HMS Oardacious - Army vs Navy Rugby

Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick...............Beneath the West Stand, the final warm up completed; a moment of silent reflection; the changing room is quiet. Surrounded by team mates who have spent weeks together preparing for today. Out into the tunnel. The anthem is sung. To the roar of the 82,000 crowd the match begins. If you play well the affirmation is instant, the noise levels rise, perhaps a chorus of “Heart of Oak’ sounds out. If the game turns the Navy fans go silent and all that is heard is Army noise. For eighty minutes the physical, brutal encounter is full on, but sport is also a mental challenge, and that drive, the desire, the cause fuel the mind as the body is pushed further and further into physical debt. By the end lungs are burning, the body racked by subdued pain. Over the next couple of days, as the adrenalin subsides, only then will the real pain in the body be felt. For over 100 years this has been the story of players at the annual Army v Navy Match.

Splish, splash, splish, splash, splish………………The Atlantic is calm, only the rolling swell gives a hint of the power she possesses.  Her waters continually lap against the hull of the small rowing boat.  Two of the four are rowing as part of their two hours on, two hours off routine.  The splish as the oar catches the water, breath exhaled as the power transferred and then both body and oar recoil for the next stoke.  Minute, by minute, hour by hour, day by day, the steady progress is recorded on the tracker as the 3000 miles from the Canary Isles to Antigua count down.  There is no crowd, there are no instant accolades.  Long periods spent in silence, the body is aching, but though this is one of sport’s most brutal endurance challenges it is more the mental endurance than physical prowess that defines the athletes.  On board HMS Oardacious the mental resilience remains strong.

As the four submariners push themselves through the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge they have to remain focussed on the task, the hour, the minute ahead.  But below them they know that their colleagues continue to do their duty in the Atlantic depths.  Five years before the first Army Navy Match, Holland 1 was put to sea and so began the close fraternity of the British Submarine Service.  Conditions are harsh, risks can be high.  Tension is a common companion as the hunters strive to avoid being the hunted.  As a silent boat plays her high stake games of cat and mouse, listening but not being heard, silently delivering special operation personnel into the heart of the maritime battle, and, for the last fifty years, providing the unbroken task of the continuous deterrent from the depths beneath the ocean waves. 

 Dylan Woods and Callum Fraser are well versed in the hardships of submarine life but their two colleagues, Hugo Mitchell-Heggs and Matty Harvey are also capped Navy rugby players who have graced previous Army v Navy Matches and will be able to bring their rugby experience to the rowing challenge.  And if further inspiration is needed then perhaps a look through the history book and what a couple of other Navy Rugby submariner’s achieved may provide additional reassurance and motivation about the submariner’s legendary resourcefulness and determination. 

The 1927 Army v Navy match saw the debut of two submariners, Geoff Sladen and John ‘ Tubby’ Linton, who were to write their own unique chapters in the history of achievement of the Submarine Service, as well as helping to deliver the Navy’s fourth Inter Service title, to tie the score with the Army.  At some stage during their Challenge, HMS Oardacious will no doubt require resourcefulness and in Cdr Geoff Sladen DSO DSC the Submarine Service had one of the finest.  Famous for the Sladen Suit, a redesigned dry suit that enabled the effective use of the manned torpedoes, his work with the Admiralty’s Experimental Diving Unit provided an imaginative solution at the speed that war-time requirements needed.  He also managed once to bring a reindeer home with him on the submarine following a visit to Russia.  The reindeer was eventually relocated to London Zoo, but embarking, stabling, feeding and unloading a reindeer on WWII submarines was not something regularly trained for!

 Commander John Linton VC, DSO DSC is one of two Navy Rugby players who were awarded the Victoria Cross.  If the exploits of Arthur Harrison have become famous through his England Rugby association then those of Tubby are equally impressive.  Unusually for a VC award it was not for single act of valour but instead for a sustained, determined and relentless pursuit of enemy shipping across the Mediterranean theatre in WWII.  In a single calendar year he led his HMS Turbulent crew for over 250 days at sea and nearly 3000 hours dived to sink over 90,000 tonnes of enemy shipping.  13 times he survived the silent tension of being hunted but returned to the attack with determination, with a flair for tactics and a mental robustness to ensure it was not he who blinked first.  England Rugby introduced an award to their player for ‘best defence in a match’ named after Harrison.  If they introduced one for attack, then it should probably be the Tubby Linton Cup.

 If the HMS Oardacious team can take inspiration from Sladen and Linton, and the previous exploits of the Submarine Service, to help them through what will surely be turbulent times in the Atlantic then they can also take motivation from one of the basic underlying truths of the Army v Navy Match.  As Hugo and Matty will be aware the rugby rivalry between the two oldest of foes runs deep.  As the rowers line up at La Gomera on 12 December they will be able to survey the sixteen other 4 man teams.  They will want to beat them all but the livery on the Force Atlantic (UK)’s boat will highlight them as the official Army entrant and for most of the Navy supporters in the crowd today that provides the simplest of all measures of success.  As long as when HMS Oardacious enters Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua they are ahead of the Army then the Silent Service will deservedly be allowed to roar.

 HMS Oardacious Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is the Royal Navy’s official entry in to the race.  The team are grateful for the generous support given by today’s match sponsor, Babcock International.  They are raising money for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity and their exploits can be followed via HMSOardacious.com.

Credit - Army Navy Magazine