Rugby Union

Retiring UKAF Head Coach Bids Farewell To Rugby

Staff Sergeant Lee Soper spoke about his long career involved in military rugby union ahead of leaving the Armed Forces in March.

Outgoing UKAF rugby union head coach Staff Sergeant Lee Soper says he is "very proud" of his military career.

The British Army soldier is leaving the Armed Forces in March, and has been looking back on his career in an exclusive interview.

The Cornishman has spent 24 years in the Army, after joining 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.

He has been a stalwart of Army Rugby Union and led the UK Armed Forces team to the final of the 2019 Forces World Cup.

"I'm a Cornishman. I went to the careers office in Redruth and I was going to join the Army Air Corps," he said.

"The Sergeant Major down there asked me why I wanted to join the Army and the first answer was to play rugby.

"He said: 'You want to go to 7 PARA RHA. They're the main rugby regiment at the minute.'"

SSgt Soper worked his way through the ranks of the Army set-up and found himself in Andy Hickling's squad for the 2000 Inter Services Championship.

He explained: "Andy came in and he gave the likes of myself, Ben Hughes, Mal Roberts, Bruno... the opportunity.

"We then went out there and we became the nucleus and the core of the Army side for the next four or five seasons.

"It was a great time to be involved there and I made some tremendous friends with some of these guys who I'm still in close contact with."

Staff Sergeant Lee Soper (back middle) with the Army team in a squad photo. (Picture: Lee Soper)

Soper also spoke about his favourite memory of playing for the Army – at Twickenham against the Navy in 2002.

He said: "My most cherished memory during the Army-Navy is the 2002 one when in the previous season, we'd lost.

"We were having a hell of a battle with the Navy that year and we were 18-13 up with five minutes to go.

"The gods were in my favour and I stole their line-out. We got a penalty, cleared our lines, a few minutes later, the game was all over.

"To steal the game and to secure victory for us, that sticks in my memory the most."

After gaining coaching experience with the Army as a forwards coach, SSgt Soper took the top job at UK Armed Forces level.

It was the 2019 Forces World Cup where SSgt Soper's team impressed the most as they reached the final.

Unfortunately, they were beaten by an in-form Fiji team but the retiring coach can now reflect on the positives of the tournament.

He said: "I've only looked back at the final which we were all really disappointed at losing because we really did think we could stand a chance of winning.

"It was just two errors that cost the 12 points. It just adds to how proud I was of how they performed over there.

"I’ve got to say not just the players, but my management team as well. They were outstanding how hard they worked and committed to it."

SSgt Soper served on tours in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, losing friends and colleagues on the battlefield.

After almost a quarter of a century, he admits he will miss the Army: "I'm very proud of where I've been and, yes, I'm going to miss the place but, like with all things, we're just custodians of the shirt and custodians of the regiment."

Cover image: (Picture: Lee Soper).