Another landmark moment as the Army-Navy women's game on Saturday is played at Twickenham Stadium. Rugby World talks to the two camps ahead of the historic clash
Historic day for Army and Navy women
The women’s game is booming and another slice of history will be made this weekend when the Army-Navy match at Twickenham becomes a double header. Saturday sees the the 103rd men’s meeting of the two Forces (kick-off 2pm) before the women follow on the same hallowed turf at 4.30pm.
It will be the 18th instalment of the Army-Navy women’s fixture and the first to be played at the famous stadium. Until now, the women’s matches have been at nearby Kneller Hall.
“It’s a massive deal. A monumental change. We’re making history,” says Army captain Jade Mullen, a staff sergeant in the 11th Infantry Brigade based at Aldershot. “This will be the 95th game for the men at Twickenham but only our first. So many more women are playing rugby now and we’re getting aligned with the men. This is one of the biggest stadiums in the world and we’re getting to play on it. It’s huge.”
The sentiment is echoed by Lieutenant Olivia Critchley-Peddle, a safety manager for the Wildcat helicopter team at Yeovilton and a scrum-half for the Royal Navy.
“I’m very excited. Even more excited than I was two years ago when we were meant to be playing there,” she says. “It’s the epitome of English rugby to play at Twickenham and the fact the men have always had the Army-Navy match at Twickenham, and we’ve always played outside at Kneller Hall, it’s like we’ve been a second-class team. When in reality the standard of some of the women players is higher than the men.”
It promises to be less about the result and more about the occasion. Certainly the Army have more depth and more quality, with fly-half Mullen supported by the likes of Wales back-row Bethan Dainton and dynamic front-row Sarah Batley in the pack.
They’ve trounced the Navy in all 17 meetings since the fixture began in 2003, the 2020 and 2021 matches having been cancelled because of Covid.
In their opening Inter-services Championship match, the Army defeated the defending champions RAF 24-10 at Kingsholm. Mullen, Carrie Smith and Courtney Pursglove (two) scored their tries, the latter having emerged from the Army women’s sevens programme and running in a long-range interception. “She has great awareness and is a real threat in open play,” says Mullen, whose 12-year Army career has included two stints in Afghanistan.
Teenage centre Amy Carr was another to acquit herself well in that opener in Gloucester. “She’s a really talented athlete. She’s like a sponge striving to learn and better herself. A great addition to the squad and the backs.”
In contrast, the Navy lost 32-15 to the RAF at Ealing. Not that they were disheartened because the performance represented a significant stride in the development of Navy rugby. Tries by No 8 Jessica Bryan and wing Sian McLaughlin helped the Navy level matters early in the second half before the scoreboard got away from them.
“We put in a credible performance against the RAF which gave us a really good idea of where we are,” says coach Lieutenant Commander Charlotte Fredrickson. “The girls are rightly confident, as am I, about the performance we will put out on Saturday.”
Because of the pandemic, the previous Army-Navy women’s encounter was three years ago, and took place at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth. The Army won 48-3 but a spirited revival that day offered solace for a Navy team that is moving in the right direction under Fredrickson and Loz Salisbury.
“Loz and Freddie are both Navy women players and both played at Saracens. We’re getting the pull-through, ex-players becoming coaches and understanding how we play and how we want to play,” says Critchley-Peddle, who plays her civilian rugby for Bath.
“This season there’s a different atmosphere in the camps, it’s really good. We’ve got a lot of new players, with some older players retiring, and there’s a fresh enthusiasm and buzz.
“When we last played the Army, even though we lost it felt like we’d won because in the second half we stopped them destroying us. For us that was a final click, ‘we can do this’.
“I don’t expect to win against the Army, they’ve got some phenomenal players who play at a high standard, they’ve got a much larger body of people to recruit from, and that’s expected. We just want to stand our ground and show that Navy rugby can compete at this level. And in the future perhaps we can even win. For us, this match is not really about the result, it’s about the opportunity to play at Twickenham in the first (women’s) match and to enjoy it.”
The disparity between the teams is hard to ignore but there will be no complacency in the Army ranks. “The last five or six years the Navy have been building and the scoreline has been decreasing. They’re going on the right track,” says Mullen. “The RAF put a plan in place and really developed their women’s squad, and the Navy are getting there too.
“We never look at our opposition and think, ‘Is this going to be a walkover? We focus on us, what can we do, we work to our structure. You don’t know when the last time will be when you wear an Army shirt and it’s such a unique experience to play for the Army, and in the Inter-Services. So we never go into a game thinking this is going to be an easy fixture. We focus on ourselves and on trying to perform to the standards we aspire to.”
The men’s match on Saturday will be a straightforward decider after both Forces beat the RAF. The Army won 35-20 at Gloucester, with Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni prominent as always, while a late try by Jesse Lowe sealed an 18-10 Navy win at Ealing.
Army v Navy women’s starting teams
Army: Sgt Louise Dodd; Pte Courtney Pursglove, Gnr Amy Carr, Capt Gemma Pearson, LBdr Jess McAuley; SSgt Jade Mullen (capt), Cpl Charlie Morgan; Cpl Becky Wilson, Sgt Sarah Batley, SSgt Natalie Lewis, Cpl Heidi Silcox, Maj Chantelle Miller, Capt Erica Mills, Bdr Bethan Dainton, Lt Sally Stott.
Navy: AET Chloe Sopp; Lt Emma Tegan Morley, LH Rose Dixon (capt), LPT Suz Badger, ET Sian McLoughlin; PO Sam Alderson, SLt Rhian Perry; Mid Rosie Staples, SLt Rebecca Addis, AET Lucy Honeybell, PO Anne-Marie McIntyre, LAET Abi Sondack, ET Elona Bythell, MA Megan Musgrave, NA Jessica Bryan.
Tickets for the big day at Twickenham are still available.
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