Ask supporters to name their all-time Coventry side of the last 30 years and you’d be unlikely to get much unanimity. Ask them to pick a 5 year period as their favourite to have watched Coventry and again there would be significant disagreement. However, ask the same group of supporters to pick one game that stands out in their minds above all others and there would be far more conformity.
Most would plump for November 2nd 1996.
Coventry v Newcastle in the Courage National Division 2.
It was the greatest sporting moment of my life…and I’ve been to a few. I’ve watched Willis take 8 wickets in just over a session to beat Australia at Headingley and Botham’s 5-1 at Edgbaston, I’ve seen England beat the All Blacks, Albion win at Wembley, Higgins win at the Crucible and my daughter win the infant egg and spoon (up there with the best, that). But nothing compares with that one game.
It was my team playing the Courage National Division 2 favourites, a team that was made up almost entirely of international stars, packed full with household names such as Underwood, Andrew, Weir, Armstrong, Popplewell, Archer and Ryan against a team that had been brought together the season before and made up of a mixture of experienced pros in the form of Harris, Patten, Addleton and Eves and youngsters who were starting to make a name for themselves like Hardwick and Grewcock.
Newcastle, unbeaten so far that season and Coventry, underdogs but very much up for the challenge.
Coventry, a team that had recently been promoted from National 3 and which included charismatic leader and talisman Derek Eves, with Rob Hardwick as team captain.
It was the classic sporting version of David v Goliath.
And on home territory, in front of a large and passionate Coventry crowd, there was a real sense of theatre.
7500 spectators watched the game that day (or, to put it another way, 8 times the last home crowd against Cinderford!)…although it seems as if half of Coventry were there from they way it is still talked about. And whilst no one was forecasting a Coventry win with any certainty, there was a feeling in the week leading up to the game that Coventry could push Newcastle all the way.
And boy, did they do just that. And some.
Leading up to kick off, as the crowd grew, it became clear that the atmosphere inside Coundon Road was going to be something special and indeed it was, something that would never again be repeated in the 6 or so years that the ground remained home to Coventry before the move to the Butts.
Both the main stand and the Cowshed filled up well before kick off, as did the terraces to either side of the cowshed. The crowd was 3 or 4 deep in places behind each goal line as well. By the time the teams appeared, all the available spaces were filled. Coundon Road was heaving, packed full of nervous and excited supporters, full of expectation. It was as good as it gets for Coventry supporters.
No one knew quite what to expect and whilst a Coventry win was a possibility, a Newcastle victory was a probability and amongst some supporters, myself included, there was that sickening feeling in the pit of their stomachs caused by the nagging doubt that this could all go horribly wrong and Coventry could end up on the receiving end of a real drubbing.
But from the moment Coventry’s Julian Horrobin received the ball from Rob Andrew’s kick off and charged headlong through a couple of loose Newcastle tackles, it was clear that whatever the result, Coventry were going to take the game to the opposition. They weren’t interested in reputations, or if they were it was more a case of breaking Newcastle’s and making their own. Within two minutes Coventry were in front and the passages of play leading up to that first score were to pretty much typify the rest of the game.
The Cov dog was unleashed that day and it revelled in its freedom. It barked and snapped at the heels of every Newcastle player, chasing the ball round the park and rattling the Newcastle players, experienced internationals as most were, hounding them into making unforced errors. And in Jez Harris, Coventry had the best possible player to capitalise on them when they occurred.
Horrobin’s opening excursion into opposition territory saw the ball fed back via the quick hand’s of Tigger Dawson (and what a good signing he proved to be) to Harris who sent up a thunderous up and under up to the half way line. Robinson and Gallagher chased the kick and Matt Gallagher actually beat the Newcastle player to the ball, only for it to be lost in the tap back. However, as the ball was spread wide by Andrew, the Cov defence harried and chased the Newcastle back line and eventually Wayne Kilford tackled John Bentley, man and ball, to win a lineout. It was the perfect start for the home side and I remember thinking, even so early on in the game, that this could be our day.
Although that first lineout was lost, after a reset scrum Cov were awarded a free kick for feeding. At the back of the Cov scrum was Ian Patten, characteristically arm outstretched, packing down wide against the side of Horrobin rather than in between the backsides of the second rows. Armstrong, the Scottish scrum half, was the culprit, although I have to say that he and Dean Ryan were the two standout Newcastle players on the day for me.
