The final 13 minutes or so were as tense as anything this season.
And that’s including the home game against Richmond in January, when Cov defended their lines so valiantly to deny the opposition any opportunity to score, in so doing earning themselves a hugely creditable, and eerily similar, 20-20 draw.
A Rob Knox try on 69 minutes had brought Coventry not only back into a game that in reality we looked just like struggling to even come second in come the end of the first half, it also put us just a converted try away from what would have been an astonishing win.
The recovery had really started after 51 minutes, when George Oliver was able to benefit from a quick tap to go over near the corner, following a period of sustained Coventry pressure. In those remaining minutes after George’s try, Coventry gave it their all.
They dominated possession and began to look like a side that believed they could win. It was edge of the seats stuff and despite Coventry having the bulk of possession it seemed as if Blackheath would hold out until Dom Lespierre ran on to a Scott Hamilton pass to squeeze over in the corner in the final minute of the game.
The Coventry supporters could barely watch as Caolan stepped up to attempt the conversion that would have taken Cov into a lead that no one had thought was even remotely possible at half time.
After what seemed an age, with Ryan settling himself understandably before the kick, his effort went well wide leaving the scores all square. It mattered not – Coventry had done themselves and their supporters proud.
Every one looked to the referee for the final whistle…we were in injury time and as far as Coventry were concerned, the recovery was complete. The game had been saved. But referee Fergus Kirby didn’t share the same spirit of bonhomie; apparently there was still some time left on the clock…
And it became all too apparent what was about to unfold, we’ve seen it happen too many times before…Coventry, having fought back so strongly to earn a share of the points, were going to be undone in the final seconds, the additional point snatched away from them by the cruel hand of fate (through not releasing in this case)…it was all to predictable.
And so it happened. Well, almost.
Straight from the restart, Coventry formed a ruck and up went the referees arm. Penalty Richmond…
38m out and slightly to the left it was well within range, especially when the ball was thrown by the Blackheath captain to one Freddie Gabbitass, the full back and leading points scorer in National 1. Imagine Cliffie Hodgson at his best and perhaps add some – he’s that good.
It still makes me feel slightly sick even now as I write this…having worked so hard to get to a stage where we’d almost won the game, we were, as the saying goes, about to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. Freddie had missed nothing all afternoon, 4 out of 4, and a couple of them had been difficult kicks.
He doesn’t mess about either, doesn’t Freddie. He places the ball, a moment to settle himself and up he steps…but for once, just once, fortune was to smile on Cov. We held our breath.
The ball sailed high and looked to be going true, with some premature cheering from Blackheath supporters suggesting that victory was theirs. From the angle we were sitting in the main stand, we couldn’t be sure. Both touch judges seemed uncertain, too, with each looking at the other. The referee, however, signalled the ball had gone left, blew the whistle to signify the end of the game and Coventry fans were able to breathe again.
From Cov’s perspective, it was a fitting end to an immensely enjoyable game. However, were I a Blackheath supporter, I think I might see things rather differently having watched my team in complete ascendency in the first half.
Matt Jones’ late withdrawal from the side (and huge congratulations to Matt and his wife on the birth of their baby daughter) meant that there had to be a reshuffle in the backs, with Scott Hamilton coming in at fly half and Dan Rundle taking a place on the bench. The sight of Dan warming up, smiling from ear to ear, was a massive fillip given the general feeling of supporters before the game was that Coventry might struggle to match a Blackheath team full of confidence and on their home patch.
The first half was pretty dire. I’m not one to put a downer on the team but we really didn’t play with any conviction and both Blackheath’s tries came following either ill discipline or poor defensive work.
After just 10 minutes, Coventry infringed inside their own half, Gabbitass kicked the ensuing penalty to within 10 metres of the corner and the Blackheath pack did the rest.
It typified so many tries that Coventry have conceded this season. Blackheath had done their homework on us and instead of opting for the three points given the kick was well within range, they went for the try. It was all too easy.
Coventry appear to have opted not to challenge the jumper when in their own 22 in the last couple of weeks or so, only challenging once the maul has formed? Quite why I’m not sure. In this case, it allowed Blackheath’s drive to gather momentum, so much so that it was unstoppable from just 5 metres out.
