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With the New Year on the horizon, Spr Cameron McDonald (RE) has reflected on an incredible 18 months having become the first rugby union player to be named Army Sportsman of the Year.

At a glittering event held at Sandhurst in November, Cameron won the award alongside stiff competition from boxer Gdsm Joe-Louis Wright (Welsh Guards) and pentathlete Lt Sam Curry (AGC, ETS) – the trio having been shortlisted from six nominees across a variety of sports.

His sensational run involved winning two Corps Championships with the Engineers, playing for the Army and Germany at both Sevens and 15s, scoring a hat-trick at Twickenham in the annual match with the Navy and helping the UK Armed Forces win a bronze medal at the Defence World Cup.

Looking back on the honour, Spr McDonald started: “It was a great evening, although the high of reflecting on what led to the award was perhaps even more special.

“When it was being shown on the video what I’d achieved, it was only really when I thought ‘that’s quite a lot in one year’ – and it’s quite cool to have this as a memory.

“It was nice to get the recognition and the icing on the cake for a good year for me personally – probably one of my best in rugby and life in general.”

While LCpl Jane Leonard, RE (2009) and Capt Gemma Rowland, RA (2015) have claimed the Sportswoman of the Year award previously, Cameron’s trailblazing efforts have struck a chord as he admitted: “There’s been some unbelievably talented rugby players, (Semesa) Rokoduguni played for England and several other high-profile names, so it’s very humbling.

“Hopefully I’ve broken the mould and they’ll be more success to follow for rugby.

“There was tough competition to be nominated just from the rugby side, and then you’re up against a GB athlete and other esteemed company.”

“It was nice to be with other sportspeople and so you’ve got a lot in common, despite being different disciplines.

“There were also a lot of high-ranking people there, so it was nice to be around some big names both militarily and sporting.”

With the chance to learn from his fellow nominees, Cameron admitted he took the opportunity when adding: “I was on the same table as the other two nominees and it was nice to talk to them both what they do in their sports and what I do in mine – ‘How do you train? How often do you train?’ and it was nice to compare.

“I’ll have cardio days, rugby days and weight days but it was fascinating especially with Sam, he’s got so many different disciplines within one sport – shooting, fencing, running, swimming and more – Monday he’s on a horse, another you’re with the rifle, then you’re running, it’s just bizarre!

“It was cool and I picked up a few things.”

Cameron became the first Army Rugby Union men’s player to win the Army Sportsman of the Year Award in November.

Image – Alligin Photography © Army Sport

Cameron’s whirlwind rise in the Army sporting ranks started back in March, 2022, when he made his debut in a Corps Championship final victory – a first for the Engineers in seven years and one repeated in 2023 – and he commented: “It was the first time we’d won it in seven years, so as my first game, it was awesome.

“The boys and coaches had known me before through civilian rugby, and also my brother (Mikey) being in the team meant it was a smooth transition – I trained on the Monday and by the Wednesday I was a fully-fledged member of the side.

“It was a great way to get started, then it went to Army 7s, Germany 7s, Army 15s, Germany 15s and UKAF at the Defence World Cup – it all happened really, really quickly.

“You get to go to great places and do great things, whether it was at Twickenham, going to St Malo in France (for the Defence World Cup) – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to – for five weeks with RAF boys, Navy guys who you’ve played against was incredible. You make new friends and my opposite man in Army-Navy, Ben Chambers, became a great mate.

“You turn up there knowing who the best players from each team are, so you sit there with the All-Stars.

“Even though you haven’t played with some of them, you know they’re going to do their job.

“The coaches did a great job pulling together all three teams and moulding us – I was happy to get a bronze medal.”

Before deciding to join the Army, Cameron had been dreaming of a career in semi-professional rugby, but swapped a role with Rotherham Titans to join the Forces and admits it was a pivotal moment in his life.

He revealed: “I didn’t want to be a regular soldier, but I wanted to do some sort of service.

“I’d watched Mikey play Army-Navy and one night I sat down with Dad and said ‘is there a way I can join the Army, do my bit militarily, but also get my source of rugby?

“At the same time, you’ve got your civilian job, so it gets a bit busier, and if I was a regular, I’d have had about 18 months without any rugby.

“The nature of civilian club rugby is some people do go to the highest payers, so their heart isn’t fully in it, whereas with the Army, you’re doing it for what it represents and the pride.

