The first competitive match of the 2024 season saw an eagerly anticipated clash between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy as the two sides clash in the Challenge Cup for a place in the second round. There has been an intense rivalry between the two services since the ban on rugby league was lifted in the armed forces in 1994 with the Royal Air Force forming in 1994 and the Royal Navy side forming in 1997.
It is notoriously difficult for both coaches to pick anything like consistent sides due to deployments and work commitments and both sides have many changes from the sides which tool part in last years competition when the Air Force exited in Round 2 at the hands of York Acorn while the Navy went out at the same stage after a heavy defeat at the hands of the North Wales Crusaders.
The Navy had an early try ruled out for obstruction on their first attack as referee Jones opened the game in a whistle happy manner, putting her authority on proceedings.
TJ Richardson went close on five minutes as he pushed through the Navy defence, and on the next set James Crabb took the final pass wide to ground under a heap of Navy tacklers. Liam Bradley was short with the conversion, the Air Force with a 4-0 lead.
Five minutes later the Navy fought back as Rhys Joel grubber kick rebounded off the post and was taken by James Teixeira to dive in and ground under the sticks. Ben Chambers added a simple conversion to edge the Navy in front.
After barraging the Air Force line for a full set of six after an awful short goal line drop out, the Navy were in again on nineteen with Teixeira getting his second try of the afternoon, Chambers again on target to open up an eight point lead.
Great hands from the RAF on twenty-six minutes after a kick charge down saw Harry Davies take a miss-out pass and dive over spectacularly in the left corner for a second try. Bradley was again short with the kick, the Navy still four points ahead but the game was very competitive.
The sides were level on thirty-five thanks to a scoot from dummy half from Joe Thresh to score under the sticks. This time Bradley hit the mark with the conversion to edge his side into the lead. Four minutes later Davies went in again down the left after great passing from right to left. A third moss of the afternoon from Bradley meant that the RAF were six points ahead with a score of 18-12 at the interval.
The RAF were judged to have knocked-on with three minutes on the second half clock, but excellent defence saw the Navy into touch on the first tackle of the resulting set.
The Navy got the first points of the second half after some good possession thanks to enterprise from Jack Ray who pushed past three tacklers to spin over the line and ground. Chambers added the conversion, and the sides were level again with twenty minutes remaining.
The Navy missed a kickable penalty on sixty-two to spurn the opportunity to take the lead, but it was the Navy in the ascendancy as the RAF tired.
Fifteen minutes from time the Navy were back in front when Jack Bartlett took the pass on the last tackle and evaded the tacklers to score from short range. Chambers didn’t find the target, the lead just four points.
The Navy secured the win on seventy-six thanks to a Charlie Mattison ten metre run for the line through a broken defence after the RAF failed to cover. Chambers added the extras for a ten-point lead.
There was the slightest glimmer of hope for the RAF with a few seconds remaining when Finn O´Brien managed to ground one-handed under the tackle in the left corner. Owen Hunt was wide with the conversion attempt and it would be the last opportunity for the home side as they lost by six points.
A great opening fixture to the season fought out between two evenly matched forces sides and played in a great spirit. The lead switched hands a couple of times before resting with the Royal Navy whose stamina won through in the end and saw them into the second round.
Royal Air Force: Prescott, Peach, Crabb (T), Potter, Davies (2T), Bradley (G), Thresh (T), Mellor, Makinson, Middleton, Reay, Richardson, Roberts. Subs: O´Brien, Mosey, Hague, Hunt. 18th Man: ?.
Royal Navy: Chambers (4G), Sugden, Bartlett (T), Duffy, Dainty, Mattison (T), Joel, Teixeira (2T), Tilley, Brown, Butler, Quantock, Ray (T). Subs: Leighton, McKenna, Broxton, Conner. 18th Man: Steinberg.
Score Progression: 4-0, 4-4, 4-6, 4-10, 4-12, 8-12, 12-12, 14-12, 18-12 : HT: 18-16, 18-18, 18-22, 18-26, 18-28, 22-28 :FT.
Lead Exchanges: RAF – Square – Navy – Square – RAF – Square - Navy.
Referee: Tara Jones.