A cultured approach to pre-season…
One of the most impressive things about the changes taking place at Coventry RFC since Rowland Winter’s appointment is the degree of transparency in all that is being done to move the club on.
In no time at all the doors to The Butts, once seemingly welded tightly shut other on match days, have been thrown open to supporters and Rowland Winter appears ready to talk to anyone and everyone about all things relating to Cov on the rugby front. There is a change in the culture of this great club taking place, a change that is as welcome as it is refreshing and one that will surely make for happier times both on and off the pitch.
If a club’s culture is determined by its values, beliefs and attitudes, then I think there is a massive shift in the way Cov is presenting itself at the moment. Certainly under Rowland Winter there seems to be a very different attitude evident to the one we experienced over the last 4 or so years under the old guard of initially Phil Maynard, then Phil and Scott Morgan and then finally Scott on his own when he took over as Head Coach.
This is only an opinion here, and I apologise if this is a view not shared by others, but I got the impression that the culture of the club had begun to change over the last couple of years to the point that the end justified the means at the expense of the real values of what Cov are about – the supporters and the family nature of the club. Maybe that shows my age, and maybe the real culture of the club should have the success of the team on the pitch at its core…
…but, well, maybe I am just getting too long in the tooth. It’s about more than league tables. It has to be, surely?
In previous years, consultation with supporters was limited to members’ forums for the most part and odd CT articles and whilst players and management might be happy to chat informally in the bar after a game, that’s not the communication most supporters wanted.
12 months ago, all the talk was of promotion. We were told players who were brought in for the 2015/16 season were of at least a similar ability to those already here…the squad was a strong one and that the cub was going to make a determined push for promotion. At the Members’ Forum back in early August the message was clear – training was going well and, along with Rosslyn Park, Cov would be fighting for the top spot.
And in retrospect (and I appreciate hindsight is a wonderful thing) – it was almost as if we already had the basis of a very strong squad from the 2014 season; the players coming into it merely made the bulk of 2015 squad that we’d retained that much stronger. In essence, they were seen very much as additions to the ‘old’ squad, not members of a ‘new’ squad.
Did they have the same opportunities to acclimatise as this season’s recruits have? I’m not so sure…
Square pegs in round holes.
We have already seen in the last few weeks how much has been done to integrate players into this season’s squad – the first ‘training’ session was very much an exercise in getting to know each other and getting to know Coventry, something that seemed so obvious really, but something I don’t think Cov had undertaken before. The pegs are subtly being rounded off and won’t have to be forced into their positions.
It will all be precision crafted…
Last year, it seemed as if it was a case of introducing yourself, getting changed and then going straight into practice sessions. There wasn’t the time, or even the inclination (sorry, an opinion again), to integrate new players into a new squad for the 2015/16 season. It was a recipe for…well, not for a happy squad that’s for sure.
It’s not something I thought of at the time but as this pre-season unfolds, it seems pretty clear that those players new to Cov in 2015 were never ‘bedded in’ in quite the same way as they are being at present. Okay, the situation is different in that the numbers of players new to the club exceeds the numbers retained, but the principal is much the same.
A lot of the pre-season work being done by the players at the moment is designed to develop a sense of comradery and team spirit (the Rat Race around Cov, the two Sevens’ tournaments, the trips to Dublin and Jersey and so on), whilst also focussing on the intense fitness and skills work during training sessions. Even the youngsters in the Development Squad are seen as an important part of the club’s future – and rightly so.
I don’t think these importance team of the building activities can’t be understated and could yet make a big difference should the team have a period of uncertainty come the beginning of the season and a couple of results don’t quite go our way.
Let’s go back to September of last year.
There had been some excellent pre-season results particularly against Ealing and Cardiff (and a promising performance for much of the game against London Welsh). We’d won our first two league games by a margin against Wharfedale and Loughborough. All seemed rosy in the Coventry garden.
And then we lost to Hartpury and Richmond. Suddenly, cracks not only appeared but opened…
There had already been ‘differences of opinion’ expressed on the training ground, key players were ‘rested’ for no apparent reason (at least they weren’t made public) and questions were asked about the quality of the new players brought in to strengthen the squad. At times it was as if they were being made scapegoat.
