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November sees the first Inter-Services Championship of the season, with the Under-23 teams from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force going head-to-head and setting the standard for their senior team counterparts to follow in the new year.

The red shirts go into the 2022 edition as the reigning champions, a late try being needed against the RAF at Aldershot to seal the title. But despite having downed the Royal Navy in Plymouth and coming back three times from double-digit deficits against the RAF in Aldershot, Head Coach, Capt Gareth Slade-Jones (RAPTC), knows that there is a fresh start this season.

“We’ve come back this year and started again, with just around six boys who were with us last year,” he says. “However the red shirt means a lot and winning is winning, regardless if we’ve got a brand new team or a team from three years ago.

“The pressure is on us to win, but while we’re not riding on the pressure of us being the winners from last year it is self-induced pressure because we still want to perform.

“We’ve been concentrating on us, putting everything in place, and letting the rugby talk for itself in the game.”

After playing a Gunners Development team in mid-October, the Under-23s had a week of training which included two matches against RMA Sandhurst and the Army Men’s Development squad in the space of four days at the end of the month, a challenge which Capt Slade-Jones says was faced head on by the players.

“It’s been a disjointed start to the season, with Her Majesty’s passing meaning that we were out of sync, so we had to have a condensed period,” he says. The boys have come through it well – they do have youth on their side! – but it has been a difficult period.

“We had a good week, the training went well, and things came together on and off the field. We’re in a good place.”

The U23s showed good composure and resilience to come from behind to win 21-19 v RMAS in October.

Images – Alligin Photography © Lee Crabb

While the Under-23 Inter-Services Championship is a target in itself, Capt Slade-Jones acknowledges that there is also the possibility for players to put their hand up for consideration for the senior squad later in the year, something which fly half Spr Jack Johnson (RE) did with aplomb 12 months ago.

“Last year we stepped out to say that the goal was to get somebody into a red shirt in three, four years time,” the Head Coach comments. “However Sapper Johnson went through to play Inter-Services and won a man of the match award.

“It’s been a good story to use. It shows that what we’re telling the players isn’t a lie, somebody has done it and lived it, and we had something like six players go through to wear the red shirt, albeit not at Inter-Services level. Everyone knows it’s touchable and that they’re just 80 minutes away from doing well.

From Plymouth to Twickenham, following an excellent first season with the Army U23s, Spr Jack Johnson, RE progressed to the Men’s Senior XV and started at 10 in both Inter Service matches v the RAF at Kingsholm and Royal Navy at Twickenham.

Images – Alligin Photography (right) Army v Navy Match (left)

“It’s great to see that, and now we’ve got a group of players who are 18 and 19 years old. The lifeblood is there for Army rugby and it’s great to be involved in that.

“What we have done this year is to have three or four players on the fringes, but who are 18 years old. We want them to be in the set-up and understand what Army Rugby is all about and what the red shirt means, so when it comes for them to step up it’s not new.

“We’ve got a good link in with the senior coaches and they have a presence with us, and that flow is there. It’s not different entities, it’s one set-up and that’s great.”

The Army travel to Witney RFC to face the RAF on Wednesday, November 16th, before hosting the Royal Navy in Aldershot on Wednesday, November 30th. Both games kick off at 1900hrs, entry is free, and all are welcome. The team will certainly appreciate all the support they receive from the Army Rugby faithful!

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks

Header and Featured Images – Alligin Photography © Cat Goryn