In fairness, they did they same thing in the second half and Blackheath conceded a penalty, but it does seem a high risk strategy.
Blackheath’s second try game from a poor lineout in our own 22. The ball bobbled about and Coventry seemed guilty of ball watching, enabling Blackheath to grab possession. A quick pass to Owen and they were over.
14 points in the first 26 minutes and Coventry hadn’t threatened at all.
Coventry’s scrum was penalised far too frequently, often for pushing too early, but also for more technical offences. Despite going backwards on regular occasions, Tresidder and Pailor both did well to control what was some very difficult ball at the base of the scrum and both had excellent games, with the scrum half in particular in the second half having a far greater influence on the outcome of the game.
We did see a decent amount of ball and in fairness did spread the ball wide wherever possible, but it was all too ponderous and predictable, with no one taking the ball at an angle to break the Blackheath defences which looked indomitable at that stage. It was all too flat and predictable. Another Gabbitass penalty made it 17-0 with three minutes to go before half time. It didn’t bode well for the second half.
A late strike from Ryan just before half time at least put us on the board, but those Coventry supporters I was sitting next to didn’t seem to think there was much chance of a change in fortunes over the second 40.
I don’t know who led the half time talk or what was said, but there was a noticeable difference in the way Coventry started the third quarter. There was a greater tempo about the game and Hamilton’s switch to full back, allowing Ryan to take over at fly half, seemed to free the backs more.
Suddenly, Coventry were running with confidence and making good yards when in the first half there had been little or no penetration. Hamilton is a fluid runner and he breezed through a couple of gaps and suddenly Coventry’s tails were up. A period of pressure on the Blackheath line ended in a yellow card for the home side and a quick tap enabled Oliver to dive over. Suddenly the recovery was on.
Another Gabbitass penalty wasn’t enough to stem the Coventry tied. A second Blackheath player ended up in the sin bin and for a couple of minutes or so they were 2 men down, although Chad Thorne, in a spirit of huge generosity, elected to join them to give the game a bit more parity.
Coventry, though, weren’t in the mood to be quite as generous as they’d been in the first half and they had the better territorially and possession-wise for much of the second half. They continued to run at Blackheath and a clever little grubber from Ryan (?) behind the on-coming Blackheath defensive lines enabled Knox to pounce and go over wide out, Ryan failing with the conversion.
And then those final 13 minutes.
It was an immense performance. If the home game against Richmond in January was notable for Cov’s defence, this one must surely be remembered for Coventry’s resilience. At half time Coventry looked well and truly out of it, but turn things around they did and it was great to watch.
I have to say though, so dominant were Blackheath in the first half that it wasn’t until the 69th minute and Rob Knox’s try that I realised that we could actually win the game. The recovery was obvious but we’d seemed so far behind that Oliver’s opening try did little more than restore some pride. The second half absolutely flew by, such was the intensity and the game was as enjoyable as any I’ve watched this season, even those where Coventry have been more dominant.
It was another fairly small crowd of just 520, with a number of Coventry supporters who were in good voice. I’ve always struggled with Blackheath calling themselves ‘Club’, it always seems so patronising, but in fairness they were very hospitable.
I’ll miss Rectory Field, despite the main stand, it has the feel more of a cricket club about it than it does a rugby one…it was bitterly cold out there yesterday. Strange to think they’ll be playing cricket on what looks like a very green wicket in just a couple of weeks time. A seamer’s paradise, no doubt.
When Dan came on with 15 minutes left, I wondered if he was going to win the game with one piece of brilliance as is his want. Actually though, he didn’t see a great deal of the ball but he looked so pleased to be out there. For most of the game prior to his entrance into the fray, he was restless, wandering the touch line, taking on the water; a mass of boundless energy. He was the inky schoolboy eager for action. The first time he received the ball he got clattered by the opposition, but he bounced up and at that point we knew he was back…it’s been a long time. He needed that run out…
All in all, a great team performance. I see in ‘The Rugby Paper’ Sam Pailor gets an honourable mention for ‘controlling play at no 8’, which certainly he did during the second half. However, this was a team performance – it had to be turn round that 14 point deficit at half time.
Cov weren’t quite dead and buried then, but the life support machine was about to be switched off and the sexton was ready, shovel in hand.