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An emotional Josh McNally loves playing for Bath… but he’s even more proud of his RAF service

Aged just 18, Bath’s Josh McNally joined the Royal Air Force and swore an oath to ‘be faithful and be true allegiance’ to Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs.

“I am honored to have served for you,” McNally wrote on social media after his team faced Bristol in the days following the late monarch’s passing. ‘Thank you Madame’.

A career in professional rugby has come McNally’s way rather by accident, but also as a by-product of his early days in the RAF.

Josh McNally loved playing for Bath, but he is more proud of his service in the Royal Air Force
Josh McNally loved playing for Bath, but he is more proud of his service in the Royal Air Force

Josh McNally loved playing for Bath, but he is more proud of his service in the Royal Air Force

His father, Stephen, was a member of the Royal Engineers and following in his father’s footsteps had always been the plan.

That was until the RAF discovered his sporting abilities. They allowed McNally to represent Henley Hawks, from where he progressed rapidly. Sojourns at London Welsh, London Irish and now Bath have followed a man whose career has been anything but conventional.

“I’ve always wanted to serve my country,” McNally told Sportsmail. ‘That desire has never changed. I have been very, very fortunate to have followed the path that I have, but I am also very, very proud of the service that I have provided.

“In the military we swear an oath and allegiance to the sovereign, but when something like the passing of the Queen happens, it makes you realize how much the monarchy means to you.

‘It has been an enormously emotional time. It is absolutely incredible how everyone has been able to reflect in the last week. It shows how important the monarchy is to this country. I am a big fan of that. I believe the good it brings to the country outweighs any potential negatives.’

McNally and his Bath teammates attended the Queen’s funeral at their Farleigh House training base on Monday as they prepared for their next Premier League clash with Wasps.

Friday’s game will be Bath’s third of the new season. Their opener with Bristol was pushed back by just under 24 hours after the Queen’s death, but rugby in England has continued as other sports, notably football, chose to pause. For McNally, not only has it felt right to be able to take to the field, but it has also been a fitting tribute to the monarch.

“I think playing games was the right way to go,” he adds. ‘I know the country has been in mourning but the tributes we saw across the Premier League and also in cricket and golf were brilliant.

‘The fact that they allowed people to pay their respects was huge. I think football will regret a missed opportunity.

‘People want to come together and show respect in unity. They don’t want to be alone. You could have heard a pin drop when we played Bristol. ‘The minute’s silence was probably one of the most poignant I have been a part of, and it was the start of something new by singing the new national anthem. It was very, very special to me.’

Given his background, the Queen’s passing has unsurprisingly touched McNally more than most sportsmen or women.

The 32-year-old England lock joined Bath from London Irish back in the summer of 2019
The 32-year-old England lock joined Bath from London Irish back in the summer of 2019

The 32-year-old England lock joined Bath from London Irish back in the summer of 2019

He trained as a weapons engineer, first at RAF Halton and then RAF Cosford. At the time, after a military upbringing which included stints in Cyprus and the Falkland Islands, McNally saw no other future than a career in the RAF.

His job, in simplified terms, was to ensure that the RAF’s aircraft were in top flight condition. But it was while working at RAF Coningsby that McNally’s life took a turn. “I worked on the Eurofighter Typhoon and its missile systems,” he adds matter-of-factly.

‘But at the same time I started getting into rugby. The RAF doesn’t just want robots that repair planes.

‘They want people and sport is a big part of that. I started playing for the RAF and moved to Brize Norton where I joined Henley. I played two seasons and it snowballed from there to me coming to London Welsh. Now I’m at Bath, I sometimes scratch my head and wonder how that happened!

‘The RAF put me on their elite athlete scheme which allowed me to focus completely on rugby while still knowing they were there in the background. They have been very supportive. ‘It’s amazing how quickly your life can change.’

McNally, now 32, has been immersed in rugby for the past eight years. Interestingly, he believes that several Premier League clubs could make use of the talent available in the military.

England's McNally poses with his son after playing his first and only England game in 2021
England's McNally poses with his son after playing his first and only England game in 2021

England’s McNally poses with his son after playing his first and only England game in 2021

One thing those who serve do not lack is worldly knowledge and experience. Leadership often comes more naturally to them based on the training they receive than it does to others. Earlier this year, England head coach Eddie Jones lamented the lack of resilience and leadership in that country’s rugby system, partly blaming the closed nature of private school education.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t think you’re going to be successful if you have a team full of academics,” says McNally. ‘You need diversity in a team and I understand some of Eddie’s argument. ‘There are people who just fall into rugby. There are some young lads in academies at the clubs I’ve been at and you wonder if they’re actually enjoying it.

– However, I disagree with the management of young players. Orlando Bailey came through the Bath system and he’s leading us now at the age of 20. But alongside that I think it helps to have guys who have experienced life and worked for a living. A person like myself have seen different things and I think it is hugely beneficial. You can draw on the various experiences.’

When his rugby career ends, McNally is unequivocal that he will return to active duty. It may come as an engineer again, although he maintains an interest in helping other servicemen or women maximize their athletic talent, as he has been able to.

1663629355 859 An emotional Josh McNally loves playing for Bath but hes
1663629355 859 An emotional Josh McNally loves playing for Bath but hes

“The plan is to go back in,” he says. ‘Everyone knows I’m in the RAF and the question I always get is whether I fly or not. Only 10 per cent of those in the RAF fly. Everyone else makes sure the planes stay in the sky!

‘I wanted to become a pilot, but my height held me back!’ At a gigantic six feet seven inches, McNally was probably not best suited for a career in the cockpit. Instead he has found a home in Bath’s engine room. While at London Irish he suffered a minor burn and extensive tests revealed a small hole in his heart. An operation means McNally no longer suffers from heart problems. He is now a key figure in Bath and in 2021 won a first international match for England against the USA. McNally was also named British Armed Forces Sportsman of the Year in 2018.

“We were laughed at in the league last season and it hurts,” he adds as he looks back on Bath’s shocking 2021/22 Premier League campaign, which saw them finish bottom with just five wins. ‘We have to find a way out of it and put some pride back into the shirt.’

Bath have pressed Bristol hard and have been beaten by a selling side who played 71 minutes with 14 men in their two league games this term. But under new rugby boss Johann van Graan there are plans for a revival. McNally, who is expecting a second child with wife Sarah, will be central to such hopes. ‘We have probably seen everything that could go wrong, go wrong’, he concludes. “We will never let those things happen again – we want to do something good for this club.”

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