100 Years of the Army v Navy Match at Twickenham
The 2nd May was meant to be a double celebration for the Army v Navy match, the longest rivalry in Service rugby. First, for the men, it marked one hundred years since the game moved to its new home, Twickenham Stadium, in 1920. For the Women it was to be their debut at the home of England Rugby, and the first Service women’s game played at the 82,000 seater stadium. That was, of course, before Covid-19 changed not only the Service sporting landscape but also caused the mobilisation of many Servicemen and Women in support of the Government’s civil ministries. 2020 will be a year we will all remember but not through the partisan eyes of Red or Blue cheering teams on a pristine pitch in London. It is only the third time since the start of annual fixtures that the match has not been competed for. So, whilst we have to wait a little longer for the 95th (Men) and 1st (Women) Army v Navy match to be played at Twickenham we can look back at some of the classics from the past.
The Early Years - 1920-1929
It was the Royal Navy that started the better of the two sides after the move to Twickenham. Four consecutive wins vindicated their long off-field battle with the Army to move the fixture from the Queen’s Club, to accommodate bigger crowds. Despite a huge scare in 1921 when the Army led 10-0 at half time, WJA Davies, as the Royal Navy captain, led his side to four wins in succession, the 1921 match being decided with a kick in the last minute to make the final score 11-10. The Army were to break their Twickenham duck in 1924 under the leadership of Young who led an Army pack that proved dominant in both the set and loose play. The 19-5 score line did not flatter the Army’s play, they should have seen a much higher score difference. The only surprise of that year’s Inter Service championship was that the Army didn’t go on to beat the Royal Air Force to secure the title. With their Twickenham duck broken, the Army dominated the rest of the decade with the Navy securing a 6-3 victory in 1927 to halt the red tide of wins. As the series entered the 1930’s the Twickenham results were evenly poised at five wins apiece.
A Golden Age for Army Rugby – 1930-1939
The thirties were not the best decade to be a Navy supporter as the Army entered their first golden period of rugby. After an early set back, losing 6-0, in 1931 they produced six wins in succession to lead the series 12-6, at Twickenham, before the Royal Navy stemmed the flow with another close victory, 10-9 in 1938. The first draw, 6-6, in 1939, proved to be the last match before the first break in Twickenham Army v Navy matches, as the ravages of World War II took hold of Europe and formal matches between the two sides were suspended. The 1933 match stood out in the decade as being of the highest quality despite the end 19-0 result in favour of the Army. It was not just the Navy supporters who felt the Army rode their luck that day, most of the national newspapers did too. However, the stark reality was that despite a game that frequently ebbed and flowed, with both sides creating chances, it was the Army who took theirs. By the time the final whistle was blown they had scored five tries to none which, in the brutal world of statistics, does tell its own story. The decade could so easily have seen eight Army wins but for a last gasp comeback in 1938. In this match the Navy had led at half time but fell behind soon after the break. For those in the crowd it looked like another Army win but for a late rush by the Navy’s indomitable forwards which saved the day for the team in blue. The Royal Navy win also ensured they won the Inter Services title, which made the late comeback win all the sweeter for the matelots, who had had little cheer in recent seasons.
War Takes Its Toll – 1940-1949
By common consent the Royal Navy took longer to recover from the War, in sporting terms, than the Army although both sides were bolstered by the many talented rugby players completing National Service. The match also enjoyed its traditional rivalry and popularity, being boosted by live commentary on the BBC Home Service - an early forerunner of live televised Army v Navy matches and today’s live streaming of matches. The 1948 match saw the Navy record another 1 point victory in a Twickenham thriller, the third occasion they had won by a single point at Twickenham. This time though it was a missed kick from the Army’s Walter that spared the Navy’s blushes after the Navy’s Ted Horlick, now their longest serving Life Member, had been caught man and ball as the Army finished the match at a furious pace. For the Army supporters, in the 15,000 crowd, their dismay was drowned out by the rousing choruses of Rule Britannia from jubilant sailors leaving the Twickenham ground.
Honours Even as Coronation Lifts Post War Spirits – 1950-1959
The Queen’s Coronation clearly provided an unwelcome distraction to both teams, for whom the young Elizabeth II, was now patron. A 3-0 Army win at the end of a match which had started with such hope and promise with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh being introduced to both teams, on the pitch, before kick off. The poor performance from both sides could not be explained by the bitterly cold weather, though the Royal Navy’s lack of points could be explained by a miserable kicking performance which saw four kicks at goal, including two comparatively easy attempts, missed. Unfortunately for the attending Queen, the 1953 match was probably the low point, in performance terms, of the decade which saw the Army and the Royal Navy share the spoils with five wins each.
Services Restore Faith in Rugby Football – 1960-1969
The restoring of faith in rugby football was the main headline in the Times newspaper following the 1963 match and an 11-3 Army win. The match was played during a Five Nations season that witnessed a number of international matches which, due to the tactics used, became ponderous affairs. Many commentators described the Game as stagnating. The rivalry along with the emboldened play displayed in the annual Army v Navy match was held up as an example of the perfect antidote. The Navy started the game at a furious pace with their forwards repeatedly tearing into their Army foes. However, they could not sustain the onslaught and the Army steadied themselves before asserting an authority in the match which delivered the win. It was one of seven wins which they enjoyed during the decade, but a potential unbeaten run of eight Army v Navy matches was broken in 1966 with another single point Navy win, 10-9. The result delivered another Royal Navy Inter Service title, albeit only their third title since the war. As the Army left Twickenham that day, they pointed out that the win owed as much to the amount of the game they played with fourteen men, as to the Navy’s play. The Army hooker had been forced off the field for twenty five minutes to have a badly damaged jaw treated. He returned to continue to play, with heavy painkillers not just numbing his jaw but taking the edge of his skill. We forget that in today’s matches when we have eight available as replacements, that the replacement is still a fairly recent change to the modern game.
