[This blog post was update 16 Jan to amend and correct the information on Dan Parkes]
When Gaz Evans turned out for London Welsh last weekend he joined an elite group of modern Navy Rugby players.
Having joined from Plymouth Albion in the summer of 2012, Gaz Evans finally played for his new club, London Welsh, when he came off the bench in Saturday’s Amlin Challenge Cup match against Cavalieri Prato. In doing so he joined an exclusive group of Navy Rugby players who have played club rugby at he highest level since the game went professional in 1995.
To play for a Premiership club whilst serving in the Royal Marines or Royal Navy, in the professional era, is something that few have achieved. In the earliest days as professionalism was finding its feet the Navy’s last full international, Spencer Brown, and Navy Rugby colleague Corin Palmer, were regulars on the Richmond team sheet in the then Courage League. This before the club became one of the earliest casualties of the open era. Whilst the Navy’s most capped player, Bob Armstrong, was a regular in Bristol’s colours in that first season of professional rugby before moving to Exeter in League 2.
Since then Andy Perry played for Newcastle in the Zurich Premiership and Guinness Premiership but only after he had left the Royal Marines. Whilst serving he was a regular for Plymouth Albion in the second division. Another who nearly made it was Calum MacRae who played for Harlequins A XV before injury scuppered his hopes and aspirations. Dan Parkes managed to briefly break through when he was loaned to Bath Rugby. His couple of games in front of the Rec faithful included one for the 1st XV in the then EDF cup. It was rewarded with a memorable try albeit a defeat to their fierce West Country rivals, Gloucester.
It seems that the most talented players that Navy Rugby produces can often get close but not quite break through. Often they are held back due to professional commitments and the consequential loss of continuity demanded by the clubs at the highest level. The two that have most recently broken through were Greg Barden, Bristol FC, and Josh Drauniniu, Harlequin FC. Both were helped in their achievements by being part of the Royal Navy’s Elite Sportsman Cadre. This scheme is only open to international sportsmen and women. Both Greg and Josh qualified through being England Sevens Internationals.
And so to Gaz. I am sure he will be the first to admit that his achievement has been helped by many behind the scenes who have ensured that where possible ‘Drafty’ has been kind. However that should not detract from the immense amount of dedication that he has had to put in to develop himself, fully, as a rugby player capable of playing at the highest level of club rugby. His opportunity would probably have come earlier in the season. In October London Welsh’s first choice hooker was injured and Gaz would most likely have made the bench for a couple of matches. However he was in Australia, with Navy Rugby, helping to retain the Commonwealth Cup. The next opportunity would probably have come in the Autumn International window however Gaz returned from Sydney with a knee injury and so, again, missed out.
Finally the third opportunity arose with the return of European Rugby and a now fully fit Gaz Evans. PArtly thanks to the rehabilitation skills of Headley Court. With London Welsh’s key focus being on Aviva Premiership survival; the Amlin and the LV Cup are the perfect opportunity to ensure all the 1st XV squad get much needed game time. Last Saturday Gaz had to watch his rival at hooker, Dan George, get himself on the score sheet before he was given the last eighteen minutes to make his case. Hopefully he will have done enough to convince DoR Lyn Jones that he needs to look at Gaz some more during London Welsh’s next matches against Stade Francais and Harlequins respectively.
Whatever the future holds for Gaz his achievement thus far puts him amongst an elite group of Navy Rugby players. Though his match time for London Welsh has been limited, just being part of the squad in training is bound to have been very beneficial and I for one will be looking forward to his all action style being back in a Navy shirt later in the season. Whether at Eight or in the Front Row Gaz remains one of the jewel’s in the Navy’s crown. His performance in defeat in 2009’s Army Navy game remains, for me, the stand out performance in recent Inter Service history. The winning try the following year is probably more memorable to most others.
Gaz Evans – Navy Rugby bio
Since making his debut in 2005, Gaz has won 16 caps for the Royal Navy. He has played in all three positions in the front row as well as Number 8 making him one of the Navy’s most versatile players.