by Matt Merritt from inthecheapseats.co.uk
It’s been a long wait for the return of forces rugby, with inter services games suspended for the last two years due to Covid we’ve missed out on some great matchups, so it was somehow fitting for the return of military women’s rugby to come in the form of a UK Armed Forces match up against Equipe de France Militaire Féminine.
An early sign that this would be a good evening came as a queue formed on Burnaby Rd ahead of the doors being opened and a boisterous crowd formed, friends and family of the UKAF team mingled with military rugby fans and even a few folks who walked in as they passed to see what was going on and they were all treated to a hard-hitting, edge-of-the-seat game of rugby.
The UKAF team, built around a core of international players including Red Roses star Amy Cokayne and Welsh capped players Bethan Dainton and captain Sian Williams, was jam packed with top end talent. Scrum half Lucy Nye is not just an RAF team stalwart but also a regular for Wasps Women in the Premier 15s where her half-back partner for the evening Daisy Fahey has become a key player for Gloucester-Hartpury.
As the sun began to set the players took to the field, anthems were sung, and referee Nikki O’Donnell blew the whistle to start the game.
From the off this was a hugely physical encounter, bodies crashing together, and every ruck being contested as if it were the last the players would be involved in. For all that physicality played it’s part, the first points came from a well-drilled set piece five minutes in as Amy Cokayne, latching onto the back of a maul formed from the lineout, found her way over the line. Full back Sarah Graham stepped up to nail her kick.
Almost immediately the French would reply as their own 15, Adeline Carrasquet found a gap, beat the UKAF defence and collected a chip from fly-half Pauline Galateau to score for herself. The French kick was successful, bringing us back to an even score.
A powerful UKAF scrum, forcing back the French forwards and winning a penalty gave Graham a chance to add to her tally, but the ball drifted.
As the forwards crashed and clashed, the UKAF backs probed and exploited openings. Carys Williams in particular was a constant threat with her rangy runs, but it was from the other wing that the next points would come, an all-Army affair with lightning quick outside back Fionidi Parker collecting a long pass from Harlequins centre Jade Mullen, weaving through French bodies and dotting down, unopposed, for the try.
From there the crunching tackles started to take their toll, Sarah Graham having to leave the field due to injury to be replaced by Navy wing Rose Dixon who provided a constant threat down the left for the remainder of the game. Lucy Nye looked set to follow after a thunderous hit from a French lock but was just winded and after a few seconds to collect herself shook off the effects to return to the game.
The first half would end 12-7 and after a performance from the Royal Marines Band we returned to the action.
After battling time and again toward the French try line it would be Cokayne popping up again to score. Appearing on the left wing she deftly caught a long, looping pass from Daisy Fahey, handed off a defender and crossed the line. Another well worked Maul would see Amy once again dot down for her hat-trick.
As both teams made a series of changes the game began to open up and France’s tighthead Rykam Ait Lahbib, who had been dangerous all game and would end up playing the full 80 minutes, started to open up with some powerful runs into contact and fearsome tackling.
The next points would once again be scored by UKAF though, this time it would be impressive debutant Sally Stott. The Loughborough Lightning number 8 collecting from the lineout and powering over with a little assistance from her fellow forwards.
Resolute defence from the UK side all game long continued as the constant graft of Bethan Dainton, Erica Mills, inside centre Louise Dodd and talismanic captain Sian Williams paid off. Every ruck, every covering tackle, one of the four seemed to be at the centre of it and held firm to deny their opponents.
Pure power gave France a consolation try late on as they pushed through the scrum and stampeded across the line to add five points to their tally. Inside centre Lea Shaurly the scorer. The conversion was quickly taken out of hand, a shrewd move as Burnaby Road’s crosswinds made it a tough night for kickers.
As we wound into the final minutes France were determined not to suffer defeat by a wider margin, time and again denying the purple shirts of the UKAF, notably when Rose Dixon collected a pass from Amy Cokayne and looked certain to score only for a French player to deny her.
The game ended 27-14. A hard fought and entertaining encounter that both teams gave their all. No doubt there will be some weary bodies this morning but the UK Armed Forces Women will be delighted to have returned with a win after a long time away!