Of all the friendlies it was from this one, that I wanted to see Cov leave with a victory. Yeah it’s the final friendly going into the new season; yeah it’s against last year’s league winners, yeah my dad was on holiday and I would get to rub in the fact that he missed it… but the reason I wanted to see a victory was to settle the score. We each took a game last season… for me this was the decider.
The two areas where I thought we might come undone against the Championship sides were in respects to fitness and physicality. Certainly for a large chunk of the second half against Welsh their class shone through, but by and large there was no real gulf over the whole 160 minutes of rugby.
Cov started slow and were troubled early on by the powerful Ealing pack. Blindside flanker Harrison Orr broke through the first line of defence twice in the first 20 minutes. The first time he was eventually brought down by Oliver (he seems to tackle anything that moves), the second to score. Cov settled though. Discipline returned and we started to take the game to Ealing. Cov showed that they are better able to adapt on the pitch, to spot problems, cut out the errors and adjust accordingly. With this likely to be the first season in which Morgan’s presence is restricted to the stands, that ability for the players on the pitch to reshape, regroup and respond to the conditions and opposition will be vital.
Cov have kept at the pace of the game throughout the pre-season, often against more professional setups. In fact ‘kept at the pace’ probably does a disservice to Cov – they certainly seemed to dictate the game against Ealing for long periods. We got to the breakdown quickly, regrouped when on the back foot, our defence closed down Ealing right to the end. The back row were everywhere. It was also great to see how sharp Dom was with two very quick breaks on the wing when the ball was kicked over the top. With Rundle injured it was a relief to see that the dimension of pace/ acceleration still exists within the team. Sharpness at this stage of the season is great to see. We lost against Rosslyn Park in our opening day last season – unable to capitalise on a 40 minute one man advantage. It took a few games before Cov really started going, this season needs to be different.
Line outs were much improved on the Broad Street and Welsh games, with the work done mid-week really telling. Both hookers found their man more often than not. There were some incomplete efforts, crucially from an attacking position deep in the Ealing 22. With the options Cov now have in the lineout, and with quality across the backs to release from the set piece, this will be a crucial area to get right as Cov look to take the four try bonus point each week. There’s definitely competition for Price this season with Hope looking very lively in open play. With Price picking up 2 yellows during pre-season it’s hard not to feel that if Hope isn’t first choice come Saturday, it won’t be too long before he gets his first run out in the league (for 10 minutes at the very least!).
At the forum Morgan highlighted the recruitment to give two options at every position. With the rotation on offer over the friendlies most players have been given a chance to show their quality. Against Ealing I thought the backs were given very little ball in hand to work with. The game felt largely like a forwards battle. With Knox and Weightman either rested or injured it was a real chance for Smith, Tincknell and Hough to stake a claim for a match day place. In reality they were given little opportunity to show their attacking skills, though defensively all looked sound. Of the three, it was Tincknell who stood out most. He showed a good sidestep and looks like a player who is able to unlock a defence. He was shifted to the wing for part of the second half – playing at centre predominantly during pre-season. Perhaps with Weightman injured he might well find himself starting there come next Saturday. It would certainly allow the partnership of MacBurnie and Knox to continue and give a chance to a player who looks like he’ll score plenty of tries.
Lack of ball to the backs was partly driven by the re-emergence of the kick and chase game. It’s not always been a tactic that Cov have employed well in my view, often leading to the opposition taking the ball unchallenged and then running through an out of sorts defence. Yesterday it seemed to be quite effective, largely due to the chase from Cov being much improved, killing the opposition momentum. Combined with tenacious tackling, Ealing were forced to play higher up the pitch than they might have liked. Jones at fly half certainly seemed to pick the options well, though it would have been good to see the backs given more chance to have a run out.
There is always a danger in reading too much into pre-season performances, but it’s hard not to get carried away. It was an excellent performance from Cov and it didn’t have much of a friendly feel. What’s more it was great to see that it meant something more to the players too.
There’s certainly some tough decisions for the coaching staff to make ahead of Saturday. Being there though… that’s an easy one…