Instead of kicking for territory Eves, terrier-like and ever on the look out for a chink in the opposition defences, took the tap penalty forcing Dean Ryan to tackle high and concede another penalty almost straight in front of the posts.
It was a gift for Harris. 3-0 to Coventry.
The opening minute or so set the tone for the rest of the game with both teams often declining the chance to kick for goal, preferring to take quick taps and run at the opposition. It made for a fantastic game, a game in which Coventry were to outscore Newcastle by two tries to nil and one which left 7500 spectators breathless come the final whistle.
Approximately 10 minutes later, Newcastle were level. Play had ebbed and flowed the length of the pitch with Coventry probably having the slightly better of the game and they were definitely the more attacking of the two teams. Whilst it’s not immediately clear from the clip, it looks as if the referee felt there were two offences, one immediately after the other – a high tackle and then going over the top, both probably against Coventry captain, Rob Hardwick. Andrew duly converted the penalty to make it 3-3
After 9 minutes or so, and after a sustained period of pressure, Coventry regained their lead. Coventry continued to run at Newcastle and they are cleary even at this early stage starting to buckle under the pressure. Another strong Horrobin charge saw forwards combining effectively with the backs and eventually Newcastle are caught offside. Eves was again prominent and he, Patten and Horrobin outshone, if not outclassed, the Newcastle back row on the day, despite Ryan’s impressive individual contribution to the game. Harris stepped up to make it 6-3 to Cov.
As is often the case, the side having just scored conceded an unnecessary points…something that Coventry duly did immediately from the Newcastle restart. A good take and quick break involving Horrobin, Eves and Patten (as if to emphasise the point I made in the previous paragraph) ended in Patten penalised for not releasing. Andrew teed up and to make it 6-6.
Good to see Addleton and Ryan exchanging a few ‘choice’ words, no doubt.
A few minutes later and Newcastle took the lead for the first time. A long kick to touch from Andrew relieved pressure and from the ensuing lineout Newcastle strung some phases together with Bentley and Popplewell, the Irish prop, prominent. The offence as indicated by the referee was for use of the hand in the ruck, although that looks a little dubious from the video footage. That said, Andrew successfully kicked what was the longest of the 5 penalties so far to make it 6 – 9.
Around the 33 minute mark a period of sustained pressure eventually saw Wayne Kilford score wide out on the right. I’ve actually included a little bit more of the play leading up to the Kilford try than I needed too, but it does illustrate the amount of pressure Coventry had put Newcastle under before the try was scored.
Yes, there were a series of errors on both sides, and Tigger’s quick tap in front of the posts that ended in a Newcastle scrum could have been costly. But Newcastle themselves failed to find touch on two occasions and missed some key tackles. It also shows just what a 15 man performance this was from Coventry, with notable contributions in just these couple of minutes from Eves *2 (the more I see the video, the more I realise just what an impact he had on the game), Horrobin, Robinson, Gallagher, Harris, Patten, Addleton and Kilford. Note the reactions of Horrobin and co when Kilford goes over…! Harris’ conversion attempt goes wide but Coventry regain the lead 11-9, which is how the first half ends a few minutes later.
However, there is one final incident left to play out in the final couple of minutes of the half and one that most who were lucky enough to be there that day will recall.
The sending off of former GB rugby league player and general all-round bad boy, John Bentley.
I remember being a bit miffed on the day as I didn’t see the incident itself as I was too busy following the path of the ball, but replaying the tape a couple of times it becomes clear that Andy Smallwood tackled Bentley without the ball, assuming the ball was coming out wide. Bentley appears to have taken exception to this, as one might, but then decided to throw a couple of punches right in from of the touch judge, which isn’t the wisest of moves, really.
Did it deserve a red…probably, but I’ve seen yellow cards given for worse? Did it have a major impact on the rest of the game? Probably not, especially as Lee Crofts, a second half replacement for Andy Blackmore, was sin-binned after only being on the field for a couple of minutes.
The second half will be in tomorrow’s post.
It’s not as if you don’t know the result….
*I can’t give the exact timings of the scores because the tape that the clips have been taken from, which is the official one released by the club all those years ago, has been edited so the times on the tape don’t sync with the actual in-game timings.
Many thanks to Kimbo for loaning me the original tape after a comment made in a previous post. Many thanks, too, to Paul I for his great commentary which made the writing of this that much easier.