In the end, Plymouth were just a little too strong and a little too seasoned for a Coventry side that didn’t quite have the quality and experience to see the game out, despite coming back from behind twice and clearly rattling the opposition.
It was a game that Coventry could have won, but having to play a quarter of the game with a man down and with a lineout that stuttered at best, it was always on the cards that the final quarter might be a test too far, and so it proved.
In most of the previous games on the road, Coventry have fallen foul of a 15-20 minute period, usually in the second half, when concentration levels have dropped and players haven’t shown the same levels of intensity as in the rest of the game.
As a result, the opposition have taken full advantage and scored enough points to be home and hosed with Coventry unable to get themselves back into contention.
Not so on Saturday…
Coventry stayed committed to the cause for the full 80 minutes and although Plymouth took full advantage when we were a player short, that had nothing to do with attitude and effort and everything to do with having the extra player in the forwards.
And most encouraging of all, when we did fall behind, especially at 12-3 and at a time when Plymouth were in control of the game as far as both territory and possession were concerned, Coventry’s defence hung on when previously it would have leaked points.
And once we had parity in numbers again, Coventry were able to knock Plymouth back as they retained the ball, went through the phases and either punched holes in Albion’s line with some strong, direct running or kicked judiciously and forced them to build from deep.
It was a physical and bruising encounter, especially in what were difficult conditions, with sleet and rain in the air at times, a wet ball and a pitch that looked heavy in places. And we were a match for them in most areas…other than the lineout which faltered on occasions with the loss of consecutive lineouts on our throw certainly contributing to Plymouth’s final try…
It would be easy to suggest that the loss of Brendon Snyman is beginning to catch up on us now, but in truth it could just have been an ‘off’ day where things didn’t go our way. When we did get it right, the lineout proved an effective attacking weapon and it was a crucial area in the build up to two of our tries – but when we got it wrong, it put us on the back foot and gave Plymouth easy ball.
I was sitting with a number of Coventry supporters and the consensus was Plymouth looked physically a big side, both in the forwards and in the backs. That said, we certainly had spells towards the end of the first half and much of the second where we matched their physicality, although having to play so long with a player short must have contributed to Plymouth’s flurry in the final minutes.
During the week I had thought that the cold, wet conditions might have suited Coventry more, given the dominance of our pack in most games this season. However, when the backs did get the ball and gave it some width, we looked far more dangerous than Plymouth and the combination of Wheatcroft, Stevens and Howe caused them some real difficulties.
For the second week running, Stevens in particular looked to be the danger man in the backs and at times, when he broke through the initial tackle, it took two or three defenders to bring him down. On harder surfaces and in warmer conditions, I do think he is going to be a handful – who he partners in midfield next season remains to be seen, but another centre and a strong running wing would certainly be on my shopping list over the remaining weeks of the season.
Corey Hircock is such a reliable a player, either as a centre or a wing, and with the lack of another Howe in the team, he fulfils an important role. Trimble, clearly fit, hasn’t started for the last couple of games which seems strange, given the impact he made in the opening games before his injury…maybe he hasn’t shown in training that he’s quite ready for another run in the side.
Cliffie was solid at full back, reliable under the high ball and very safe in defence, but he isn’t a strike runner in the same way that James Stokes is and doesn’t offer quite the same threat in attack…again though, he showed why he is such a useful squad player.
I thought Fenner and White had really strong games and, for me, they are Cov’s number one pairing at half back. Both were immense in defence, especially Fenner who consistently seems to put his body on the line and is a fearless tackler. Both kicked the ball a fair amount, perhaps a little more than is usual for Cov, but in wet conditions putting the ball behind the opposition and forcing them to turn can be particularly effective. As an aside, I’d stick with Rhodri Adamson as second choice scrum half in preference to Sam Grasso at the moment – he rarely has anything other than a solid game and is able to double up in a number of positions.
Had it been a home game, I think there might have been some frustration from the Cov supporters as we didn’t really chase down the kicks and put the receivers under pressure. However, Plymouth aren’t a Fylde and there was no real urgency on their part to run the ball back and, as a result, we weren’t made to suffer in the way we have been against some teams.
It was noticeable that when defending we held a line across the pitch and such was the effectiveness of the first tackler, Plymouth seldom broke through. Often, there was a second player in support just in case and for long periods in the game, although Plymouth had a lot of possession, especially in the first half, they didn’t make a lot of ground.
A case of brick walls in Brickfields, perhaps…
Cov tackled themselves into the ground and players like Andy Brown and Tom Poole put in massive shifts defensively. The back row, so often a concern this season, more than held their own against their bigger and more experienced opponents. Freddie Tuilagi was prominent in the loose and his yellow was unfortunate in that it was the culmination of previous warnings during a time of intense Plymouth pressure – wrong place, wrong time.
His dropping of the ball in the final moments of the game was disappointing as it led to the scrum that resulted in Plymouth’s penalty to deny us the bonus point. However, his presence in the side does demonstrate Cov’s need for a genuine no 8, despite Darrel Dyer’s admirable efforts at times this season.
Coventry’s scrum had a mixed afternoon…on occasions looking dominant and winning some important penalties, whilst on others penalised by referee and pushed backwards in a manner that we have seldom seen this season. It was probably honours even by the end of the game, but it was certainly creaking at times.
One big concern was the number of penalties we conceded during the course of the game. It seemed as if we fell foul of the referee’s whistle far more than Plymouth did and at times players and coaches looked less than happy with some of the decisions. I guess away from home and in front of a vocal crowd, the 50:50 calls aren’t going to go your way, but even so…
And actually, although the crowd was loud at times (although less than the average Plymouth attendance), it was definitely a case of ‘You only sing when you’re winning’ and there was a period in the second half as we clawed our way back into the lead when the silence was deafening…
I left the ground immediately after the game and did so in good humour. Yes, it was another loss, but it was one that was so different to the other defeats Cov have endured on their travels. There was a degree of pride in that performance, a performance that showed honest, integrity and commitment.
Rowland Winter had asked for a response and he got just that. At the moment it’s just a one-off and still a loss , so we mustn’t get carried away by it, but should Cov show the same passion and resilience in the remaining games, even the most sceptical of supporters would have to accept that real progress has been made on the pitch as well as off it.
Plymouth Albion look to be the team to beat next season and on Saturday we almost did just that. It was definitely a performance on which to build and one that signals the potential that this squad has, even before players are added.
The proof though, is in the pudding and, on this form, Hull Ionians could yet prove a tasty dessert.