a win over the RAF gives them the trophy, a RAF win and it is the Navy’s year.
For some the call of the Senior squad will beckon where lessons from tonight will need to be learned but also they should do some teaching. Doggedness and cussedness are admirable qualities and can go a long way. The Army learned in 1800 that the Navy do not understand insurmountable odds. At Aldershot tonight the lesson was retold.
Army U23 Team: Craig Fillier (Capt), Kyle Routley, Joe McLean, Alex Binks, Frankie Fenwick-Wilson, Rob Burnell, Matt Bowman, Ross Edwards, Owain Davies, Blaine Groves, Orisi Cagilaba, Jack Nasau, Josh Madigibuli, Rupeni Rokoduguni, James Dixon
Replacements: Ryan Sturney, Mark Robson, Ross Parkins, Dee Ditoka, Maika Qiolevu, Ben Turaganivalu, Dan Sainsbury
Royal Navy U23 Team: Chris Davies, Lee Mellor, Josh Terry, Dylan Woods, Sam White, John Barnett, Scott Puleston, John Henty, Jay Samuel, Josh Jones, Bobbie Conry-Smith, Sam Davies, Tom Davies (Capt), Morgan Andrew, Matt Horton
Replacements: Peter Fowler, Viliaime Talemasimaiveya, Tom Howard, Chris MacDonald, Mark Sharp, Josh Blackburn, Sam Tyrer
All images will be on the U23 page, under Navy Rugby menu bar by close of play Saturday 24 November.