The proof is in the (Christmas) pudding…
What a difference 12 months can make…
This time last year it was anything but a festive time of year for Coventry supporters. The team was 9th place in National 1 with just 37 points from 15 games, 9 points and three places behind where we are now, but having played a game less.
And whereas last season we’d just finished the pre-Christmas games with a demoralising loss at Ampthill (with James Pritchard scoring 14 points and Will Maisey a conversion!), we go into the second half season of this season on the back of a tremendous win against Moseley in front of a crowd of 2712 and full of optimism for the future, on 46 points from 16 games.
Not the greatest of points’ tallies by any means, but a big improvement nonetheless.
Whilst not wishing to dwell too much on the past, it seemed at the time that despite Scott Morgan’s then recent appointment to the post of Head of Rugby, we still lacked a sense of direction and there was little pattern or structure to what we were seeing on the pitch. Once Plan A proved to be ineffective, which is was time and time again, then we were in real difficulties.
There were also problems with injuries, concerns over selection and a long running debate about the pre-season recruitment the Summer before.
It was all rather depressing.
In many respects the second half of the season was worse than the first, with Coventry only managing another 34 points over the remaining games and playing some insipid rugby, the two draws against league leaders Richmond, at home, and against Blackheath, away, being the only real highlights.
The announcement of Rowland Winter’s appointment with 13 or 14 games still to play added to the already somewhat surreal feel to the end of the season and certainly, for me anyway, the last game (a loss against Wharfedale) came as something of a relief and a release from the deepening gloom that had hung over the BPA the longer the season went on.
12 months on and there is real belief amongst most supporters that we are at long last over the worst of it and despite a period of rebuilding, we understand what it is the DoR is hoping to achieve and how he intends to achieve it.
Results have been excellent at the BPA and poor away from it, but with the promise of a more settled side and an improved performance against DMP the last time Cov took to the road, it looks as if we might be starting to address the most pressing problem facing the team at the moment.
The big difference for me is that going into the new year we are far better informed about what is happening in and around the club and kept up-to-date with team news via regular postings on the website through John Wilkinson.
This season we are better able to see the bigger picture and are therefore inclined to be more tolerant of the difficulties because we understand more about the journey and where it is taking us.
The interviews with the coaches and post match comments explain why things might not have gone as well as hoped, as well as suggesting how problems are being resolved, whilst at the same time celebrating the successes as they happen.
The vision, made clear by RW at the very first supporters meeting back in May, remains unchanged and we have seen the various pieces of the jigsaw come together slowly and the picture begin to emerge.
Unfinished as yet, but it certainly is beginning to look like the one on the lid of the box…
At times we’ve seen some very good performances on the pitch and whilst the initial soft sell from RW was very much about the entertaining, attacking rugby that we could expect Cov to play, the three most enjoyable games I’ve seen since his arrival have been the wins against Plymouth Albion and Moseley and the defeat to Hartpury – ironically, games which have been far more attritional and hard fought than they have been expansive.
The big wins against the likes of Wharfedale, Loughborough, Fylde and Cambridge might have been exciting, with Coventry displaying some real flair in attack, but they have also been frustrating too, with periods in all four games where Coventry let the opposition back into the game. They weren’t complete performances by any means, although Cambridge was the closest to an 80 minute performance that we’ve seen so far.
lt’s the games like the recent win against Moseley that give me the most encouragement. If we can match the better teams in the league at this relatively early stage in our transition, and beat most of them, then that is definitely grounds for optimism in the coming months. A decent second half to the season and a strong pre-season to follow, with the right players coming in (and going out) to give the squad a better balance, then we might well see Cov challenging much nearer to the top of National 1 next season.
The other thing that has impressed me is that when difficult decisions need to be made, Rowland Winter is clearly not afraid to make them.
Just 14 games in and with concerns over the defence still evident and James Pritchard is shown the door.
It certainly caught everyone by surprise, but we all recognised the problem and whilst the solution might have been pretty ruthless, rugby is often a game where sentiment doesn’t count for a great deal – and it certainly didn’t seem to do in this case. As it happens, popular player that James Pritchard was, the decision to move him on wasn’t particularly questioned by supporters.
With such a strong squad of players, there must be players who will become frustrated at a lack of game time…
… the second row is a prime example.
We have four quality locks in Snyman, Conquest, Jubb and Poole – all of whom would be first choices in many National 1 sides and a good few Championship ones as well – so keeping the two players who aren’t selected happy must be a real challenge.
Jubb can play in the back row which means at least he can go on the bench, but that’s not really true of either Poole or Conquest. Whilst there have been a couple of injures and a ban that have meant they haven’t always been all available, the coaches must have had to work out ways to rotate them all so as to ensure they are getting the game time they need to keep them motivated…no easy task I should imagine. Back to those difficult decisions.
The same is surely true at 2, 9, 10 and 15, especially with Cliffie Hodgson coming back from injury and seeming to fit in so well when he has played.
Will Maisey is another example of a player who must be feeling frustrated over being benched as often as he is. Both Brendan Burke and Rowland Winter seemed to suggest in their post-match comments last weekend that he was disappointed not to have started against Moseley. And I can see why really, given that whenever Will has played he has added something to the game, especially at fly half.
For me, Tony Fenner has the edge in defence whilst Will is the best distributor of the ball and if you want to get the backs into the game, he would be my player of choice, less so against teams like Hartpury and Moseley. Just an opinion, of course.
Both are key members of the squad though, so getting the balance right is important…
If the coaches feel there are between 20-25 players who now form the core of the squad, perhaps there will be fewer tough decisions to be make, but the more successful the team is, I guess the harder it will be to keep everyone happy.
The rotation of players has frustrated some supporters but I think it has worked pretty well overall and the three really poor performances, at Blackheath, Esher and Rosslyn Park, certainly couldn’t be attributed to just selection.
Anyway, as we move into the Christmas and then the new year, the mood amongst supporters is a far happier one than 12 months ago. The bigger test, though, will be what it is like 12 months from now…
…the proof then really will be in the (Christmas) pudding.
Just a brief reminder that I’ll start releasing the results of the poll for Coventry’ ‘Most Valuable Player 2016’ , from 12th place down to 1st, starting tomorrow and culminating with the winner being announced on the twelfth and final day of Christmas, namely the 5th January.
I’ll drop the trophy off at the club when it comes back from the engravers and hopefully the winner will have a photo taken with it so that it can be included in a post…