Rob Bell scored a late try as the RAF secured the Inter-Services Championship title, beating the Royal Navy 31-21 at Twickenham Stoop.
Two early Andy Byrne penalties gave the RAF a 6-0 lead, before Eldon Myers hit back to give the Navy their first points of the contest.
Lloyd Owen and then Ratu Vakalutukali traded scores as both sides struggled to take full control in the first half.
Sam Randle touched down just before half-time and Byrne added a third penalty of the game, but Gareth Rees levelled the scores immediately after the break for the Navy.
However, after Harry Collins’ yellow card for repeated scrum infringements, the RAF dominated. Bell went over for the championship-winning try, and a final Byrne penalty sealed the Wavell Wakefield Cup.
The RAF came into the game, knowing that a win would be enough to claim the Wavell Wakefield Cup for the second time since the turn of the century – and a first since 2015.
London Irish second row Josh McNally had played a key role in a 20-19 victory over the Army nine days ago. He was pivotal again for the RAF, with his key role in his team’s success made all the more extraordinary by his own circumstances.
Following a defeat at Saracens last October, the 27-year-old suffered a stroke, requiring heart surgery before returning to rugby last month.
His presence was key for the RAF as they looked to take early control. Byrne kicked two successful penalties on a beautiful evening at the Stoop, with both teams exchanging kicks early on and happy to wait for a mistake.
By the time a third RAF penalty was awarded within the first twenty minutes, a pattern was emerging. A scuffle ensued, with the Navy’s lack of discipline creating its own problems as the game wore on.
However, it was the Navy who scored the night’s first try. Myers touched down in the corner after his side’s first real spell of concerted pressure. After the ball was moved quickly across the pitch, Myers found himself in space on the right wing to score.
The RAF responded immediately; Owen stole in after a good RAF scrum, sliding effortlessly through a hole in the Navy defence to restore his side’s lead.
However, just as Myers and Owen had done before, the two sides would quickly trade tries once again. First, Vakalutukali drove over from close range for the Navy, before the Navy failed to deal with a straightforward restart for the second time in a matter of minutes.
This time, RAF full-back Randle twisted away from the Navy midfield to complete a superb individual effort. A further Byrne penalty opened up a seven-point half-time lead as the RAF made their territorial domination count as the half progressed.
Soon after the break though, the quick-thinking of Rees brought the sides level once more. Having won a penalty inside the RAF 22, he moved quickly, tapping the penalty and sliding in.
That, though, was as good as it would get for the Navy. Fired up by the early second half concession, the RAF began to dominate proceedings. Only a string of desperate tackles near their own try line kept the Navy close, before Collins’ yellow card ended their resistance.
After multiple phases, Rob Bell finally touched down to give the RAF a crucial lead with under ten minutes remaining, and it was left to Byrne to kick the finishing touches to an historic night for his team.
There was still time for Myers to fumble when inches from the RAF line. As the ball slipped from his grasp with the white paint in sight, so too did the Navy’s chances.
Byrne, named man of the match after contributing sixteen points, said: “We just kept to our patterns that worked well against the Army. We didn’t change our game plan at all so we kicked for the corners.
“We didn’t let the occasion get on top of us. We’re not bothered about the game at Twickenham. It’s a dead rubber. Anyone can win but I think the Navy will do them; they’re a bit more physical, a bit more drilled. That said, you never know what the Army are going to bring.”
For McNally, sealing the championship in front of more than 4,000 spectators made the victory even sweeter.
He added: “Just being able to win the Inter-Services title today and not having to wait for the Army Navy game is a huge tick in the box. We talked all week about not letting this week pass us by and having to wait for Twickenham to be able to lift that cup. Winning it today is a huge reward for the lads.”
Navy captain Ben Priddey was magnanimous in defeat, admitting that indiscipline had cost his side.
He said: “We just gave away far too many penalties. We knew that if we gave away penalties the RAF would capitalise. Their kicking game was on point.”
Priddey’s Navy team will face the Army in a fortnight at a sold-out Twickenham. However, there will be no trophy to play for. This was the RAF’s night, easing to glory at the end of a frantic and pulsating encounter.
The live feed and copy writing was part of a new colaboration between Alligin Photography and students from St Mary's University. The match report above was produced by Danny Ruddock and Nick Friend. Images provided by Andrew Fosker