Soldiers and Sailors competed in the 19th Commander’s Cup rugby match on Rainier Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Saturday.
The JBLM-based Army team jumped to an early a 27-point lead over the Naval Base Kitsap-based Navy team. The Navy team failed to get on the scoreboard until the second half. The Army side protected its early lead and built on it, culminating in a 63-38 victory and securing this year’s Commander’s Cup trophy.
The win avenges last year’s 42-31 loss to the Navy and gives the Army a 17-2 series record.
Since the inception in 1999 between the Army and Navy rugby teams, support from the base initially struggled. However, in recent years, it has received support from command leadership throughout JBLM, the Tacoma Rugby Club, JBLM Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation and from leadership at the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).
“The match idea began based on a conversation between former military players to try and establish a game between the service installations,” said Nick Punimata, a retired Green Beret chief warrant officer four and current coach for the JBLM Army rugby team. “Our intent was to try and replicate that rivalry between the services, since there is no military service academy presence in the Pacific Northwest.”
The annual match used to be played at small local park fields before being moved to Cowan Stadium at JBLM and incorporated as part of the annual Armed Forces Day celebration. This year, it was played at Rainier Field on JBLM.
“Two former 1st SFG commanders, retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Csrnko, along with retired Brig. Gen. Hector Pagan, were very instrumental in supporting the athletes and keeping the rivalry alive by encouraging Special Forces Soldiers to compete,” Punimata said. “The current 1st SFG deputy commander Col. Steve Johnson is also a longtime rugby player and fan and still participates in many of the unit and JBLM rugby events.”
Another 1st SFG Soldier, Spc. Joseph Monreal, a winger for the JBLM Army rugby team, said the sport builds unit cohesion, and he’s honored to have built relationships among the players both active-duty and retired service members.
“I like to participate, because it allows us to gain new levels of experience and camaraderie with other service members,” Monreal said.
The game also serves to build upon the natural rivalry between the Army and the Navy.
“It’s always been a great relationship between the Sailors and Soldiers,” Punimata said. “Though this match is small, it’s still unique to us in the military stationed in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s something that many former 1st SFG players have been a part of since the inception of the idea of playing against another service.”
Rugby has grown in popularity in the United States. According to a CNN report, the sport has had record-breaking events for each of the last seven years and is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
The sport’s growth attracts new players who are willing to experience and learn something new and challenge themselves physically and mentally, according to Punimata. New players join and leave the team regularly due to the often transient nature of life in the military.
However, they still pride themselves on playing at a competitive level.
“I certainly hope the JBLM (Family and MWR) continues to support this event in the future,” Punimata said. “It is a celebration of the camaraderie of our nation’s armed forces and recognizes those military rugby players who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and have been great ambassadors of this game.”