Winning hearts and minds…

EalingAll along, I’ve maintained that the importance attached to the pre-season friendlies this month is in the sum of the parts, rather than the individual results.

What I mean by this is, individual results shouldn’t be the main measure of Cov’s success, whereas overall performance across all 5 games (or 6 if you count the double header) certainly should be, as should the progress Coventry make over that same period.

Realistically, it is quite feasible that Cov could lose against Jersey, Ealing and Newport – all strong sides whom we might expect to cause us problems. However, such results are secondary to the manner of Cov’s performances  in those games. From my perspective, overall they just about passed the first test against Jersey, with some reservations, but they still have to prove themselves against Ealing and Newport.

Just how they respond to the Jersey defeat is going to be very interesting indeed.

But there is also an added significance attached to Saturday’s fixture, one against which spectators  are going to make specific judgements….

Although it’s the second game to be played at The Butts in the build up to the start of the National 1 league  campaign, it is the first opportunity Cov supporters will have had to watch most of the ‘core’ players of the squad, other than the few who added their experience to the relatively young side that faced Broadstreet.

Against Jersey we saw a completely different starting 15 to that which began the game the week before. It seems fair to speculate that most of the players who boarded the plane last Friday will be the ones uppermost in  Rowland Winter’s mind for a place in Saturday’s squad and will be the one’s most likely to face Ealing, given the strength of the opposition.  The players making their home debut, especially those joining the club from  a higher tier of rugby, the likes of Wheatcroft, Boulton, Grace, Litchfield, Fenner, will be on show for the first time and supporters will be keen to see just how much their experience adds to the team. The coaches, too, will probably be playing at some stage and will be under some scrutiny (although Brendan Burke was the only sub not used against Jersey Reds).

So I can’t help but feel there is definitely a bit more pressure on the squad for this match than there probably was against Jersey, simply because it’s a home fixture and with that comes the increased expectations of a crowd short on much to cheer about over the last 18 months.

We are in the middle of a run of 3 very tough games. A disappointing display against Ealing on top of a heavy defeat to Jersey and inevitably supporters will be concerned, particularly those who might not have seen the reports of the Jersey game and who have only ‘judged’ Cov’s performance on the basis of that 47-5 score line.

Personally, I have no doubt that the players will have come back from the Jersey trip disappointed by the size of the defeat, which hardly reflected the quality of the rugby Cov played a times, but also confident that if they can avoid some of the basic errors they made last weekend, then they are more than good enough to cause Ealing plenty of problems.

Coventry do need to put of a convincing display at home in front of what I’m sure will be a bigger crowd than the Broadstreet game, if only to take a bit of pressure of themselves when they play Newport the following week.  (Interestingly, Newport play Rosslyn Park at home this Saturday, so Cov will have something to measure their own performance against in a week’s time…).

And it’s also another chance for players to put their case forward for selection the following weekend and beyond with a strong showing out on the park. With plenty of competition in all areas of the team, Coventry are in a healthy place at the moment.

Having only seen Cov play competitive rugby for less than 3 hours, the coaches must still have a number of options they want to explore before finalising the team to play Loughborough. A great example of this is in the front row – against Jersey,  Rowland Winter started with a front row of Litchfield, Tolmie and Stankovich and then switched to Boulton, Price and Brown. What was so impressive about this was that even after a complete change in the front row, Coventry remained dominant in the set piece. It means that Coventry have all sorts of options available to them in the front three, so competition is going to be intense…which is exactly the way coaches would want it.

I would venture to suggest that there won’t be many names appearing on the match day programme on 3rd September who aren’t part of this Saturday’s 25 man squad, unless there are injuries that we aren’t aware of, other than MacBurnie, Hodgson and Pete White.

If Coventry can exert the same dominance up front against Ealing as they did last Saturday, then Coventry  supporters could be in for a treat. Cov fans have always appreciated a strong pack and will definitely warm to the type of rugby we saw Cov play in spells against Jersey. Those 25 minutes or more in the second half were a sight to behold and in front of a decent crowd, and if they can reproduce that over most of the 80 minutes against Ealing, then the players will certainly be aware of the appreciation coming from the crowd…

Rowland Winter did warn us that the style of play that he wants his players to adopt will be exciting, but also frustrating at times. And this was borne out after just three minutes of play at the weekend – the first try against Jersey Reds must have been exactly what he had in mind. Coventry unnerved Jersey in the very first scrum 20m out from our 22, we won good ball and just as Cov supporters let out a sigh of relief, we threw a poor pass out in the centres which was intercepted and over went Jersey.

That was to become a theme for the afternoon…we played some good, and at times very good, rugby for long periods, but undid it all with some naïve defence or poor handling. It’s going to take time and supporters will need to be patient.

Whilst the forwards excelled at times, the backs had little opportunity to create chances, with the Jersey defence extremely effective.  Hopefully, against Ealing we should find a bit more space to exploit and the likes of Stokes and Rundle have pace to burn.

Coventry were able to put Jersey under pressure both in the scrum and the breakdown at times last weekend and Jersey conceded a number of penalties. If Coventry can do something similar and we are allowed to use quick ball, then we certainly have the players in the team to hurt Ealing on the counter attack, but we have got to ensure we don’t give the ball away quite as easily as we did at times last Saturday.

There was a period in the game when I really felt proud of the team – we’d gone into half-time 26-0 down, conceded another try in the opening couple of minutes and at that point, despite the 17 minute period of Cov pressure in the first half, it looked as if we might capitulate. But then we turned things around and subdued the crowd who clearly weren’t used to seeing their scrum being bossed around quite as much as they were by Cov. Their supporters were very appreciative of our team, recognising that Jersey had struggled to break the Coventry dominance for long periods of that second half.  It was a great feeling and very impressive to watch.

If they can provide a similar display on Saturday against another Championship side, then I will be both relieved and hopeful for the coming season.

Saturday is almost as much about winning hearts and minds as it is about achieving a ‘w’ in the results column.

So the Ealing game does come with some added significance…if the players can win the supporters over with a convincing performance, then there’s less pressure on everyone come the Newport game. Even though the result counts for little, there is still lot at stake on Saturday for individual  players who know that this is a strong squad.  There will be plenty of competition for places – a good individual performance means that player is closer to securing a starting place in the team to face Loughborough Students.

I am nervous about Saturday, but only because I don’t want to the team to let themselves down…having seen in patches what they are capable of, I would love them to do something similar, for the full 80 minutes, against Ealing.

Doing so would create a real buzz around the ground and ensure things continue to build up nicely towards the start of the league programme.

Bring it on…



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