At the age of just 18, Bath’s Josh McNally joined the Royal Air Force and swore an oath to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance’ to Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs.
‘I’m honoured to have served for you,’ McNally posted on social media after his team faced Bristol in the days following the late monarch’s passing. ‘Thank you, Ma’am’.
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
His dad, 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 spotted his sporting ability. They allowed McNally to represent Henley Hawks from where he progressed quickly. Stints at London Welsh, London Irish and now Bath have followed for a man whose career has been anything but conventional.
‘I always wanted to serve my country,’ McNally tells Sportsmail. ‘That desire has never changed. I’ve been very, very fortunate to have followed the path I have, but I’m also very, very proud of the service I’ve given.
‘In the military we swear the oath and allegiance to the sovereign, but when something like the Queen’s passing happens it makes you realise how much the monarchy means to you.
‘It’s been a hugely emotional time. It’s quite an amazing thing how everyone has been able to reflect in the last week or so. It shows how important the monarchy is to this country. I’m a big believer in that. I believe the good it brings to the country outweighs any potential negatives.’
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 opener with Bristol was pushed back by just under 24 hours following the Queen’s death, but rugby in England has carried on when other sports, notably football, opted to pause.
For McNally, being able to take to the field has not only felt right, but 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 Premiership and also in cricket and golf were brilliant.
‘The fact they allowed people to show 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 on their own. You could have heard a pin drop when we played Bristol.
‘The minute of silence was probably one of the most poignant I’ve been a part of and it was the start of something new by singing the new national anthem. It was very, very special for me.’
Given his background, the Queen’s passing has unsurprisingly touched McNally more than most sportsmen or women.
The 32-year-old English 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 that stage, after a military upbringing which included stints living in Cyprus and the Falkland Islands, McNally saw no future other than a career working in the RAF.
His brief, in simplistic terms, was to ensure the RAF’s planes were in top condition for flying. But it was while working at RAF Coningsby that McNally’s life took an about-turn.
‘I was working on the Eurofighter Typhoon and its missile systems,’ he adds matter-of-factly.
‘But at the same time I started to nestle into rugby. The RAF don’t just want robots who fix aircraft.
‘They want human beings and sport is a huge 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 joining London Welsh. Now I’m at Bath, I do scratch my head sometimes and wonder how it happened!
‘The RAF put me in their elite athletes scheme which allowed me to completely focus on rugby while still knowing they were there in the background. They’ve 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. Intriguingly, he believes more Premiership clubs could make use of the talent available in the military.
McNally of England 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 on the back of the training they receive than it does others.
Earlier this year, England head coach Eddie Jones lamented a lack of resilience and leadership in this country’s rugby system and, in part, blamed the closeted nature of private schooling.
‘I might be wrong, but I don’t think you’ll be successful if you have a team full of academy graduates,’ McNally says. ‘You need diversity in a team and I do get some of Eddie’s argument.
‘There are people who just fall into rugby. There are some young guys in academies at the clubs I’ve been at and you wonder if they actually enjoy it.
‘I disagree on the leadership of young players though. Orlando Bailey came through the Bath system and he’s leading us now at the age of 20.
‘But alongside that I do think having guys who have experienced life and worked for a living does help. Someone like myself has seen different things and I think that’s massively beneficial. You can draw on those different experiences.’
When his rugby career ends, McNally is unequivocal he will return to active duty. That may come as an engineer once again although he retains an interest in helping other servicemen or women maximise their sporting talent as he has been able to.
Once McNally’s rugby career ends, he will return to active duty in the Royal Armed Forces
‘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 did want to go in as a pilot, but my height held me back!’ At a giant six foot and seven inches, McNally probably wasn’t best suited to a career in the cockpit.
Instead, he has found a home in Bath’s engine room. While at London Irish, he suffered a minor stoke and extensive tests revealed a small hole in his heart.
An operation means McNally no longer suffers with any cardiac problems. He is now a key figure at Bath and in 2021, won a first England cap against the USA. McNally was also named UK Armed Forces Sportsman of the Year in 2018.
‘We were the laughing stock of the league last season and that does hurt,’ he adds, looking back on Bath’s shocking 2021/22 Premiership campaign which saw them finish bottom with just five wins.
‘We’ve got to find a way out of that and put some pride back in the jersey.’
Bath have pushed Bristol hard and been beaten by a Sale side who played 71 minutes with 14 men in their two league games this term. But under new head of rugby Johann van Graan, there are plans for a revival.
McNally, who is imminently expecting a second child with his wife Sarah, will be central to such hopes.
‘We’ve probably seen everything that could go wrong, go wrong,’ he concludes.
‘We’ll never let those things happen again – we want to do something good for this club.’