Army v Navy: ‘When you’ve served in Afghanistan, 80,000 at Twickenham is not pressure’

Charlie Morgan
Semesa Rokoduguni scores the Army's first try against the Navy at Twickenham last year - Rex Features

Capt Andy Sanger laughs when it is put to him that his Army rugby players might feel pressure as they walk out in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham tomorrow for the 100th Babcock Trophy fixture against the Royal Navy.

The Army coach missed the 2013 and 2014 matches. As a bomb disposal specialist in the Royal Engineers, he was required for a nine-month tour of Afghanistan.

“The soldiers I deal with are well versed in dealing with pressure,” he explains. “But we prepare well, we train well, we have the right equipment, we do everything we can to mitigate risk. They are pretty austere, some of the places our guys go to. And that adversity, they get on and deal with.

“If you apply that principle to rugby – you do your basics right with the scrum, line-out, attack and defence, strategy, nutrition, conditioning – it’s a similar correlation.”

Sanger is facing the Navy for a 12th time. After playing on six occasions between 1994 and 2000, the 48-year-old former centre was appointed coach in October 2010.

But, with a 29-29 draw last season still stinging, his enthusiasm remains sharp. That result ended a five-match winning run for the Army and was a major coup for the Navy, who count just two wins since 1997.

The Babcock Trophy was shared last year Credit: Rex Features 

“It was extremely painful,” says Sanger, a Welshman. “They came back from 19 points down and, 78 minutes in, they kicked a goal to level it. I don’t think they were lucky. It was an absolute credit to them.

“Are we favourites? Not necessarily, but we have tried to look at every facet and apply a military analysis to it. We’ve reviewed our medical support, training, administration, tactics and selection.”

Sanger has galvanised the Army’s traditional free-flowing attack by focusing on the “nuts and bolts”. Corporal Lewis Bean starts at lock. The 6ft 8in, 20st infantryman personifies a fresh energy up front. Having worked hard to cooperate with professional clubs, Sanger deploys London Irish No 8 Gunner Senitiki Nayolo. Then, at full-back for the Army rather than taking on Gloucester with Bath, is Lance Coporal Semesa Rokoduguni.

Bath understand that players retire in their early 30s and they need a career afterwards,” Sanger adds. “Todd Blackadder has been excellent in supporting Roko. Even though, contractually, we have the rights to him because he is a British Army soldier, our relationship is really healthy. They have sent him to us with their blessing.

“When Roko comes in, there is no ego. Having been on the fields of Afghanistan, he mixes with the boys really well. He is also one of the best attacking players in Europe, so [the Navy] will have to think carefully about kicking the ball to him and they’ll have to make sure their chase is organised.”

Bath have released Semesa Rokoduguni for the fixture, which he will start at full-back Credit: Getty Images

The Army’s build-up has been impressive. Earlier this month, a Rokoduguni wonder-try helped see off the Royal Air Force 35-14. However, February’s clash against the Russian national side laid their foundations. Despite going 21-0 behind, the Army rallied and learned plenty from a 28-17 defeat – “as you might expect from soldiers, we dug in and absorbed the pressure”.

Sanger may be able to keep Saturday’s occasion in perspective, but he does acknowledge the “unique pressure” of this match.

“You feel a sense of duty to your unit for giving you the opportunity, then to your service, the Navy or the Army. Then you have pressure of family and friends being there. Then there is pressure you put on yourself.”

“We’ve spoken about that. We have to accept pressure is going to be there, put it in a box and control it. That’s where military training does come in. From there, we enjoy it for what it is. It’s a piece of grass, the same laws of the game. Nothing changes, apart from the mad 80,000 in the ground.”

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