The Inter Service Championship dates back to 1920 when the newly formed Royal Air Force joined to make a three-way competition with the Army and the Royal Navy as the United Kingdom recovered from World War I. The decision to move the Army v Navy Match to Twickenham had already been taken, as too the decision to allow the teams for this game to be selected from both the Men and the Officers. With the Royal Air Force joining, the inaugural tournament featured matches hosted at Twickenham and Queen’s Club. It was won by the Royal Navy, captained by their England Fly Half, Dave Davies. The Inter Service Championship had begun.
For the initial years of the new Championship the Royal Air Force matches moved locations, including an Army v Royal Air Force match played at Wembley. However, by 1924 the three matches were played at Twickenham, the new home of England Rugby. This remained the case until 1998 when only the Army v Navy Match remain at Twickenham. As the Army v Navy match retained, indeed increased, its number of spectators the other change in the Championship saw the order of fixtures change to the format we see in today’s Men’s Championship. The two matches involving the Royal Air Force alternate in order each season, but the final Championship game is now always the Army v Navy match at Twickenham.
It was not until 1926 that the Army won their first Men’s Championship title, the Royal Air Force having secured theirs in 1923. Given how the Army are now clearly the most successful team over the history of the tournament this was a little surprising, though they came close in 1924 when the Championship was a triple tie and their shared the spoils with the Royal Air Force in 1925. The Army celebrated their win in the 100th Army v Navy match (2017) with their 45th Inter Service Championship. At this stage the Royal Navy had 20 Championship titles, the Royal Air Force 15 with a further 12 titles being shared in one form of another.
And the Women?
Since 1920 the three armed forces of the United Kingdom have significantly changed in terms of their composition and role in safe guarding the interests of the Nation. Whilst Women had long served in uniform the introduction of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act began to change their role, although the original act excluded combat roles. By 1992 all three Services saw women more fully integrated in to their previously make dominated force structure and so it was not a surprise that women’s rugby also caught hold within the Armed Forces. In 2003 the first Inter Service Championship was played with the Army winning this inaugural tournament.
The Army was to dominate the Championship, remaining unbeaten for 32 matches, whilst securing 16 Championship titles. However, in 2019 the Royal Air Force defeated the Army at Gloucester to secure their first Championship win and break the Army’s strangle hold on the competition. Covid-19 precluded the Royal Air Force defending their title in 2020 and on the post Covid resumption of the Inter Service Championship the Army were once again the team to beat as they secured their 17th title in 18 years of Championship Rugby.
Future Stars of Service Rugby – U23XV
The three Services have run youth teams since the 1950s and those these were originally for under 19s the concept of a youth Championship has been retained, migrating through U21s to the U23 XV Championship, introduced in 2006.
The U23 XV Championship has been the closest of the 4 titles that are competed for with the Royal Navy recently closing the gap on the Army. The original title was won by the Royal Air Force, who had also been the dominant side in the final years of the U21 Championship.
The original Colts (U19 XV) Championship was played on the same days as the Senior Men. When U21 rugby was introduced the Championship was played in November / December and this has remained as its position in the rugby calendar. With the introduction of U23 XV rugby, all 3 single Service Senior Men’s teams call on U23 players to supplement their squads in the build up to the Men’s title. It is not uncommon for players to win both U23 XV and Senior Mens caps in the same season.
In 1996 the first Veterans Inter Service Championship was contested. Restricted to men 40 or over the first couple of years saw the tournament played very much along social lines. However he quickly generated it’s own identity and is now as competitive as any of the three other Championship titles played for. With the Royal Navy winning the inaugural tournament, it was the Royal Air Force who were the early front runners before the Army began to dominate the results. The Royal Navy interrupted their run of success in the 20th Championship to win their 2nd title. In 1922 the tournament celebrated its 25th anniversary. The 1st 25 years had seen the Army win 17 titles, with the Royal Air Force enjoying 5 title wins, the Royal Navy 2 and there being a single triple tie. Since 2010 points difference is now used to decide the Championship title for all 4 competitions, so there is unlikely to be any ties in the future.