What’s in a name?
In 1908 the Army and Navy teams combined to play the Australian’s at Portsmouth. 108 years before the Sevens version of Rugby Union is to played at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Australian XV were looking for match preparation prior to their Olympic campaign. The Wallabies were representing Australasia, as New Zealand and Australia were combined for the Olympics, and there were three teams entered. France withdrew leaving the final to be between Great Britain and Australia. Great Britain were represented by Cornwall (English County Champions in 1907) as most of the England and Wales players were in New Zealand. It was nothing if not chaotic in the early days of representative rugby! Australia won that first match, against Army & Navy, 8 – 6 before claiming gold with an 18-5 victory at the White City Stadium against Cornwall.
Sixteen years later a true Combined Services team hosted the touring All Blacks in front of a 25,000 crowd at Twickenham. Since that first meeting the teams have met on 7th occasions. Though the CS team have never been victorious they pushed the Kiwis very close in 1935 when they lost 6-5 at Aldershot’s Military Stadium.
Though they regularly played incoming touring sides it was probably the series of matches against the French Armed Forces that have become talked about the most as it seemed to encapsulate the long standing and complex relationship that has shaped so much of Europe between the two countries separated by La Manche. The Combined Service rivalry with their French counterparts was as fierce in the committee rooms as it was on the pitch. Though Combined Services played matches against a France Service XV between 1945 & 1947 the match series started, against a formal France Armed Forces side, in 1960 when the CS took over the traditional fixture between the French Army and the British Army. In the first fifteen encounters the Combined Services could only muster two wins [requires confirmation], in 1966 and 1974. Both these wins were by CS teams captained by Navy men, Mike Davis in 1966 and Binge Gatehouse in 1974. In 2016 the French Armed Forces were once more back in the United Kingdom as part of the 2nd Edition of the International Defence Rugby Competition. And though they lost in the Semi Final to Fiji it was not before they had claimed the scalp of the British Army in the pool stages. The rivalry was renewed in 2019 when the two teams met in the semi final of the IDRC with UK Armed Forces winning 39-12.
In recent years the Barbarians have been regular opponents for the Combined Services and through this series the annual Remembrance match has grown to be a key fixture in the annual sporting calendar, a game that raises so much for the Royal British Legion’s annual poppy day appeal. The first game was in 1997 and it was’t until the fifth match, held in Plymouth, that Combined Services recorded their first win over the World’s most famous club. With the Barbarians winning in 2014 th series currently stands 11-5 in the BaaBaas favour.
The last Combined Services game was, like the first, also held at Twickenham. On this occasion it was the Combined Services U23 XV who played their annual match against a side selected from Oxford and Cambridge University. This match was the first, and last, time a Combined Services cap was awarded as in early 2015 the Armed Forces Sports Control Board made the change that it’s representative sporting teams would participate under the name ‘United Kingdom Armed Forces.
So after 90 years of Combined Services history a chapter was closed and a new one begun as the UK Armed Forces Rugby Union set about continuing the proud traditions of Service Rugby – after all what’s in a name? It is also perhaps fitting that the first match by a team, sporting the UKAF name will be at one of the World’s iconic grounds but one that is very much adapted to the modern game. Women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the World and the Women’s XV will write the first chapter in UKAFRU’s history when they play Cardiff Blues Ladies, on the 4G pitch, at Cardiff Arms Park.
There has, in recent years, been much debate about what constituted a Combined Service capped game. The Combined Services minutes are silent on the matter and the only reference to a capped game we have been able to locate is in private correspondence. Combined Services undertook a number of warm up games prior to match against the touring Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. They also often played a match before their annual encounter with the French. It is clear that for most of their history successive Combined Service selection committee have had a policy of always picking the best team for the match they were preparing for. So players would not be considered for a CS warm up match if they were not available for the subsequent ‘test’ against the touring team or the FAF. The issue is further confused with, for example, the tour to the States where the team played in a competition at Boston – were these ‘capped’ games. Recently the Combined Services played Crawshay’s Welsh as the Remembrance Day match. The two teams had previously met at Crickhowell as the CS prepared to play the French Armed Forces. Was one a ‘capped’ game and the other not?
The only evidence currently found that does give some form of status to the match is the wearing of Combined Services stockings and ties. The CS sock of navy blue with a sky blue and red turnover was evidently the official symbol that you were a Combined Services player. This is highlighted in the Combined Services minutes of 4 Mar 1949 when the CS Committee wiere discussing their plans to play a new match against the ‘Champion County’; i.e. the winners of the RFU’s County Championship. As the minutes recount:
“It was agreed that stockings be awarded to players who take part in the Combined Services v Champion County match.”
Subsequent minutes make reference to playing strip which is described as white jersey and white shortd but with “Combined Services stockings”. It would suggest that the introduction of the ‘fashion’ of players wearing their own parent union socks in 2003 went against a long held tradition that was also based in terms of recognition.
In the 1960s the Combined Service minutes also made reference to the CS tie, a new supply they had recently purchased from TM Lewins. The tie was eligible to be worn by those who had played in games against incoming touring teams, the warm up matches or matches when Combined Services were abroad. This in essence meant that all CS matches were covered with the exception of trial matches they occasionally held – Blues v Reds. So again little official credence was given to matches of differing status in terms of external recognition.
In 2014 the first official cap was introduced and after CS U23XV had defeated Oxbridge 34-29 on the 9th May 2015 the first of 23 caps were awarded. With the name change occurring the following year and before the annual Remembrance Match fixtures these will be (as far is known) the only Combined Services caps awarded for rugby union. [In 2019 a number of Combined Services caps were purchased and sent to previous Combined Services players – but the status of these caps is not know whether to be offical or honorary.]
2015 saw the introduction of the UK Armed Forces Rugby Union caps and these are awarded to players of all three UKAFRU representative teams, i.e. the men’s and women’s XV along with the U23 XV. The statistics maintained on this site refer to matches played after the first UK Armed Forces cap was awarded.
The Combined Services Shirt
For the purest the Combined Services shirt was plain white. In recent seasons there have been quarters and banded designs based around the three parent Service Union colours of Navy Blue, Red and Sky Blue. These have been worn by the Senior XV, the U23/U21 side and also the Women’s XV. Most recently the U23 CS XV wore a purple strip at Twickenham for their 2013 match against Oxbridge U23 XV. The first occasion recorded when the Combined Services team did not play in white was 1970. The Combined Services RFC hosted the touring Fijians that day and clearly both teams played in white. As the hosts it was for CS to change but with money tight it was left to the Royal Navy Rugby Union to loan the Combined Services a ‘new’ playing strip and the CS that day wore Navy Blue. With the change to UK Armed Forces it has been stipulated by the Armed Forces Sports Control Board that purple will be the colour for its representative teams across all sports.
International Defence Rugby Cup
2019 saw the third edition of IDRC. In the first two, held in Australia and England, the UK Services had played as in the competition. Having won their opening round, against Georgia Defence Force, UKAF played their longstanding adversaries, France Armed Forces in the semi finals before playing the Republic of Fiji Military Force in the final. In this match Fiji retained their title in a brisuing encounter with a 31-17 victory.