The next two games, starting with Darlington Mowden Park on Saturday, are going to be a real measure of the distance Coventry have progressed since their worst performance of the season, against Esher a month ago.
Despite their relatively lowly position, Darlington have started to find a rich vein of form and will test a Coventry side that is starting to show signs of producing the kind of performances that brought them an 18 match unbeaten run last season, albeit not yet for a full 80 minutes.
Consistency has been a problem, both in selection and performance, but the team now has a far more settled look to it and seem far more confident both on and off the pitch. If they play to their best for a full 80 minutes, there aren’t many teams in this league that could live with them.
It’s going to be a really tight game on Saturday, but Darlington are just the sort of opposition Coventry need before taking on Blackheath in their final home game before Christmas next week.
If you’re reading this as anything other than a Coventry supporter, I make no apologies for the somewhat blinkered comments you’ll occasionally come across…
So, here goes…
Darlington MP (11th – 26pts): WLLLLLWLLWWW
Coventry (6th – 35pts): WWLLWWLLLWWW
Although Coventry have won 2 more games than Darlington, Darlington’s win/lose record over the last six games is actually better at 4-2 to Cov’s 3-3.
In addition, whilst both Darlington and Coventry have each had wins in their last three games, Darlington’s victories against Plymouth (A), Hull (H) and Fylde (A) are against better opposition in terms of position in the league than Coventry’s wins against Blaydon (H), Cinderford (A) and Henley (H).
This, together with home advantage suggests that Darlington are going to be a really tough challenge and should prove a decent yardstick against which to measure the progress that Coventry have made.
Home/away league tables
Darlington MP: 12th in the league based on home games only (13 pts – av. 3.25 pts pm) F132 A79 Diff 52
Coventry: 7th in the league based on away games only (14 pts – av. 2.8 pts pm) F163 A119 Diff 118
Verdict: Darlington are well down in the league table for games played at home because they have completed 8 of their 12 games away from home as their stadium was used as the team base by the All Blacks during the World Cup.
Their average of 3.25 pts per game at home would put them 5th in the league if the number of games played wasn’t taken into account.
Home advantage is obviously going to be an important factor, but not necessarily a winning one.
Coventry haven’t performed too badly on their travels, winning 3 of the 5 games played away from the Butts. However, the performances in the 2 losses, against Richmond and Esher, are two of their poorest this season.
Since Esher, of course, there have been some noticeable improvements and with Scott Morgan able to pick the same team for the last three games, everyone is hopeful that Cov are on course to climb the table to a position that better reflects both their ability and potential.
The neutrals would probably go for a Darlington win, given their home advantage. However, Coventry have some very experienced players within the starting line-up and, equally as important, on the bench as well.
Too close to call still.
Darlington MP (8th): 38 (18 home, 20 away, 12 first half, 26 second half)
Coventry (5th): 40 (23 home, 17 away, 22 first half, 18 second half)
Here is the first of the stats that begins to unnerve me a little. Although, Darlington have scored two less tries over their 12 games than Coventry, they have scored 18 of them at home, and in only 4 games. Over 4 tries a game at home is a pretty respectable average and one that Cov must be wary of.
However, the really interesting thing to come out of this section, for me at least (!), is that Darlington have scored a massive 68% of their tries (26) in the second half.
It would appear, then, that this isn’t a team that’s going to tire in the final 20 minutes, especially as 18 of the tries have come in the last quarter. Judicious use of Cov’s replacements could negate some of the threat, but it is an impressive statistic nonetheless.
Verdict: Coventry are going to need to focus for the full 80 minutes, something they’ve struggled to do in most of their games this season. A great first half against Darlington doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough. Any ill-discipline or inclination to take the foot of the gas and Cov could find Darlington a real handful in the later stages of the game.
Darlington MP : 43 – 4th (10 home, 33 away, 22 first half, 21 second half) – 18 in the final quarter
Coventry: 34 – 10th (16 home, 18 away, 20 first half, 14 second half)
With Darlington conceding 9 tries more than Coventry, perhaps there is some vulnerability in their defences that can be exploited. However, this can be offset by the fact that they have only conceded 10 tries at home, or an average of just 2.5 tries per game, whereas Cov have conceded 18 away tries in 5 games at an average of 3.6 tries.
This is yet another indication of just how difficult the task awaiting Coventry will be. If Darlington do have a period of the game where they seem more vulnerable, it’s in the second quarter where they’ve let in 12 tries in total, although the stats don’t indicate how many of those were conceded at home.
