Despite the Army Rugby Union having had a sensational 12 months which included every iteration of the Inter-Services Championship heading to the Aldershot trophy cabinet, and the Corps Championships having a successful first year in a new format, Vice-Chair Brig James Cook (CASTLE) is under no illusions that the hard work must also continue well into the future, with some significant topics to be considered at both ends of the sport.
“To come out from the post-Covid season as Inter-Services champions with our U23’s, Senior female and male and Masters teams we have got to be happy, as well as having a male Sevens team that is doing well on the final day of the season and a women’s team that is really coming of age,” he reflected.
“We had a successful Army Navy, with slightly reduced numbers but with a good day’s rugby, and it was good to see the women on the main pitch.
Both the Army Men and Women’s Senior XV’s were crowned Inter Service Champions at Twickenham following victory over the Royal Navy, having already beaten the RAF back in March.
Images © Army v Navy Match
“However, Unit rugby has drifted for many reasons. We are a smaller Army, a busier Army, we have fewer facilities, and Commanding Officers who have probably come up through the ranks in an era when team sport was less favourable because we were deployed in operations.
“And we also have to consider where we go with United Kingdom Armed Forces Rugby, and where that fits into the jigsaw. I would like to think that there is an opportunity there, but it is a topic which we haven’t yet resolved.”
With these topics to unpick, who would be an administrator? Certainly someone who appreciates the achievements of all the red shirt teams, both in winning their respective titles but also in setting the standards for the rest of Army rugby.
“I think that the tenacity shown by the men at Twickenham, the passion of the women, and to have the Masters perform on the pitch was really good,” Brig Cook commented. “All three teams have got relatively stable squads, but we have also got to ensure that we continue developing, both by bringing through young players as well as upping our game with the next generation of coaches, assistant coaches, and directors of rugby. That’s where I want to find more talent, and maybe they are currently playing. So it is up to us to be highlighting the opportunities which are available within the Army rugby pyramid.”
The Army Masters were crowned Inter Service Champions in Aldershot on the eve of the men and women’s Army v Navy matches played at Twickenham.
Image © Alligin Photography, Lee Crabb
The 2021/22 season was the first full campaign since rugby was allowed to return from its lockdown hiatus. Brig Cook is also able to take an overview of how the Army Rugby Union has changed in that time as an organisation. And here, too, there are plenty of positives to build on.
“I think there is a difference in approach, philosophy and resource,” he said. “We survived well, we kept our composure, we kept a little bit of rugby going, we managed our resources better than some of our competitors, and – like most of industry – we came out a little bit leaner.
“However we have got the player base that still allowed us to win the Inter-Services titles, so that is very reassuring, and you have got to give a hand to our permanent staff and executive, and, as ever, some really hard working volunteers.
“But it is also time to evolve. I would like to see us have more of our female and male players in semi-professional contracts, so the quality within Army rugby rises. We have also got to dip down and make Unit rugby work in a way that it hasn’t currently. Like in an Academy in the Premiership, if you grow your own talent it ends up being more robust.
Building pathways – following an excellent season with the Army U23s, Spr Jack Johnson, RE went on to play for the Men’s Senior XV in the 2022 Inter Service Chapionship at Kingsholm and Twickenham, an example of the success that can be achieved via the pathways being set up.
Images © Alligin Photography
“We are really lucky that Corps rugby works so well, but Unit rugby should be the heart of the game.
“There is an interesting perception that people think that rugby teams are full of officers, when in actual fact they are not, they are as much for junior soldiers. A great facet of organising sport is that you are bringing into rugby 23 people of all ranks, all ages, all backgrounds, and if you are a junior officer you get an opportunity to engage with them in a way that in the work environment you wouldn’t. You can see talent and leadership in them that is hard to find elsewhere.
“Meanwhile in the women’s game we have more competition. Because the number of women in the Army is relatively static, the sportswomen are being competed over for every game and every sport, and the greatest sportswomen are often football, hockey and netball players as well as rugby.”
Like many female soldiers and officers, Capt Gemma Pearon, RLC has represented the Army at multiple sports – rugby and netball.
Image © Army v RAF Match – Alligin Photography
Conversation turns to the other end of the Services rugby pyramid, and here, too, Brig Cook can see potential.
“We probably need to be just that little bit closer to our Inter-Services colleagues, so we end up with one overall Services plan,” he says. “I think that this would lead us to expanding Inter-Services very slightly, because at the moment it is not very commercially appealing with just the two games. We all play various games, against Oxford, Cambridge and the Police, we just don’t count them, and we should be doing more with it.
“My greatest worry about UKAF is that I don’t know if we have resolved what it is for. It is the equivalent of the Lions in UK Forces rugby and should be the pinnacle of your career. I would like it to have its own purpose, have its own funding stream, and be something which we can all get behind as three individual rugby unions.”
The Army Rugby Union is always keen to hear from individuals who would like to be involved within the administrative structure, especially organising teams and fixtures within Units, or to become qualified coaches or referees. To find out more visit https://www.armyrugbyunion.org.uk/game-admin/
Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks
Header and Featured Image © Alligin Photography