“I’ve never loved a team as much as the Engineers. They’re an incredible bunch of guys, you can see what it means to everybody and it made me fall back in love with rugby.

“There was a point where I grew a bit of resentment towards rugby, thinking it was getting in the way of life, but with a civilian job, sorting the financial issue and joining the Army I was able to get in love with rugby again.

“It’s why at the Awards I said a special thanks to the Engineers and Army, because without them, I possibly wouldn’t have even been playing the sport. The way they’ve made me fall back in love with it and made me care about teams I’m representing, who my family are involved with, it makes it so much more special.”

Alongside his brother Mikey, the pair represented the Royal Engineers in back to back Championship winning finals.

Image – Alligin Photography © Andrew Fosker

While last month’s award meant a huge amount to Cameron, he continued the family theme which has proved key to his ascent.

He said: “Being with Mikey was one of the key motivators to do it – since I was 17, we’ve played for almost every team together.

“Playing for Germany was cool. In Sevens they’re considered a first-tier nation, and you get to travel the world on the circuit – the first tournament was in Zimbabwe, which was amazing.

“The Sevens coaches spoke to the 15s and said ‘we think we’ve got a pretty handy player from the Army, whose come from the traditional game’.

“Not only were we the first brothers to play internationally at one sport, but technically two!

“Our names have gone up at Aldershot Stadium and you look at the board and there’s Will Carling, all the way back to people from the early 1900s – there’s hundreds of incredible names and it will be there forever.

“I can go there in 20 years when I’m finished with rugby and say ‘me and Mikey did this’. For the family, it’s an incredible honour.

“We both played for England at age group – not in the same team – but to do it for Germany in men’s is a great moment.”

And while his brother has proved an inspiration, he admitted there is another key figure who laid the path to his unique achievement, stating: “Dad’s our biggest fan.

“He joined the Army when he was 16 and ended up as a Lieutenant Colonel. He started in the Artillery, moved to the PT Corps and did about 40 years’ service, and during his career we moved to loads of different countries.

“He was fitness-mad being in the PT Corps and there was no escaping that – every day we were out running with dad on the camps, going on the assault courses, playing rugby with the boys.”

Having first played rugby while his father was stationed in Northern Ireland, Lisburn RFC his first club, Cameron was grateful for the opportunities he had been afforded when studying at Packwood Haugh, Hall Grove and Gordon’s Schools, where his talent with the oval ball in hand led to his first international recognition.

He explained: “Seeing the life the Army gave our family inspired us to maybe try and follow in his footsteps. Growing up around the military I guess it made sense and I’m so grateful for the opportunities we were given.

Cameron scoring the second of his three tries v the Royal Navy at Twickenham in May.

Image – Alligin Photography © Army v Navy Match

“They were all brilliant schools, but with dad in the military you couldn’t just go home five hours every weekend, Gordon’s especially from Year 7-11 was our home during term-time.

“The main sport in each was rugby, whereas at others you might have to do more football, and Monday to Friday, you’d do school, but then ‘what are we going to do in the evenings?’ We’d get the boys and go and play touch rugby on the front field, go and watch a game on the weekend, everything was rugby. It was a huge influence.

“Then when I was back from boarding school on the weekend I’d go and watch Army games at Aldershot.

“Funnily enough, I was watching some of them when I was 13 or 14 who I ended up playing with at Twickenham last year – a very strange turn of events.”

While now a German player, Cameron also enjoyed England acclaim throughout the age groups and he continued: “I did well for the school, then you get picked for the county (Hampshire), region (south-east) then the country. 11 to 16.

“I was lucky enough to have two years at England U18s, then U20s,” humbly admitting he ‘did well in the trial games for three years’ to earn his selections.

Working a day job as an HGV driver, Cameron recently took up a new role which should assist in his upcoming goals, as he said: “I’m now focused on Germany and all those games happen to fall on a weekend, so I’m very lucky.

“It means I don’t have to take a ridiculous number of days off, because I have them naturally. Last year I came into the Rugby Europe competition halfway through, but this year hopefully I can go from Matchday One.”

Germany begin against Georgia in the competition – a step below the Six Nations and also featuring Netherlands and Spain in Pool A – which starts in February.

With his achievements of the past year recognised with his prestigious award, Spr McDonald ended: “I’d like to think it can get better, but if not, I can still be pretty satisfied.”

Words © Richard Ashton

Header and featured images – Alligin Photography © Army v Navy Match