However, 2.5 tries a game at home isn’t miserly by any means and on smaller margins have games been won. It might be though that Coventry have to rely more heavily on the boot of Jones (or Mieres) than they would wish…
Verdict: This is another case of Coventry having to be prepared to be patient, building up the phases to gain territory. Given that Darlington have a healthy home try record, retention of the ball could be really important…too much needless kicking of the ball back into Darlington territory isn’t going to be the answer. Coventry have only conceded 28 points in their last three games, so to be fair they do have a pretty decent defensive record, but that has to be put into context as the teams we’ve played have been very much at the wrong end of the National 1 table.
Tries by position – for
Darlington MP : backs 23, forwards 14. 1PT
Coventry: backs 21, forwards 17 (front row 10, centres 11). 2PT
Coventry have played a much more attacking style of rugby in the last three games and the backs are now starting to comfortably outscore the forwards. With Rob Knox scoring a brace last week and the backs playing with far more width, in the first half against Henley they looked a real handful.
The pack have continued to dominate the opposition in the scrums, if not the line-outs, and you’d always fancy them to worry the opposition 5m out in either of the set pieces. However, given as they aren’t seeing quite so much of the ball as they were in the first 9 fixtures, you’d hope the gap between tries scored by the backs and the forwards might widen still further after Saturday.
For their part, Darlington’s back division also outscores it’s forwards and, unusually, 9 of their tries have come from their half backs. Whilst this is a little worrying, I’d hope that Le Roux, Pailor and in particular Oliver can dominate in the breakdowns and prevent the scrum half from breaking around the fringes. If we win the 50-50 balls, then I’m sure we have enough nous to use the ball effectively and allow Jones and Evans to dictate the game as we know they can.
Dom Lespierre continues to be an enigma…when given a scoring chance, more often than not he’ll take it. However, he’s still having to look for the ball too often for me. If he can run the angles and get onto the shoulder of Jones, Knox or Hutchinson, then he could find the spaces he needs. As yet, he’s not being able to influence games as much as he is capable of doing. He’s due another try on Saturday…
And if the front row of Brown, Price and Thorne can cause the damage to the Darlington scrum that we’ve seen them cause in previous games, they can create the platform the backs will need to exploit any frailties in the Darlington defence. The passage of play that led to Coventry’s penalty try against Henley was mightily impressive. But equally, the forwards were guilty of letting the opposition rattle them early in the second half, something they must avoid on Saturday.
Verdict: If the Coventry backs get decent ball then they are good enough to cause real damage to the Darlington defences. Rob Knox has shown in the last three games that he’s back to something near his best and both the tries he scored last Saturday were out of the top drawer. Confidence will be high and I do expect us to score more tries than we concede.
But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win.
Tries by position – against
Darlington MP : 17 in the backs, 24 in the forwards. 14 from the wings and 14 from the back row. 2 PT
Coventry: 16 in the backs, 16 in the forwards. 13 from the wings and 9 from the back row. 1PT
Verdict: Coventry seem to have stemmed the flow of tides conceded out wide, coinciding predictably with their improved performances over the last three games and with Darlington having only scored 8 tries from their wings, the threat isn’t as great as it is against some teams. Surprisingly, Darlington have only scored a paltry 2 tries from the back row, the other area where Coventry have been prone to let in tries. The threat from the half backs is obviously a strong one and it will be interesting to see how Coventry will look to lessen the potential threat Darlington’s 9 and 10 clearly offer.
To be honest, I’d rather face a team where the main threat comes from the backs rather than the forwards as I do think the Cov pack are more than capable of putting the squeeze on the opposition and preventing their pack from providing enough possession for the backs to dominate. This was not the case in late September/October where we squandered possession all too often, either through losing line-outs, poor handling or kicking the ball away, only to have it run back at us with interest. Now that Cov are winning the ball at the breakdown, going through the phases with far better retention of the ball and with the backs beginning to find the gaps, Cov are able to dictate the pace and the tempo of a game in a way they weren’t able to a couple of months ago.
From the stats, Darlington seem more susceptible to scores from opposition forwards, so our pack could have an advantage from close in. If we get the line-outs right, we know Cov can drive their way over, and I’d fancy Cov’s scrum to be an effective weapon on the 5m line.
Once again, it’s going to be a question of just how patient Cov can be – it might be that they aim to play it tight for the first 60 minutes and take the points when and wherever they can before giving the backs the space to run at their backs.
