In front of a noisy, excited crowd at Kingsholm the Remembrance Rugby fixture between UK Armed Forces and Rugby for Heroes promised to be an exciting game even before the first whistle had blown.
The UKAF team was without some of their big names, though Josh McNally did travel up to present the team their jerseys, but the Rugby for Heroes squad was littered with familiar names from Premiership and international rugby. Julian Salvi and Jordan Crane in the back row are both familiar faces for rugby fans and Delon Armitage & Tom Varndell might both be retired but they give up their time for so many charity fixtures they still look match fit. Their captain Mike Tindall led from the front and it’s clear he still doesn’t know how to give anything other than his all.
With so much talent on display, it was no surprise that Rugby for Heroes were the first team to score. A series of passes allowing Armitage within inches of the line after just three minutes and Jordan Crane, with the poaching instincts of a lifelong number 8, finding space to stretch his arms and score. Ryan Lamb was unable to convert.
It was all white shirts for the next few minutes, UKAF resolute in defence but unable to get their hands on the ball as Rugby for Heroes showed their pedigree with some lovely offloading. A dropped ball led to UKAF possession and one pass later Jarrad Hayler showed the sort of pace you don’t associate with a back row forward as the Royal Navy man sped through a gap in the line to score and get the UK Armed Forces show on the road!
Army’s James Dixon’s conversion was good and UKAF took the lead. All this and still only 7 minutes on the clock! A couple of minutes later and the Air Force got in on the action too. Sam Hutchinson might be playing in the second row but he stole an intercept that would make a winger proud and charged through to score.
The individual talent on Rugby for Heroes showed through as they continued to dominate territory and possession but the fitness and unity of the men in purple ensured their opponents were thwarted time and again.
More tries, from Ryan Crowley, Ben Chambers and Setareki Raumakita as well as a Rugby for Heroes score from Johnny Arr meant we went into half time with a 31-12 score line and a lot of anticipation that the second half could be as exciting.
Connor O’Reilly quickly got UK Armed Forces on the scoresheet in the second half with a lovely try to cap off some flowing rugby. The winger is currently plying his trade for Colchester but on this evidence could do a job in the Championship or perhaps even higher, he’s been a threat all evening.
A wonderful, leaping, intercept by Craig Duncan propelled UKAF even further ahead and the team in purple were looking completely dominant at this point. They kept possession well, working the phases and patiently building their possession and 15 minutes into the second half the Army’s Nathanael Tichard-Jones ran as only a prop can to power over the line.
Delon Armitage, who spent the entire game playing on the edge, finally got Rugby for Heroes back on the scoreboard with a deft touch to control and down the ball. From there a period of end-to-end rugby where neither team could capitalise and the skill of the Rugby for Heroes team was neutralised time and again by UKAF’s fitness and tenacity and they’d capitalise through Rob Bell to add another to the purple side of the scoreboard.
With just under ten minutes on the clock Rugby for Heroes struck again, Matt Jess creating some space for Kotobalavu to score. Ryan Lamb, increasingly showing his flair threw a huge, winding, (possibly forward?) pass that referee Tom Foley, sensing the joy in the crowd and wearing a beaming smile of his own, deemed legal for a try that Lamb quickly converted. A Barbarians-esque moment and a good reminder that charity and entertainment are the keywords for this game.
With the clock in the red UKAF decided they weren’t quite finished, Ryan Crowley picking up a dropped ball, zipping through to the try line and landing the ball with a big splash. The metronomic boot of James Dixon giving UK Armed Forces a final score of 62 to Rugby for Heroes’ 33. A fantastic game, a great spectacle and some players we need to keep an eye on ahead of the inter-services games in the spring!