The annual Army v Navy match is renowned as the biggest boozefest of the rugby calendar.
So it was with little hesitation that TTT accepted an invite to the 97th installment at the weekend from a friend; a Captain in the 39th Regiment of the Royal Engineers.
Also known as the Sappers, they are the innovative grafters of the Army, responsible for performing a range of impressive military engineering endeavours such as design, resource, construction and demolition of any infrastructure used on exercises and operations, including bridge-building, navigating minefields and road construction (and originally devised Ordinance Survey maps) … basically anything that helps our troops’ movement and stops the enemy’s. With a motto of ‘Ubique’ meaning ‘Everywhere’, a Sapper soldier is triple traded as an infanteer first, a combat engineer second and a tradesman third.
They have a strong work hard play hard ethos and the playing was very much on show today. And while the day has a certain reputation for shall we say ‘boisterous’ behaviour, with extra police being wheeled in to cope with the rowdy squaddies, we saw no wanton ‘demolition’ around HQ, other than the supply of alcohol in a three mile radius. Rather a day of 80,000 people descending on Twickenham to simply have a great time.
Our day started at 10am in the Stokes and Moncrieff, a newly renovated pub just slightly off the beaten track of the Twickenham main drag, aptly named after the captains of the England and Scotland teams who competed in the first ever Test match in 1871. A couple [ahem – ok, it might have been three] beers and a bacon butty or two later and we were sufficiently ‘fuelled’ to proceed to the stadium, where a sold-out Twickenham crowd added to the already lively atmosphere.
And so to the rugby.
Things started brightly for the Navy, with their fly-half Nathan Huntley breaking through the Army defence after 7 minutes and creating pressure on the Army line. It was one of a number of sharp breaks from Huntley, who mixed his running game with tactically astute touches from the boot. A couple of surges later and hooker Ben Priddey was able to burst over the line with scrum-half Dave Pascoe adding the extras. Army 0 – 7 Navy.
The Army hit back but despite several phases of pressure were unable to make inroads and a lack of precision at the break down cost the Army scrum-half, Thomas Chennell, 10minutes in the sin bin. Despite this, some neat distribution and inaccurate numbers in the Navy defence allowed Army tighthead Chris Budgen to barrel over from short range. Full-back James Dixon, who plays for National Two South side Taunton Titans, having come through the Cardiff Blues Academy, converted to equalise. 7 – 7.
The Navy retook the lead again shortly after through a period of intense pressure and Priddey, who also plays his rugby in the National Two South division for Redruth, was again the one to benefit, this time from being at the base of a lineout catch and drive: 7 – 12.
The score remained the same for the rest of the first half, with neither side able to string decent phases together and a string of turnovers hampering both sides. Carries from the likes of Army loosehead Ricky Reeves went unrewarded through lack of support and the Army also missed a four on one opportunity. That series of pressure did give them a shot at three points but Dixon was unable to convert, while Huntley also missed a shot at the sticks after the Army conceded a penalty in the scrum.
The second half started in similar vein but, when Dixon was given another chance to take three points early on, he found his line to bring the score back to within two points. Five minutes later, the precision in the pass arrived and good offloading from Army no.8 Ladua Jope allowed the space for flanker Robert Lennox to pop over in the corner. Dixon’s earlier miss now appears to be only a tiny glitch as he converts from out wide. 17 – 12.
Dixon kept the scoreboard ticking over with two more penalties, one of which saw Navy Marsh Cormack binned for a high tackle on Bath and England Saxons winger Semesa Rokoduguni, meaning the Navy were forced to defend with 14 men. A few minutes later and it was again Army v Navy regular Rokoduguni on the attack, this time breaking through two tackles to jot down for the decisive try. The Fijian flyer, who had scored hat-tricks on his two previous outings, had taken a day off from his Premiership Rugby duties to make absolutely sure the Army would take home the Babcock Trophy. Dixon again added the two points.
It was enough to secure the Army their 12th win in 13 years though Priddey scored a late consolation try for the Navy for a hat-trick, capping off an outstanding performance.
Rugby over and the Sappers’ Tent awaited. Though ‘tent’ is a very loose description of what was just the concrete area under Twickenham’s South Stand. Here we proceeded to while away a few more hours (and a few more beers) whilst being serenaded by the superb Royal Engineers Band, who played a range of classic tunes from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to an increasingly merry audience!
A hugely entertaining day.