A CHICHESTER-based select side gave the Royal Navy’s rugby team their final test before this Saturday’s annual clash with the Army at Twickenham.
Chichester RF director of rugby Paul Colley, who has strong services links, pulled together a side he called the Praetorian Guard to round off what has been a fantastic first season in the National League for the Oaklands Park club.
I was very proud of our team. It’s been a long, hard season but everyone stood up to be counted.Paul Colley
They took on the might of the RN at the home of senior-service rugby, HMS Temeraire in Portsmouth and can be proud to have lost only 22-13.
The RN were at the end of a three-month rugby training camp all aimed towards the biggest amateur game in the world – the Army v Royal Navy match, which will be watched by 88,000.
Chichester had a special white and red kit for the night and took the field with a squad of 24, including five guest players.
The RN came out of the blocks hard and applied early pressure but the Guard put in big tackles. One massive tackle from Tom Belcher set the standard as the RN attacker spilled the ball such with the force of it.
Chi had to up the intensity to break up the RN rhythm, and Ben Polhill led from the front.
A missed tackle on the No10 saw the RN go through the middle for a converted try.
Scott Barlow galvanised the forwards with some huge carries and, backed up by an explosive carry down the blind side from Andy Gray, he released flyer Jack Maslen, who scorched away – and only very good scrambling defence halted the attack.
The backs looked threatening with Sam Robson cutting great lines and Matt Skinner showing his class.
Then came a pivotal moment with Polhill speared up and out of a maul. The subsequent yellow to the Navy player didn’t calm Chichester’s anger and although they took the simple three points, things started to simmer.
Chi were piling pressure on the blue line. The RN were well organised in defence and fly-half Marsh took a neat drop goal to make it 7-6.
The Guard were going toe to toe with their illustrious counterparts and tight head Phil Veltom thundered on to the ball only to be chopped by a no-arm tackle and the Navy received their second yellow.
The white machine pounced and after a great catch and drive, hooker Joe Shopland surged across the try line. Marsh hit a fantastic wide conversion for a 13-7 lead.
Nick Shopland replaced Veltom – victim of a nasty cut to the head – and the Navy upped the tempo and exploited a gap. Quick hands and they were away and a penalty was calmly slotted.
With minutes left in the half, the RN moved the ball wide for the left winger to canter in and score an unconverted try and a 15-13 lead.
In the second half, tenacious defence by Chi, with Chris Johnson in particular knocking players back with real ferocity.
The Chi backline crackled with fire and Skinner and Matt Rhodes both made excellent breaks outside Marsh.
The RN looked more settled and were solid on their own scrum and lineout and slowly started to play the phases.
Chi rang the changes but fought on well. With Robson off the field, the RN opened up a space and after two missed tackles, the RN scored a nice try.
But roared on by a big vocal support, Chichester rallied. Maslen was away again as Chi upped the tempo with Henry Anscombe whipping out very quick ball.
A try looked on but the RN were well organised with the last-gasp tackles taking effect in the corner.
Young hooker Kieran Richter hit his man in the lineout and Chi were pilling on the pressure. The Navy changed a few of their pack but were creaking in the set-pieces as the game entered its last five.
Chi attacked relentlessly but with a try looking inevitable, another off-the-ball incident involving a Chi player with four Navy players on top convinced the ref to blow up early.
Chi’s Ben Polhill said: “I think they were surprised by us and we really felt the game was turning our way at the end. It’s a great honour to play these guys. We knew if we gave them time they would wreak havoc.”
Colley added: “I was very proud of our team. It’s been a long, hard season but everyone stood up to be counted and for the neutral it was a hell of a game with outstanding pace, skill and intensity.
“We gave them a real test but they showed that when they get their phases right what a good side they are – Chichester wish the RN team all the best in their huge match on Saturday.”
CHI: Belcher, J Shopland, Veltom, Lindsay, Barlow, Dickin, B Polhill, A Gray, Anscombe, Marsh, Okenla, Robson, Skinner, Maslen, Rhodes, Corrigan, Richter, N Shopland, Johnson, Meachin, Bowden, T Polhill, Jackson, Kirkpatrick.