Points given up
Darlington MP have conceded 4 tries 6 times in all, 2 of those being at home
Coventry have conceded 4 tries 3 times this season, twice away from home
Verdict: Whilst Darlington’s record has improved considerably over the last 3 games, as has Coventry’s, they have conceded 4 tries in half of the games they’ve played so far this season. Given Coventry’s scoring record is much improved, there must be a good chance that Coventry can create enough scoring opportunities to enable then to leave the Northern Echo Arena with at least 4 points.
Coventry appear keen not to talk up their prospects of promotion, preferring to push the ‘one game at a time’ approach. However, with Scott Morgan suggesting a target of third in the league by Christmas, bonus points continue to be vital and should Coventry have 3 tries with 10 minutes left, I rather think they’ll be looking for that 4th try, provided they have their noses in front.
Darlington MP : unavailable
Coventry: 15 yellows/1 red – worst in the league. This doesn’t include Evans’ second yellow against Fylde that was converted into the red – average of 1.25 cards a game (9 first half, 6 second half, 6 home, 9 away).
Verdict: Having seemed to have got over their poor disciplinary problem in the two games prior to Henley last week, Coventry promptly received another two yellow cards within two minutes of each other at the start of the second half with the result that Cov totally lost the momentum that they had worked so hard for in the first half, finding themselves on the back foot for most of the next 35 minutes. If ever Cov needed a lesson on the importance of retaining their composure, then this was it. The Henley forwards were clearly intent on riling Coventry pack and they succeeded with aplomb.
Against better teams, and I’d include Darlington here, if Coventry show the same level of naivety then it will almost surely cost them the game.
Sam Pailor (3Y) and Tom Poole (2Y) are the principal offenders, with Wayne Evans having received the only red.
Half time win/loss
Darlington MP have led at half time in 5 of their games, going on to win all of them.
Coventry have led at half time in 7 of their games, going on to win all of them, a record which is the best in the league alongside Esher’s.
Coventry have lost all 5 games in which they were trailing at the half way mark. In a losing position at half time in 7 games, Darlington MP have gone on to lose all of them.
Verdict: Statistics don’t get much clearer than this! Either team winning at half time and statistically there’s no point in playing the second half!!!
Once again, this merely serves to emphasise the importance of going into the half time break with a points advantage, otherwise Cov are going to have to do something they haven’t been able to do in any of the 5 games they’ve been down in prior to this Saturday.
Fortunately, the same applies to Darlington MP.
Kicking strike rate
Gary Law – Darlington MP : 79.25% (42/53)
Matt Jones – Coventry: 69.49% (42/53)
In Gary Law, Darlington have the best kicker in the league on current form. If Coventry infringe in their own half, the chances are that 4 out of 5 times Law will get the 3 points. Discipline in all areas is going to be key then and we know that Coventry can be a bit of a Curate’s egg at times, brilliant one half, frustratingly poor the other. If the lessons have been learned from Cov’s second half performance against Henley, then all will be well…if not, then it could be a long journey home.
Matt Jones’ success rate remains pretty average within the league…but I worry more about his kicking out of hand. If he gets it right, Darlington will have to concede territory and the Coventry rush defence has the opportunity to harry and hussle them into making mistakes on which we can capitalise. Well, in theory anyway…
And if he doesn’t….
Verdict: Matt Jones is going to have to be at his best tomorrow.
And his best is very, very good.
Leading points scorers
Darlington MP : Gary Law with 116 points (4T, 30C, 12P)
Coventry: Matt Jones with 99 points (24C, 17P)
Leading try scorers
Darlington MP : Simon Uokwe 7
Coventry: Ron Knox 6, Matt Price 5, Devlin Hope 4, George Oliver 3 tries
Verdict: Simon Uzokwe, the Darlington hooker, is clearly something of a threat. There can’t be many fixtures today in the top tiers where hookers have scored at least 16 tries between them after just 12 games.
Knoxy takes over the role of leading try scorer and it’s hard to look further than Rob come the end of the season. He looked sharp on Saturday and when he’s in that sort of mood he’s capable of scoring from almost anywhere on the pitch. Like JLR, he is the talisman that lifts others to even better things.
Home advantage must give Darlington an advantage, but will it be enough?
Darlington MP ’s average home gate is a very healthy 915, the third best in the league, but given the size of the stadium it will be interesting to experience the atmosphere they generate; I’d care to wager that it’s nothing like the Butts
Coventry average 1120 at home games, the highest in the league
Given the distances involved, I can’t think they’ll be many travelling Coventry supporters at Darlington on Saturday, but those who are there will be heard, of that I am sure!
Despite Darlington’s home advantage, I’m going for a 1-4 Coventry win…
…but it’s going to be very, very tight.