It was clear from listening to comments made by players and families that there was a divide within the squad. After the Esher game Maynard and Morgan reverted almost entirely to the retained players, together with players brought in after September. We wouldn’t see much of the summer recruits for some time, if at all.
They were dark times.
The public expectation was one of promotion. By definition anything else was failure and when it became clear within the first 8 games of the season that this wasn’t going to happen, then there was little else to fall back on. New targets were hastily proffered (a top 3 spot by Christmas?). Sadly, those recruited during the summer became the fall guys, even though the run of poor results was more about injuries and loss of form.
This is only an opinion, by the way…it’s nothing more than how it all seemed to unfold to me and I only mention it here because it contrasts so very differently to what we are currently seeing at Cov at the moment.
This year, despite the impressive recruitment drive and the arrival of 4 full-time coaches and a squad of some 14 full-time players in total, the club has avoided any overt mention of promotion in the short term. It is a long-term goal for sure, but initially it’s all about putting structures in place and developing the right ethos and culture on which to base further progress.
At times last year there didn’t seem to be much of a team spirit on the pitch. We saw glimpses of it, especially at home against Richmond, but the team didn’t always appear to be working together and with a game-plan that sometimes seemed one-dimensional, supporters often left games wondering where the fight had gone. Never individually – no player ever gave everything but their best – but collectively, well it wasn’t always enough.
RW clearly believes supporters have a role to play in Cov’s progress, encouraging us to re-instate the Supporters’ Club, to come along to open training sessions, to travel with the team to Jersey and to empower supporters to have a more active voice. And with this comes an added level of accountability that perhaps wasn’t there at times last season. Players and coaches will get to know supporters more than perhaps in previous years, learn names, recognise faces…and in so doing there forms another allegiance that goes beyond anything that happens on the pitch or in the training sessions.
I’m sure RW will be emphasising norms of behaviour to the players, expectations of what is and is not acceptable on and off the pitch. I imagine there will be team targets and individual targets and bonuses awarded accordingly. The fact players see so much more of each other this season, with upwards of 8-10 hours more even for those players who are just on part-time contracts, should develop that corps d’esprit that wasn’t always evident last season.
At times, we were plagued early on by indiscretions on the pitch, and for most of the season we had the misfortune of leading the Nat 1 table for yellow cards received. This year, we wouldn’t be expected to do so again. A more professional squad should lead to a more professional approach on the pitch, especially as the players will have trained so hard together that you’d expect them to be more aware of the repercussions of ill-discipline both to themselves and to the team as a whole.
With so much work being done in smaller groups under the eagle-eyes of the coaching staff, individuals who might not have been prominent in whole squad situations might well find more of a voice within, say, the group of forwards and exert a greater and more positive influence. It allows for far more involvement from players whilst also ensuring the coaches can better contain any possible concerns. This season, coaches can develop a sense of identity and loyalty that could never have happened in the 150 minutes of training players underwent last season.
Enjoyment, rather than just winning seems to be the mantra at the moment, at least from a supporter’s perspective. We have been able to share more in what’s happening because the club have been much better at communicating with us – the Sevens at the weekend was a case in port, with regular updates through Twitter and the Messageboard, as well as images and comments posted by the players too. It is all very positive and suggests we have a group of players who are enjoying being together – and when things start to become a little more difficult (as they undoubtedly will) then they are far more likely to work for each other to put things right.
Little steps at first…but at least we are learning to walk first this time.
The culture that RW is currently developing is clearly going to impact on the success or otherwise of the individual players. The fact that emphasis is very much on long term goals rather than short term success bodes well for the future and because we are being given access to all that is happening it will be a far more enjoyable journey.
I remember last season, probably rather insensitively, using the phrase ‘plus ca change…’ to describe what was happening after PM’s sideways move and SM’s apparent promotion to Head Coach.
Well that’s certainly not the case now. It all change and all aboard…
…an express train we’re not , but we’re certainly on cross country line and heading in the right direction.