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The Army Senior Men took a big step forwards in their build-up towards the Inter-Services Championship with a 46-33 win away to Coventry.

Against the two Varsity teams the Army had started slowly. But there was no repetition against the Championship outfit, as the red shirts racked up three unanswered tries in the opening quarter.

All three came from effective forward play, even if the first also once again showed Bdr Connor O’Reilly’s (RA) eye for the line, the winger cutting a good line to hit a Cpl Dan Tooth (Rifles) short pass and step his way to the score.

Strong scrummaging had been a key part of the first try, but numbers two and three belonged firmly to the forwards.

SSgt Ken Dowding (RA) came up with the ball after an irrepressible lineout drive, and Gnr Senitiki Nayalo (7 Para RHA) – whose last game in red had been in the same fixture two years ago – marked his first start by tapping a penalty and barrelling his way to the line.

Images © Alligin Photography, Neil Kennedy

Those opening exchanges pleased Head Coach Capt Mal Roberts (RLC).

“We’ve really concentrated over the last few days in camp to get the start right, because you can build from there,” he said. “We did go off-script slightly, which was disappointing, but then we managed to get a grip of the game again up front, which was pleasing.

“We allowed them back into the game and they pulled it back to three points, but then we showed that resolve which I was pleased with. In the past we have rolled over and allowed sides to put their foot down and move away. So for me it was really pleasing that we showed grit and determination to run out winners at the end.”

With Spr Jack Johnson (RE) landing two of the three conversions the Army had a handy 19-0 lead, which they would need as Coventry began to get themselves a foothold as play moved into the second quarter.

Image © Alligin Photography, Neil Kennedy

An attacking lineout was de-fused on the 22 by excellent maul defence from Sgt Dan Lewis (RAMC), but while this won a scrum the visitors were penalised while running the ball out, handing the initiative straight back to the blue and whites.

This time they made no mistake, a series of penalties taking the hosts to within touching distance of the whitewash and number eight Fred Betteridge finished things off.

A last-ditch tackle from Bdr Jack Richards (RA) stopped a try, and there was more desperate defence on the half-hour following LCpl Rafi Fatiaki’s (R Signals) yellow card.

But just as it looked as if the pack had done the hard work by forcing a fumble they were unable to clear from the scrum, turning possession back over on the ground. Again Coventry did not waste the opportunity, winger James Martin dotting down wide out unopposed to make it Coventry 12, Army 19.

There were a number of injuries which disrupted the visitors, too, so there was little hesitation for Spr Johnson to point to the uprights when the Army scrum won a penalty on the home 10-metre line.

The ball bisected the uprights to make it 22-12, and there was more to come in the final play of the first half.

LCpl Lloyd Wheeldon (3 Para) sent a lovely kick down the touchline for a 50/22, and with the Army getting the lineout the pack did the rest, driving over from more than 15 metres to give SSgt Dowding his second try of the half.

Image © Alligin Photography, Neil Kennedy

Capt Roberts added that it was good to have brought in the likes of Capt Wheeldon and Gnr Nayalo, who have both played in the Championship this season.

“We had a couple of experienced players coming back,” he said. “Nayalo played against his regular club and I wanted to get him some minutes in a red shirt. Lloyd came back in at nine, adding experience and energy which was good, and overall it was pleasing. We did pick up a few injuries, but that is what it is and we’ll make those assessments and go from there.”

Image © Alligin Photography, Neil Kennedy

Spr Johnson converted from wide out to end the half with the Army leading 29-12, and when this combination opened up the second 40 to make it 36-12 the tight head prop had a hat trick that he will no doubt be dining out on for years to come.

Coventry were next to score, centre Ollie Betteridge going over from close range in the corner, and even though the margin was still 17 points there were more than 20 minutes to go and the professional outfit’s fitness levels were still a factor to be considered.

The hosts began the final quarter camped in the visitors’ 22, helped by Bdr O’Reilly’s yellow card which reduced the red shirts to 14 for a second time. George Hallam’s try and Rob Knox’s conversion reduced the Army’s lead to 10, and the hosts’ momentum was compounded by the visitors also playing into the breeze.

This meant that they needed to make the most of their opportunities, but an attacking lineout was lost, and while Pte Junior Vasuitoga (RLC) did well to sweep up a long kick and get the Army onto the front foot a pass went astray, with Ollie Betteridge scooping up the loose ball to dot down in the corner.

Knox converted from the touchline and with 10 minutes to play it was very much game back on at Army 36, Coventry 33.

Back came the Army, kicking a penalty into the home 22, and just as they had done so many times previously the pack kept the ball to themselves, LCpl Manasa Cakau (RE) hitting a Cpl Joe Brown (RLC) offload to dive over.

2Lt Matt Smart (Yorks) had his conversion attempt spoiled by the ball being blown off the tee at the vital moment, but the Army were nevertheless a crucial two scores clear with five minutes to play.

With more of the same on the other side, Gnr Nayalo coming up with the ball after the lineout shift drive had done its job once again, it was job done for the Army, who move on to Cardiff Met University on March 18th for the final warm-up game before the 2022 Inter-Services Championship.

Capt Roberts also acknowledged that there may be enforced changes to the squad, but said that this is where the hard work done to give more than 50 players an opportunity to experience time in the squad over the last few months will pay dividend.

“We’ve done that for a reason right from the first trial back in the autumn,” he added. “We’ve given people opportunities, and with injuries and work commitments – where we are soldiers first and if duty calls with regiments needing their people – we fill the gaps. It’s not ideal, but it’s a reality of the job.”

Tickets for the 2022 Inter-Services Championship matches against the RAF (March 26th, Kingsholm) and the Navy (April 30th, Twickenham) are now available.

CLICK HERE for information about the RAF game

CLICK HERE for information about Army Navy

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks.  All images © Alligin Photography, Neil Kennedy