A Golden Age for Navy Rugby – 1970-1979
The seventies belonged to the Royal Navy and remain the last period where they were clearly the dominant side. Seven wins and four Inter Service titles, with two more shared were fair reward to a number of sides which combined abrasive forward play with no little skill behind the pack. The Army’s lowest ebb of the decade was the 1974 match when they not only had to suffer their worst ever Army v Navy match defeat, they also had to face up to critical comment following Miller, their influential hooker, becoming the first player to be sent off in the history of Army v Navy matches. On the pitch the Navy were clearly better in nearly every aspect of play as they ran in three tries and added three penalties in their 25 – 3 win. The game would have been closer but for a very poor performance from the Army’s kickers who ended up missing four relatively straight forward kicks. The Navy’s final win in the decade, a 17-16 victory in 1978, was yet another match that proved an exciting tribute to Service rugby. The lead changed hands on seven occasions before the Navy finally were the victors of a game which marked one hundred years since the first Army v Navy match had been played in 1878. The Army though on the back foot for most of the decade did finish with a 10-3 win in 1979, which coincided with the first playing for the Stewart Wrightson trophy, the game now being sponsored for the first time.
A Third Draw as Army Edge the Decade – 1980-1989
The drawn game in 1980 stands out as being the only scoreless Army v Navy match on record. The game ensured that the Stewart Wrightson trophy was retained by the Army, a situation which had changed by the time of the next draw in 2016 when the, by now, Babcock Trophy was shared by both teams. Though the game finished 0-0 it wasn’t without excitement. Fabian missed three kicks for the Navy in the first fifteen minutes including striking the upright. He also put Newson away for a possible try but had to watch as the Navy wing was forced into touch, just short of the goal line. It was a flat start to the decade although it did improve with the Army once more being in the overall ascendancy recording six wins in the remaining nine matches. They extended their lead, in terms of wins, to 36-25 of the 64 Army v Navy matches played at Twickenham.
The Army Tighten Their Grip on Service Rugby – 1990-1999
The century had started with the Royal Navy clearly the stronger of the two traditional rivals and this had continued during the early games held at Twickenham, after the first World War. However, as the century came to a close it was the Army who were firmly in charge winning eight of the ten matches played in the decade. It was to be the Royal Air Force, rather than the Royal Navy, which provided their greater challenge though, as in the previous decade, the Army still finished on top with four Inter Service titles to the Air Force’s three. Though the Air Force were providing a greater sense of competition on the pitch, they could not match the deep seated rivalry of the two senior sides. Their time at Twickenham came to an end during a period when the Army v Navy match day crowd was beginning to grow and would pass the crowds seen during the heyday of National Service.
Navy Hopes Shattered as Army Prove Ruthless Foes – 2000-2009
Navy hope sprang eternal in 2001 when the Army v Navy match was won in convincing fashion to deliver another Inter Service title. It was to prove to be a false dawn as the Army side went on to win the remaining eight matches in the decade, twice breaking the fifty point barrier as they exerted a vice like grip on Service rugby. When even the Navy News uses a banner headline, ‘Steamrollered’ to describe the 2009, 50-7 loss, then you know things are looking bleak. Concern was being voiced in some quarters that the continued increase in crowds, nearly 56,000 by 2009, would be threatened if the Navy did not become more competitive. It was not just the Navy who were required to be more competitive, the Army’s nine Inter Service titles in the decade showed they were setting the standards and the other two Services needed to step up.
Navy Break the Sequence as Service Rugby Comes Alive – 2010-2019
This time last year we had all witnessed another thrilling Inter Service tournament, the Army winning a second title over the last five years; a period which had also seen two Royal Air Force titles and a Royal Navy title. With many close games and two edge-of-the-seat high scoring draws it was agreed that Service rugby was at its most evenly matched for decades. The decade started with a surprise Navy win in the Army v Navy match, which ended the longest unbeaten run of a side in the men’s Inter Services. The 24-22 victory was only achieved in the final minute of the match after a long referral by the television match official. How times had changed since those first games at Twickenham. It was to be the Navy’s only win of the decade, although their comeback to draw the 2016 match was a remarkable achievement. As were the attendance figures with the last five Army v Navy matches all being played in front of 80,000+ crowds.
The Show Must Go On – 2020
So, 2020 was all set to be a fantastic celebration of Army v Navy rugby at Twickenham but this time with an added twist! A day which has done so much to promote youth rugby through first the U12 schools’ initiative and more recently youth matches between the Army and Navy teams of the future, was to expand and embrace the equally real rivalry between the Army and Navy Women’s teams.
For the men both sides' preparations suggested that it was set to be a classic showdown with the Navy building a team on its victorious performances in the U23 championship, which had delivered four titles in five years. The series between the two sides stands at 63 Army wins to 35 for the Royal Navy, and 4 draws, and the destiny of the 2020 Army v Navy match was already being hotly debated.
94 of the previous Army v Navy matches had been hosted at Twickenham which was also poised to host its first Service Women’s match. The Army have won 16 of the 17 Women Inter Service titles and were planning their first campaign not as defending champions. For the Navy, gradually greater strength in depth was being developed as they strived to find ways to overcome the inbuilt disadvantage of ship based deployments for their small squad. It was to be a new exciting chapter that marked 100 years of the great Army v Navy rivalry being played out at Twickenham. Covid-19 has changed all those plans and futures still remain uncertain but history has shown that the sporting rivalry between these two longest of opponents is enduring, and when rugby resumes, this great sporting spectacle will continue to go on.
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