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All-action SSgt Ken Dowding (RA) is looking forward to another busy 12 months with Army rugby set to resume this week with the annual Corps festival at Newbury RFC.

The former Bath, London Irish and Ospreys prop is the Royal Artillery’s head coach and forwards guru for the Army Senior Women, all while working his day job, completing a degree, and preparing to row the Atlantic Ocean!

Having led the Gunners back into League One of the Corps Championship with a 23-11 success against R Sigs – the winners having been demoted following a change of structure from six teams to four in the top flight – SSgt Dowding says he has been busy throughout the summer.

He explained: “There’s no real change to the on-season – then you go from planning sessions and training to games – during the off-season you’re planning pre-season, working out new players, the teams we’re likely to play against, new structures, the new rules.

“There was pressure (last season) because of the name the Gunners have made for themselves in the last 10 years, but I just tried to keep it away from the players and let them concentrate on the rugby.

“They were fantastic and understood the job, what was needed which was a change in the culture and mindset – the season before wasn’t a good one and we wanted to move forward and look at our plan for the next seven or eight years.

“The boys bought into that from the outset, for me it was about blooding new players and trying new combinations, and it worked and now we’re back in League One. We’re looking to keep making strides with this group of players.

“We’ve found some good young talent and also managed to create a Development Team (the Canons) for the first time in a long while which will serve the Gunners well, but also the Army, the A team and the Under 23s.”

With the Canons due to play Universities, regimental sides and civilian clubs, SSgt Dowding reaffirmed the importance of sport in the forces, but also the volunteers who facilitate it.

He continued: “The Development side is massive because there are players not getting as much time as they’d want and it’s an avenue to do that.

The Gunners were crowned Champions of Corps League 2 for the 2022-23 season.

Image – Alligin Photography © Andrew Fosker

“I was fortunate in my early days when Regimental rugby was huge, the Army Cup and other competitions, but as the Army has got smaller it has been in decline.

“Everyone’s doing their best to keep it going, and last season for 12 Regiment and the Gunners it was a fantastic year.

“One thing I’ve tried to encourage is when you step away from playing, being a team manager, a director, it’s what you do next – because there’s always something someone can do.

“There is a huge reliance on people who are doing things in all leagues, but that’s the nature of the job and for me that’s wanting to make the Gunners and the Stormers at the forefront of rugby. Someone has to drive it.

“We’ve been very lucky with a few people who have just wanted to do something for the Gunners, and they’ve wholeheartedly taken the Development team forwards and made the Canons into what they are.

“They’ve recognised what they want to do as well as what the benefit to the Gunners is – they’ve asked for advice from people who have been there rather than going off on their own path, and it’s made it work.”

Army Premiership Champions 2022-23 – Stormers

Image – Alligin Photography © Cat Goryn

Switching his attentions to the Army Senior Women’s side of his duties, SSgt Dowding saw plenty of encouragement despite the 32-21 defeat to the French Navy in June.

He revealed: “There were a lot of Development players we were very impressed with, and it goes to show if they don’t make it through the selection processes for the main squad, the Development system is still there for them.

“Huddy (Head Coach WO2 Sarah Mitchelson) and I agreed there were lots of the girls who played in France who haven’t seen much Red Shirt action this season who will do next. That’s key.

“The ARU is looking at the Development of Women’s rugby in the Corps, the Lightning and the Gunners were certainly pushing it more which will help grow the sport.

“The women are good at making it inclusive, the door is open for anybody whose about – if you’re the right person and you want to take the opportunity, it’s there.

“The Red Shirts is not a closed shop, the ability to come from nowhere and feature is huge.”

He continued: “Working with the women is enjoyable and has taught me a lot. I find they haven’t got many preconceived ideas, so they ask a lot of questions about why you’re doing things a certain way.

“That means quite often you get a better product at a faster rate whereas with the men there’s a lot more ideas and barriers you have to break down.

“For me as a coach, showing people how to do things and them taking it forwards is where I get my enjoyment from.”

One female Gunner, Bdr Bethan Dainton, recently made history as the first senior woman to play at both Twickenham and Wembley, latterly representing Leeds Rhinos as they went down 22-8 to St Helens in the Challenge Cup final earlier this month.

SSgt Dowding commented: “It was so well deserved. The amount of work she puts in on and off the field, any professional player would strive to do it, with the dedication and commitment she has.

“She believes in what she does, she wants to achieve and she is doing it – it’s so nice to see in both league and union – and the Army should use it a bit more as a selling point for what you can do while in the military.

“With the men I was very lucky to play with a lot of professionals, but Bethan is doing the same for the women.”

Bethan Dainton on the charge v the Royal Navy at Twickenham in May.

Image – Alligin Photography © Lee Crabb

Outside of his rugby commitments, SSgt Dowding explained how he is keeping himself busy, currently studying for a BA Hons in Leadership and Management sponsored by the Army.

He said: “Family is the biggest support network I’ve got; they’re very understanding in I’ve had such a successful professional rugby career and I want to give back to the game. They’re hugely on side and realise what I want to do.

“But the support I get from the Regiment makes a big difference – they are so supportive in what I want to achieve and aspire to be.

“I wouldn’t be able to balance everything I do without them – around me and above me it’s phenomenal and everyone bends around and helps what can be done worthwhile.

“The biggest thing I’ve learnt about the Army in nearly 20 years is they are always wanting you to develop, because if you develop as an individual, the team does around you.

“They gave me a phenomenal opportunity with my sport, my coaching now and also my personal development.”

He continued: “Everything comes hand in hand with each other, the degree gives me a unique perspective on the sports field, and being in the Army as a leader, whatever rank that is, we do things because we’ve seen how it’s done or we’ve been told how to do it.

“The rugby field is similar, from being a captain or pack leader, leading the front row at the hit, but when you throw the educational side on top of that, it gives you the reasons why you do the things you do.

“It rounds you off, feel more polished and I use all the elements of professional rugby, Red Shirts, coaching, normal day job and degree to try and get a good effect as a manager.”

As if his rugby and educational commitments alongside a day job were not enough, SSgt Dowding is also set to tackle the not insignificant challenge of rowing the Atlantic in 2025 to raise money for charity.

Explaining how it came about, he stated: “I’ve got a commanding officer, Col Wells, who is all about giving people experiences and building the mindset of you can achieve anything.

“He had a conversation with someone who said she wanted to row the Atlantic and then she came back to me and we designed a presentation, I got hooked on it, we went out training and now we’re looking forward to it.

“We’re breaking it down into rowing a couple of times a week, some offshore boats, the rowing machine, but it’s not just the physical side, it’s the mental one – it’s 45 days in a boat rowing two hours on, two hours off in a boat of four is quite mentally challenging so we’re starting to do a package to help us in that respect.

“It’s important to be happy as a team, settled mentally and the ability to keep going. We’re looking at a few challenges to go to the Isle of Wight, Guernsey and then France as sort of staging posts.

“We’re sort of on a crawl at the moment, but as we get nearer we’ll start to walk, then to jog and be ready for the event.”

Wednesday’s games start at 0900hrs, with the finals from 1400hrs. Entry is free and all are welcome.

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks

Header and featured image – Alligin Photography © Lee Crabb