Aged just 18, Josh McNally of Bath joined the Royal Air Force and swore an oath to Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs to “be true and keep true allegiance”.
“I’m honored to have served for you,” McNally posted on social media after his team faced Bristol in the days following the late monarch’s death. ‘Thank you ma’am’.
A career in professional rugby happened rather accidentally, but also as a by-product of his early days with the RAF.
His father Stephen was a member of the Royal Engineers and it had always been the plan to follow in his father’s footsteps.
That was until the RAF discovered his sporting ability. They allowed McNally to represent Henley Hawks from where he made rapid progress. stints at London Welsh, London Irish and now Bath followed for a man whose career was anything but conventional.
“I always wanted to serve my country,” McNally tells Sportsmail. “That desire has never changed. I was very, very happy to have made my way, but I’m also very, very proud of the service I’ve rendered.
“In the military we swear oaths and allegiance to the sovereign, but when something like the death of the queen happens, you realize how much the monarchy means to you.
“It was a very emotional time. It’s pretty amazing how everyone has been able to reflect in the last week or so. It shows how important the monarchy is to this country. I believe in that. I believe the good it brings to the country outweighs any potential downside.”
McNally and his Bath team-mates watched the Queen’s funeral at their Farleigh House training base on Monday as they prepared for their next Premiership clash with Wasps.
Friday’s game will be Bath’s third of the new season. Their opening game against Bristol was postponed by just under 24 hours after the Queen’s death, but rugby in England has continued when other sports, notably football, have been on hiatus.
For McNally, not only did it feel right to take the field, but it was a fitting tribute to the monarch.
“I think playing games was the way to go,” he adds. “I know the country has been in mourning but the honors we’ve seen in the Premier League and also in cricket and golf have been brilliant.
“The fact that they allowed people to show their respect was tremendous. I think football will regret a missed opportunity.
“People want to come together and show respect in unity. You don’t want to be alone. When we played Bristol you could have heard a pin drop.
“The minute’s silence was probably one of the most poignant I’ve attended and it was the start of something new as I sang the new national anthem. It was very, very special to me.’
Given his background, the Queen’s death unsurprisingly touched McNally more than most athletes.
He became a weapons engineer, first with RAF Halton and then with RAF Cosford. At this point, after a military upbringing that included stints in Cyprus and the Falkland Islands, McNally saw no other future than a career in the RAF.
Put simply, his job was to ensure that the RAF’s aircraft were in top condition to fly. But while working at RAF Coningsby, 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 was starting to get used to rugby. The RAF doesn’t just want robots that fix planes.
“They want people and sport is a big part of that. I started playing for the RAF and switched to Brize Norton where I joined Henley. I played two seasons and from there I switched to London Welsh. Now that I’m in Bath I sometimes scratch my head and wonder how that happened!
“The RAF put me on their elite athletes programme, which allowed me to focus fully on rugby whilst still knowing they were there in the background. You have been very supportive. “It’s amazing how quickly your life can change.”
McNally, now 32, has been immersed in rugby for eight years. Interestingly, he believes more Premiership clubs could take advantage of the military’s talent.
One thing those who serve are not lacking in is worldly knowledge and experience. Leadership often comes more naturally to them than to others because of the training they receive.