The history of UKAF may be short but it is built upon a long tradition of united Service rugby dating back to 1908 when the first combined team, drawn from the Army and the Royal Navy, took on the touring Australians at Portsmouth. Since that first match the Combined Services pitted themselves regularly against the touring sides of the Southern Hemisphere and more recently from emerging nations. However, with the advent of professional rugby and shorter tours the fixtures became less frequent with the last full international opposition being Combined Services against Samoa in 2010.
That is of course if your view is limited to the men’s game but on Friday 11 November 2016, 25 UKAF players sat expectantly in a Cardiff room waiting to be presented with their playing shirts prior to the first UKAF Women’s match against a full international side, Wales, to be held later that evening at one of the most famous grounds in rugby history, the Arms Park. The occasion deserved someone who the players could both look up to and relate to in equal measure and in Major Heather Stanning MBE there could be a no more fitting sporting and Service role model to both speak to the squad and then present the coveted shirt adorned with the evocative poppy of the Royal British Legion.
Born to Royal Navy parents within ear shot of the Harriers at RNAS Yeovilton, but whose home town of Lossiemouth is host to Typhoons and Tornados, she may wear the colours of the Army and the Royal Artillery but Heather most definitely understands what brings the three Services together and also what makes each Service unique. Having completed an arduous tour of Afghanistan between two gold medal winning Olympic rowing campaigns Heather, currently the number 1 female rower in the world, certainly had all the right qualities to stand in front of the squad and speak to them with an insight that few others possess.
Before presenting the shirts Heather gave a very humble and thought provoking talk about what it means to be a team and the understanding required to move forward. Her reference to overcoming adversity, as a team, was particularly prescient as the team learned later that evening, following defeat to Wales. Playing at international level is a big step up and the women’s game is moving forward. UKAF Women may need increase their pace if they hope match that level of development to remain competitive and maintain their International Remembrance Match fixture; a cornerstone of the Service rugby calendar.
A quick look at Heather Stanning’s sporting and military cv quickly makes you appreciate what an exceptional woman she is. And it doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to realise that the demands on her time are equally exceptional. So from all the players and support staff of the UKAF Women’s rugby team a big thank you for taking the time to present the playing shirts and to share your thoughts on what is important in a team environment.