RAF v Army 2016 involved three tough encounters at Halton on 6 April. Each underlined the revival of the Royal Air Force Rugby Union on an afternoon of bright sunshine, tropical downpours and mixed fortunes for Army rugby.
The Veteran’s game and Women’s games have ceased to be considered Army ‘warm-ups’ and are now meaningful contests in their own right.
The RAF Vultures XV has been a strong outfit for many years, collecting the silverware whilst the Army Masters remained quite unsure as to where these q1uaint gentlemen of semi-advanced years stood, or even lay, in the pecking order. No longer. The Army produced a side with half a dozen former senior caps. Gareth Slade- Jones at No9 connected the jump-leads to the right points at the right moments. Charlie Bentley, Scott Kelly and Gary Windle cemented the front row whilst Ben Butler again ruled the lines-out. All heart-warming stuff that launched wing Martin Lacey and centre Ifereimi Vukivavanua at the line and over. Just like the old days—a strong team with 7 Para RHA stiffening the backbone with reminders of times when ‘Para’ units jumped out of aeroplanes! Bit like the return of ‘Neighbours’.
RAF 17pts Army 39.
The Women’s game was a bit of a turn up with international players dotted all over the park– and the bench? The unusual feature was that three were playing for the RAF, and they certainly produced the goods. England U20 scrum half Lucy Nye and Amy Cockayne with 13 England caps joined Welsh international Sian Williams (23 caps) to produce a cracking game of rugby. The women’s game may have taken a while to get going but arguably pound-for-pound and cap-for-cap it is the strongest encounter on the All- Sports Services calendar.
The Army fielded five international players (!) but it was a well-groomed confident team effort that won the day. Standouts were locks Heidi Silcox and Ellie Gattlin whilst the return of Dani Phan to the backs added the ‘silky-smooth’ pace to a game increasingly full of male style crunch. RAF 7pts Army 29
At Senior level the Army was given another jolt when the Royal Air Force shaded a close encounter 13pts-12. The Army scored two good tries and then shall we say, overlooked, another slack handful.
Scotland Sevens international Jonasa Bulumakau opened the scoring for the Army. By the time he crossed the line he was buried under more Sky Blue shirts than the Royal Air Force has aeroplanes. The conversion, unknowingly vital at that stage, was adrift. The ebb and flow was quick and uber-tough with both sides playing ‘Sunday Roast’ rugby rather than ‘haute cuisine’ but it was exciting.
A couple of penalties awarded by the Royal Navy referee, one of the Army’s international players condemned to the sin bin (for?) and, a little later, a penalty try concluded the Airman’s scoring account and created a seminal moment in Services’ rugby.
At 12pts—5 against, the Army threw the kitchen sink at the home side. Centre Gerhard Wessels ran hard from 30m to cross 20m from the corner flag. The conversion by James Dickson was good. At 13pts-12 still the Army came, one more heave for the summit but the Airmen remained gallant to a man. On occasions the few were even fewer but they held.
For the RAF it was a hard earned victory 13pts-12, much to the delight of a vociferous home crowd.
The RAF have worked hard in recent years to make Halton home matches a spectacle and worthwhile occasion and they have succeeded.
The Inter-Services permutations are such that each of the three Services could still win what has become an increasingly tight battle for the Championship title. The Army is in the hands of the Navy and the RAF—uncomfortable to say the least.