The Corps League 1 championship looks set to go down to the wire, according to REME joint head coach SSgt Dudley Mennie (3 AAC).
REME’s 10-5 Round 4 win over the Royal Artillery at the start of December took them to the top of the League 1 table. But with REME and the Royal Engineers separated only by points difference in first and second, and the Gunners just two league points behind, there is plenty to play for when the competition resumes in January.
“It does feel that way,” says SSgt Mennie. “With the fact that we have home and away games it gives you different advantages and I’m not surprised it’s turning out this tight.
“We always knew it was going to be tight so we had a strategy where we wouldn’t be influenced in terms of our game plan whether we were home or away. Match day is well rehearsed and scripted now, with everyone knowing what time they need to be where, so that we can get normal life and distractions out of the way.”
REME began their campaign with a 34-15 win over the Royal Artillery which showcased their ambitions to play with width, shifting the point of contact and looking to get over the gain line with pace and agility.
However, since then there has been a narrow loss to the Royal Engineers and a 22-all draw with the Royal Logistics Corps, before the win over the Gunners which put them in first place heading into the Christmas period.
Image © Alligin Photography, Lee Crabb
That first result showed SSgt Mennie and the coaches what was possible, but he also admits that it has taken time to get back to that point within games.
“It’s definitely a young squad but we’ve been fortunate to have consistency and Unit support,” he explains. “We’ve found that the young team which we’ve nurtured since 2018 until now, they are well established and we’re happy with the game play. It’s then coming with the strategy which ties the team together.
“The way we’ve been playing recently we’ve been on the cusp of clicking. Our game plan is there and if we develop the patience we can make it click. In the first Artillery game we’d come from the tournament two weeks before and the game plan kicked in.
“What we’ve struggled with a bit is playing, then going away for three weeks, then coming together to gel as a team again and getting the strategy to work.”
Given the time constraints within the Corps’ training programme, the REME coaches have been encouraging their players to hone their games in civilian rugby, where they can train multiple times per week and play every weekend.
This means that the time together can be focused on the game in hand, and this preparation has been enhanced by the innovative use of digital media, such as an app for specific rugby discussion and a Facebook page and WhatsApp for the more social aspects.
“We’ve found that this has helped with our cohesion, it helped us create a player leadership group which helped the coaches, and developed a ‘drive’ or ‘want’ to win a lot more,” says SSgt Mennie. “The younger team has moved forward a lot better, with both them and us challenging each other, and it’s broken down a lot of barriers.
“We’ve tailored our training weeks over the last few rounds. They given us confidence in their basics, so now we’re trying to give confidence back with the patience and strategy, and that’s all because of those digital tools.”
As with similar teams across multiple sports the digital developments seen in the last two years have been a paradigm shift for coaches.
“100 percent,” says SSgt Mennie. “Especially to keep the guys engaged. During Covid we stayed in touch, but it was mainly in managing injuries and future-proofing the coaching squad and seeing what CPD the guys could do online.
“What we learned from Covid was that if we gave the players enough information and focused it on the two or three days before match days we would find that their mindset was right, so all we had to do was focus on those last one or two percents to get things right on the pitch.”
With the Under-23 Inter-Services Championship having concluded just before the previous round of Corps matches, those players have now become available for the two post-Christmas rounds which will decide who reaches the final.
Image © Alligin Photography, Lee Crabb
And even with the possible prospect of having individuals training and playing with the Army Senior squad SSgt Mennie is confident that REME can go on to reach the Corps showcase at the end of the season.
“Having the Under-23s come back is adding to our depth in the forwards, especially the front row,” he says, “which means we can focus a little bit more on the link between the backs and the forwards and the boost that the young lungs can give us!
“I don’t feel that the senior squad will impact us that much. We’ve got that much depth an so many still attending training that I think we should make our target of reaching the final. We did the hard work in summer training to get that depth of 60 players, and we can train with two squads leading up to matches to focus on game play.
“All of the people who have been training have the knowledge, so nothing will be new to them and it will give them a chance to step up.
“It’s also increased the competitive edge because everyone knows that they are in on merit when the squad gets named.”
But in order to reach the final REME will have to be more than matching their rivals, which means taking each game as it comes.
“We’re treating both as equally important,” says the joint head coach. “We want to secure the position in the final, taking forward what we’ve learned from our last game into the next game. There’s no targeting one game above the other.
“In previous leagues we’ve had just one shot at it, with a second shot in the final. Home and away has made it tougher, but it’s all new and the first time we’ve had it was with the Artillery, so we’ll see what happens after Christmas with the Engineers!”
Round 5 of the Corps Championship is on Wednesday, January 12th. For more details head to www.armyrugbyunion.org.uk/competition/corps-championship/
Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks. Header and Featured Images © Alligin Photography, Lee Crabb