What was rightly billed as a festival of Armed Forces rugby league was staged at the Aldershot rugby stadium over the 12th and 13th of September. I was honoured to be asked along to cover the event, along with Danny Sculthorpe and Jimmy Gittins from State of Mind, who were to present the 1st XIII with their shirts and also present the man of the match (Or Player of the match in the Ladies case) awards after the final game of the tournament.
4 different Army teams were to take on the RAF in the 1st round of the annual inter services cup. I say 4, but the RAF were unable to provide a vets team for the Thursday night and the Southampton Spitfires hastily put together a South East Select side to take on the Army RATS (Race against Time & Senility) select team.
It turned out to be a good test for both sides, as the final score of 34-22 does not do justice to two teams who were well drilled in defence and enthralling in attack. Once the lads had cleaned up, and we’d found our way into the garrison mess, it was drinks all round until the bar closed at 11 & then off to bed…Honest!
Friday the 13th dawned with a very grey and leaden looking sky that threatened to pour down all day. Luckily, it held off long enough for the academy sides from the Army and RAF to get to grips with each other in a close fought 16-14 win.
Chatting to academy head coach, Mike Thompson, it soon became clear that this academy is by necessity a little different.
“We source all our players from wherever they play rugby in the Army, be that Union, Youth or Corps” said Mike
“It’s been a bright start for us this year, with 8 of our squad from last season making the grade and being called up to the 1st team, and 2 from this season’s crop also getting the nod for what’s been a very busy Lawson Cup”
“I’ve had to put a much more robust scouting system in place, to try and make certain we don’t miss out on players who may well have not played league before, and offer them the chance to represent not only their regiment or corps, but also the Army as well”
Game 2 saw the Army Ladies take on their RAF counterparts in what was by now becoming a monsoon over Aldershot. These ladies had had one of the toughest warm up’s I’ve ever seen for a game. They were out practicing drills and skills for what seemed like an hour before heading inside to get their final team talk. Just as Jimmy and Danny made it to the touchline for a photo op, the ref called them into the changing rooms. Needless to say, the ladies made the man in the middle wait as the lads took up positions and smiled for the awaiting camera(s).
Once on the field, the Ladies wasted no time in getting on the scoreboard. A converted try was just the start of an overwhelming tide of red and white as the ladies pushed aside the RAF 64-0
Yes, you read that right, 64-0.
What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that the captain, Katy Garside, who led her troops from the front played the entire game with a fractured sternum! And she’s recently had a baby. Who says Women aren’t tough?
By the time the ladies had finished, there was just time to nip to the clubhouse for a bite to eat & a brew before the main event of the day.
Finding both Danny & Jimmy making the most of the rather excellent nibbles (and free bar), I took the chance to ask them what it meant for them to present the shirts to the players.
“These lads are a testament to the sport. Doing the day job that they do, and then coming along and playing a game as tough as rugby league says a lot, not only about them as men, but about the pride and commitment of our Armed Forces”
“I take my hat off to anyone who serves their country, and to then represent it at the sport they love as well is just amazing”
As we made our way back to a very wet, but slowly filling stand, it became clear that this was not just “another” match. This was the 1st round of a tournament that the Army clearly wanted to win.
It was fitting that this game was dedicated to the memory Lt. Col. Mike McErilain, who sadly passed away in June of this year, just 2 miles into a 44 mile run, which took its runners through the areas that had seen action in 1944. The father-of-three, who worked as a spinal surgeon at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey, as well as making tours as a surgeon in Afghanistan, had co-founded the event with wife Joanna and brother-in-law Giles Barnes and had competed in it six times before. At only 45, it was a shocking loss to his family and his 3 children stood with the Army team for the national anthem and a minute’s silence.
The first pressure in the now pouring rain came from the boys in sky blue, forcing the army into a goal line drop out. From the resulting set of 6, the RAF managed to breach the try line to take a 0-4 lead. Handling errors were beginning to creep into both sets of players, but after 11 minutes, the Army drew level with another unconverted try.
4 minutes later and the Army take the lead, this time converting to go 10-4 up. By the break, the lads in red and white are 16-4 up and are keeping the pressure on with a series of kicks and one particularly nice forty-twenty ends the first 40.
Its 13 minutes into the 2nd half before the army force a pair of back to back drop outs, only to gift possession back to the RAF after a knock on.
The army got the 2nd half under way. A good 4 minutes pressure though sees no more points
53 minutes & the Army force a goal line drop out and again keep the pressure on & force a 2nd only to knock on from the 1st and get it back again. A forty-20 from the Army comes to naught as they lose the ball, but the RAF gift a penalty right in front of the sticks, and the Army take the 2 points on offer and its 18-4 after an hour.
After a rather high shot, the RAF are given a chance to take the 2 after handbags are put away, but opt to run it, and they are losing men at a rate that would have many managers reaching for the anti-depressants.
It remains 18-4 until the hooter, and after a quick sit-down, the lads are back up on their feet for a number of cheques to be presented by Soldiers League charity to BLESMA, Combat Stress and the British Legion.
I had a chat with 1st team captain, Cpl. Colin Marangon of who said that despite the weather and the loss of key players to the recent Army redundancies, tours of duty, they have yet to play a single match with the same 17 players, but as they have experience throughout the entire squad, they were still able to restrict the RAF to just one try.
I also got the chance to chat to Major Dave Groce, who is executive secretary Army rugby league and exec manager for the 1st team, with responsibility for player release from units. He explained that they had actually lost 45% of the regular 1st team in the last tranche of redundancies. He also explained how most unit commanders were torn between releasing players to play and wanting them to remain for deployment, as a trained, fully fit rugby league playing soldier is an asset to the unit, and balancing those duties. Most see the addition of the discipline that playing the sport brings to the soldier rubs off on others back in unit.
The main problem that the team seems to have are fixtures being cancelled at short notice, which led to them playing 3 1st team fixtures in an 8 day training camp earlier this year.
Army RL is 20 years old next year, and as they toured Australia for their 10th anniversary, WO2 Si Ridsdel is hoping to lead them to foreign shores again next season to celebrate what is fast becoming a popular sport across the army.
Once all the player presentations were out of the way, Jimmy and Danny stepped up to auction off a signed Steve Prescott limited addition shirt. After some frantic bidding, the winning bidder was Lance Corporal Shell Roberts of the REME who paid £330 for the shirt & a photo with Jimmy.
Over all, it was a well-attended festival, with a knowledgeable crowd on both sides of the stand, making their voices in support of both the Army and the RAF heard.
The Army Vets team are also playing the GB all stars in a curtain raiser at the Shay, Halifax, on November 10, ahead of Tonga V Italy.
I pity the All Stars…