Working with sixth form students as I did for 20 + years prior to my retirement earlier this year, this last couple of weeks watching Coventry has a familiar feel to it. There are real similarities between the two, despite seemingly having little in common.
At this time of year, as teachers, we assess student performance in the GCSE and AS exams to decide whether individuals have the skills and abilities to continue into the new academic year in September. Who will be retained, who will have to study elsewhere? As spectators, we watch players perform on the pitch in these friendlies and coaches must decide whether they have performed sufficiently well to be selected to represent Coventry in National League 1, also starting in September. Which players will be retained, which will have to play their rugby elsewhere?
I only say this because I know how hard it is to tell someone they haven’t done enough, whether it be student or rugby player, despite their best efforts. Some students were hugely disappointed when they didn’t make the grade. Likewise, there will have to be really tough decisions made by the coaching team in the next couple of weeks…with only 20 players (plus two travelling reserves) selected for the Wharfedale game, and with so many of the current squad, including trialists, playing so well, that makes for some very disappointed players.
Given the performances in the friendly against Cardiff, the two Scotts are going to have some late nights and difficult conversations before submitting that first team sheet on 4th September.
It was a hugely impressive display by a Coventry team that played as if they’d been together for months, rather than weeks. Retaining so many players from last year has clearly meant that the bulk of the squad have been together for at least 12 months, if not longer, and that clearly helps. New players seem to be fitting in well, too. Little more could be expected of the squad at this stage of the pre-season.
I don’t want to write a match report; I think I’m too partisan to pen anything that is balanced and impersonal. However, I do think I can offer a few observations on the game, things which seemed to go well (or otherwise) which might add to the overall view of the game for anyone not there. I’m not an ex-player, nor do I have any real understanding of the intricacies of the game or an encyclopaedic knowledge of club rugby. I have just watched Coventry for many a year. It is this alone on which I base my comments (my disclaimer!)…
We travelled down realistically expecting a tight game; a 25-20 in a friendly this time last year was the only real marker of the standard to expect. A glance at the final tables would indicate that Cardiff had a pretty similar sort of season to us, finishing 4th in the Welsh Premiership. There was certainly no indication that it would be as one-sided as it eventually was. And it’s hard to say, unless you’ve played the game at a decent level, what the real difference between the two teams was – but I’ll have a go! It wasn’t played as a friendly at all by Cov, with Oliver (I think he skippered the side in the absence of Evans and Hodgson) evidenced by Cov opting to go for goal in the first three minutes, rather than kick for the corner.
What was particularly noticeable was that both in defence and attack Coventry had the numbers. What I mean is that there were often two or three players in support, so in defence if one player did miss a tackle (and this rarely happened) there was always cover, with the result that Cardiff made few breaks in either half. We defended extremely well and in the 25 minute period in the second half when Cardiff did see a lot more of the ball, they only scored once. Clearly training ground routines were followed, everyone seemed to know what was expected and on a couple of occasions, despite having the ball for play after play, Cardiff weren’t able to do anything with it and ended up knocking on or kicking it away out of frustration. I rather enjoyed it when that happened.
Our discipline was excellent, and despite a couple of times when things got a bit heated, players generally avoided getting embroiled, other than Matt Price on one occasion leading to a great Tweet from Matt’s dad!)! Cardiff did have their chances and two moments of defensive brilliance, one in each half, prevented certain tries. Coventry twice chased down Cardiff players who seemed more likely to score than not, epitomising their commitment and never-say-die attitude.
Also, in attack we retained possession, rarely having the ball turned over (whilst doing so to the opposition several times). We didn’t kick the ball away very often (and then not always successfully) and were able to turn defence into attack extremely quickly. We also capitalised on any mistakes made by the opposition and, more often than not, when we ventured into the Cardiff ’22’ we came away with the points.
We made a lot of changes to the team in the second half, far more than we would do in a league game, and this clearly disrupted the flow (I think Cardiff only made one or two by comparison). However, the players who came on seemed to fit in well and even during the period Cardiff were enjoying so much more possession, Coventry still played very much as a team and once things had settled again and the changes had been made, Coventry finished much the stronger. Fitness doesn’t appear an issue at all, not in the first three games. Matt Price looked a little out of sorts, but it is his first game so far, but he was the only one. Andy Murray looks like he’s been working out; my God, did he look different! I also thought Adam Parkins looked lighter; much lighter, but that might not be the case.
The scrum wasn’t dominant, although it held up well, winning one (first half) and losing one (second half) against the head. Lineouts again were good generally, but we had two excellent scoring opportunities close to the Cardiff line only to lose the advantage with a wayward throw in. We can’t afford to do this in tight games, but I’m sure this is being worked on (and it was so much better than the Broadstreet game).
If it’s wrong to mention some individual players’ performances on the day for fear of missing out others, so be it. It’s what supporters do. So here goes…
..I know there’s some concern, rightly, about the No 8 spot, but I thought Loti Malatiki gave another very good account of himself yesterday. He is incredibly strong in defence and bullish in attack. Definitely an option, for me. Knox continues to frighten defences with ball in hand and made a couple of really telling breaks.
Tincknell scored a peach of a try from way out and whilst MacBurnie did a great job defensively, in attack I think he has slightly less of an impact – that is an interesting duel and I think both will have an important role to play this season.
Oliver was excellent in defence and won a couple of turnovers and Woodburn, when he came on, was everywhere. He oozes commitment and he put in a really good shift. I would imagine he’d be an excellent ‘impact’ player, coming off the bench in the last 20-25 minutes. He’s quick and strong and has a good head on him. An excellent signing after being here as a DR last year. Like Devlin (who had another good game, other than his throwing in at the lineout), I think he’ll become a crowd favourite
Canning did well, especially in the second half when he moved from full-back to fly half. Even though Coventry had less ball, he controlled the line well and is a very vocal player, often speaking to the forwards or backs. A captain in the making…? Ryan played well at fly half in the first 40, too and both he and Canning look strong signings and irrespective of whether or not Jones remains fit, I’m sure both will have a part to play, especially as they appear to be able to play elsewhere in the backs as well.
At scrum half, Harrison Lee-Everton had a good first half. He is a busy player, distributes the ball quickly, likes to snipe at the base of the scrum and is very attack minded. Andy Murray, he who looks so different this year (!), came on second half and again did well. To my untrained eye, he has a little more of a delay on his pass and he was caught with the ball at one point.
Three final things…
As has already been commented on elsewhere, a great gesture by Cardiff to allow a minute’s silence before the start of game in remembrance of Rob Walton and Vernon Morgan. I hope the same is done at the start of the London Welsh game next Saturday. (I actually would prefer a minute’s applause…somehow silence seems to conjure up thoughts of the present and future, applause a celebration of a life past).
I have always been a bit cynical, or do I mean sceptical, or both (?), of artificial pitches. I’m not anymore. it makes for a faster, more flowing game. The bounce appeared true, although the ball does roll and roll and there is always the danger of it breaking the dead ball line when kicking deep. And if the idea was to reintroduce the squad early to an artificial pitch in preparation for Loughborough in three weeks time (who will play on one this season, I think), then that’s a gold star for the coaches.
Brilliant travelling support again from the Coventry fans. Not a great number, but vocal – and more so than the home crowd!
(I will hopefully add some photos taken before the game later today. I can’t text and take photos during the game so if anyone has any taken during the game…?)