At the age of just 18, Josh McNally, from Bath, joined the Royal Air Force and swore an oath to “be faithful and bear true allegiance” to Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs.
“It’s an honor to serve you,” McNally wrote on social media after his team faced Bristol in the days following the late monarch’s death. “Thank you ma’am.”
McNally’s professional rugby career began quite by accident, but also as a by-product of his early days in RAF.
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 was always the plan.
That was until the RAF noticed his athletic ability. They allowed McNally to represent Henley Hawks, from where he progressed rapidly. A man whose career has been anything but ordinary has been followed by stints at London Welsh, London Irish and now Bath.
“I’ve always wanted to serve my country,” McNally tells Sportsmail. “This desire has never changed. I’m very, very fortunate to have gone down that path, but I’m also very, very proud of the service I’ve given.
“In the military we swear an oath to the sovereign and we swear allegiance, 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 amazing how everyone has been able to think in the last week or so. This shows how important the monarchy is to this country. I strongly believe in this. I believe the benefits it will bring to the country outweigh any potential negatives.”
McNally and his Bath team-mates watched the Queen’s funeral at their Farley 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 first match against Bristol was postponed just under 24 hours after the Queen’s death, but rugby in England continued as other sports, notably football, decided to suspend.
For McNally, being able to take the field not only felt right, but it was a fitting tribute to the monarch.
“I think playing games was the right way to go,” he adds. “I know the country was in mourning, but the tributes we saw in the Premier League, as well as cricket and golf, were brilliant.
“The fact that they allowed people to show their respect was huge. I think football will regret the 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’s silence was probably one of the most poignant I’ve been a part of, and it was the start of something new, singing the new national anthem. It was very, very special for me.”
Given his background, it’s no surprise that the Queen’s death affected McNally more than most sportsmen and women.
The 32-year-old Englishman joined Bath from London Irish in the summer of 2019.
He trained as a weapons engineer first at RAF Halton and later at RAF Cosford. At that stage, after a military upbringing that included life in Cyprus and the Falkland Islands, McNally saw no future but a career in the RAF.
His job, in simple terms, was to make sure that the RAF’s aircraft were in the best possible condition for flying. But it was during his time at RAF Coningsby that McNally’s life took a turn.
“I worked on the Eurofighter Typhoon and its missile systems,” he adds bluntly.
“But at the same time I started playing rugby. The Royal Air Force needs more than just robots that repair planes.
“They want people and sports is a big part of that. I started playing for the RAF and moved to Brize Norton where I joined Henley. I played for two seasons and after that I went to London Welsh. Now I’m in Bath, sometimes I scratch my head and wonder how it happened!
“The RAF put me on their elite athlete scheme, which allowed me to focus fully on rugby, knowing they were there in the background. They were very supportive. “It’s amazing how quickly your life can change.”
McNally, now 32, has been playing rugby for the past eight years. Interestingly, he believes more Premier League clubs could use the talent available in the military.
England’s McNally poses with his son after his first and only game for England in 2021
One thing that those who serve lack is worldly knowledge and experience. Leadership often comes more naturally to them because of the training they receive than it does to others.
Earlier this year, England head coach Eddie Jones complained about a lack of consistency and leadership in the country’s rugby system, partly blaming the closed nature of the private school.
“I might be wrong, but I don’t think you’re going to be successful if you have a team full of academy graduates,” says McNally. “You need diversity in the team and I understand some of Eddie’s arguments.
“There are people who are just passionate about rugby. There are some young lads in academies at clubs I’ve been to and you wonder if they really enjoy it.
“I don’t agree with the leadership of the young players. Orlando Bailey came through the Bath system and is now leading us at the age of 20.
“But at the same time, I think guys who have had life experiences and worked for a living help. Someone like me has seen different things and I think it’s very helpful. You can draw on these different experiences.”
When his rugby career ends, McNally is certain he will return to active duty. That may happen as an engineer again, though he maintains an interest in helping other servicemen and women maximize their athletic talent, as he was able to.
After McNally’s rugby career is over, he will return to active duty with the Royal Armed Forces
“The plan is to come back,” he says. “Everyone knows I’m in the RAF and I’m always asked if I fly or not. Only 10 percent of those in the RAF fly. Everyone else is making sure the planes stay in the sky!
“I wanted to go as a pilot, but my height was holding me back!” At a gigantic six feet seven inches, McNally probably wasn’t the best fit for a career in the cockpit.
Instead it found a home in Bath’s engine room. While at London Irish, he suffered a mild stroke and extensive tests revealed a small hole in his heart.
The surgery means McNally is no longer suffering from heart problems. He is now a key figure at Bath and won his first cap for England against the USA in 2021. McNally was also named the 2018 UK Armed Forces Sportsperson of the Year.
“We were the laughing stock of the league last season and it hurts,” he adds, looking back on Bath’s shocking 2021/22 Premier League campaign that saw them bottom with just five wins.
“We have to find a way out of this and bring back the pride of the jersey.”
Bath pushed Bristol hard and were beaten by a Salle side who played 71 minutes with 14 teams in two league games this season. But there are plans for a revival under new rugby boss Johan van Graan.
McNally, who is expecting his second child with wife Sarah soon, will be at the forefront of those hopes.
“We’ve probably seen everything that could go wrong, go wrong,” he concludes.
“We will never let things like this happen again – we want to do something good for this club.”