Around the campus at West Point you can see the message as prevalent as any - Go Army, Beat Navy. Around the halls at Annapolis it's the same, cadets greeted with a familiar "Go Navy, Beat Army."
Just a game? Former West Point Superintendent and General Douglas MacArthur is famously reported to have said this in support of athletics at West Point: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory."
There are few sports rivalries that approximate the level of Army v. Navy, and in few sports is the rivalry as heated, and visceral, as in rugby football.
Army, 3-0 in D1-A, takes on Navy, 1-2 in the same conference, but throw the records out, because this is serious business that has nothing to do with records and everything to do with history. Army and Navy just flat want to beat each other.
"The guys get it, even the young guys get it," said Navy Head Coach Mike Flanagan. "They hear it everywhere they go. Beat Army. You gotta beat Army. I tell them to revel in the emotion, absolutely. It’s the most exciting time for both the service academies, and it's the same when we play Air Force. There's a lot of pride at stake."
During Navy Week, added Army Head Coach Rich Pohlidal, "again we have demanded more from ourselves in training and look forward to a tough contest and improvement from last week."
The players are amped, with the game about 24 hours away at this writing.
“It’s definitely the biggest game of the year,” said sophomore Navy scrumhalf Rick neel-Feller. “I remember the Monday before last year’s game they told me it’s going to be the hardest-hitting, most physical, most tiring game of the year. They were right. You have to go all out every second.”
The rivalry has its limits. No. 8 Spencer Wilson says the contact area is brutal, but doesn’t get dirty.
“We’re all brothers in the end,” he said. “But it’s a competition, and this game is going to be more physical than any other game all year.”
So can the adrenaline be too strong? That’s a fear for any coach. Flanagan isn’t too worried because his teams have not started well in recent games, and he’s like them fired up for the opening 15.
Pohlidal is a little different.
“The key to the game is playing within ourselves and patience on both sides of the ball,” Pohlidal said. “We know Navy will be up for it as will we, our guys will need to focus all that energy into doing the simple things well, and that is how we have been preparing.”
“Army v. Navy is a special game, no question about it,” added captain Lee Namy. “Coach asked us to embrace that and channel the energies into preparation. It has been another intense week of training.”
Namy remembers playing as a freshman, when Army stormed back to win in the final minutes. There are plenty of young players in this game who will be experiencing their first Army-Navy game, and it’s an experience that has to be felt to be fully understood.
“We’re very young,” said Flanagan. “That’s not an excuse. It’s been a pleasure to coach these young players, and we’re getting better every day. But we may start five freshmen, and we’ve never started that many. But Jack McAuliffe is the best #10 we have.”
Fullback Ben Unpingco has been developing well, and 6-5 lock John Thornton is in his first year of rugby.
So the message has been simple, not worrying about what the other team is doing.
“Get our hands on the ball, and keep our hands on the ball, and be really physical,” enthused Navy’s Wilson. “We had other games where it took us a little time to get rolling, and I think we have to take care of that this week. There’s a lot of history and meaning.”
Wilson, who started playing rugby as an 11-year-old while his parents were living in New Zealand, will see those same parents make the flight from Arizona to see him play.
“Any time there’s an Army-Navy game, then fans are interested,” he said.
With all that meaning instilled in the match, it’s interesting to see how each team tries to clean the slate for Saturday.
At 3-0, Army can almost assure themselves of a playoff place with a victory. At 1-2, Navy will see any hopes of the playoffs dashed with a loss.
It’s dangerous to think that way, the players say.
“We feel good,” said Neel-Feller. “A couple of games haven’t gone our way, but that doesn’t mean we’re a bad team. This is all about tomorrow, not about the past or the future.”
Namy thinks along the same lines.
“One game at a time,” he said. “Coach wants us focus on what we need to do to perform well- not what the opposition brings to the table. While we understand Navy's capabilities much of the training this week has been focused on the execution of our roles and potential adjustments.”
The game itself will be played at Navy Marine Corps Stadium, a place that gives its own nod to the history of the Naval Academy, an institution that is 167 years old (not as old as the US Military Academy, but old enough).
The players took a walk-through in the stadium to get a feel for it. But a feel is all they get. Tomorrow it’s for real.