Taking the lead…older heads on older shoulders
One of the recurring themes in post-match reports and weekly ‘Coach’s Views’ is the lack of experienced heads on the pitch, especially in the kinds of situations we saw on Saturday when the more senior players just needed to bring the players together and change the direction of the game, slow down the pace (or step it up as required), stay calm, be positive and influence teammates by setting an example themselves.
The absence of James Pritchard, Brendon Snyman and Boris Stankovich from the match day squad over the last few weeks has meant that suddenly there is a lack of experience in key positions across the team.
At 30, Phil Boulton was the oldest player in the starting XV against Hull with Tom Howe the youngest at 21, and on the bench there was Freddie Tuilagi who is still only 19. Brett Daynes (29), Tom Poole and Tom Wheatcroft (both 28) were the other senior players in terms of age, with the majority of others were around 24-25 , still fairly young in terms of this league, other than Hartpury or Loughborough of course.
A quick calculation, and not totally accurate, would put the average age of the starting line-up at just under 26, although I had to guess the age of two players! Small wonder then, that Rowland Winter’s focus as far as recruitment for next season is concerned is to bring in some more seasoned players who will provide that ‘nous’ that has been lacking at times during the course of the season.
By recruiting more experienced players, the younger members of the squad have role models from which to learn…or as RW puts it, it’s about:
making sure we reap the reward of the investment we’ve put into this group of young players.
Which ever way you look at it, it is apparent that what’s badly needed is some older, wiser heads to nurture the talents of a group of younger players who have at times shown real creative flair and ability yet, at others, a naivety in situations where we needed to control the game more and use the our ball a little more wisely.
Such was the impact of Rowland Winter back in July, together with some enterprising and entertaining rugby pre-season, that it left many supporters high on expectation. Out went the old and in came the new, on and off the pitch, and with that came some really encouraging pre-season results.
It was all too easy to forget that there had been no promises of an instant fix, of a top two or three finish and when our away form started to give some cause for concern it understandably became a matter of frustration for the supporters. And to the coaches as well, but this season has always been about putting a group of players together, many of who are still young, and developing them over two or three seasons into a squad that will by then be competing for the right to play in the Championship.
The departures of Brendon Snyman and James Prichard have meant that the experience they initially brought to bear on the pitch hasn’t been available since Christmas and with Boris’ injury and recuperation after surgery, at times we have seen just what how much their experience has been missed. There have been games when, had we had two of three of them on the pitch, I am convinced we wouldn’t have lost – Plymouth and Fylde are two such examples.
As Nick Walshe said only yesterday in his interview with John Wilkinson:
I don’t think we have enough leaders out there to say ‘come on, we’re 28-3 up, this is what we’re going to do. ‘You still want that ambition, but I don’t think we are experienced enough at the moment to just put the hammer down.
There is no lack of ambition on the part of the present squad, nor lack of effort, but I do think we need three or four more Matt Price’s out there when the going gets tough to lead by example, get stuck in and control the game in a way that perhaps we aren’t seeing at the moment.
Matt is a really good example of what I think is probably the missing ingredient at the moment. Scott Tolmie is rightly the first choice hooker for me, someone who has had a massive impact on the pitch this season, although probably the last few weeks have seen his influence tail wane a little.
The decision to start with Scott, though, is absolutely the right one but with Matt able to come on in the last 30, we have the sort of gritty, determined and downright mean competitor who will know exactly what is required and bring a bit of experience to the team where it is most needed. Against both Plymouth and Hull, Matt came on and a scrum that had started to creak a little, suddenly became that much more solid.
Jimmy Litchfield’s arrival also had an impact against Hull but in Matt, Cov possess a player who has seen it all before and has the physicality and experience just to rough things up a bit. He will take the fight to the opposition in a way that lifts those around him. He might not be the captain, but he is every inch a leader and it is that sort of player we need more of in next season’s squad to complement the relative inexperience elsewhere.
The announcement of Jack Preece and Alex Grove’s signings last week were accompanied by a statement from Rowland Winter which hinted at what the coaches feel is part of what has been lacking a little on the pitch this season:
Both players have strong leadership qualities and they have consistently impressed throughout the season for Moseley
Preece and Grove are players who lead by example, players who have played at a higher level, Preece at Championship level and Grove at international level for Scotland, and as such, both will have the respect of those around them. To have players of such quality and experience in the squad, working with the younger players, will definitely be a positive and will go some way to address the concerns about a lack of direction on the pitch at times.
Players of this calibre will have seen it, done it will probably be wearing the t-shirt underneath their Cov jerseys.
Although John Wilkinson has said that the 7 or 8 players coming into the squad next season will be in the 26-30 age range, I think we can also expect to see a couple of older players as well, players who have a wealth of experience under their belts and who will bring some much needed control and good old-fashioned nous to the party.
We’ve seen what a difference Boris and Brendon made when they were playing before Christmas – I think we can expect something similar again next year – maybe not from players quite of the calibre of Boris, but there again…
We need a bit more experience on top of the young squad we have got, so there will definitely be a few more additions coming in to the squad…
I think we’re past the point of lessons we can learn from. That just wasn’t good enough, we didn’t have enough quality in our team to execute what we wanted to do.
Boris’s influence cannot be understated…not only is he still a fine player, he is a role model for the youngsters. He holds himself to a standard as high as anyone else and because he is such a good communicator, he commands instant respect.
For me, provided they can still perform at National One level, age is immaterial – look at Ampthill should proof be needed. Maama Molitika, 42 years of age and arguably the man of the match against us earlier in the season…
Older heads on young shoulders are fine…
…older header on older shoulders can be even more effective.
I would have no objection at all to a couple of forwards come our way of that ilk…the kind of hard-hitting, straight-running second or back rowers who make up in their ability to read a game what they might lack in speed around the pitch, or the prop that has played at a higher level and who still loves playing the game and wants to share some of his experience with some talented younger players.
The kind of player who, when we’ve got our bonus point in the opening quarter and look to be comfortably in control, isn’t afraid of getting the players in a huddle and saying something along the lines of, ‘Okay lads, great performance so far but let’s just stick the ball up our shirts for the next 10 minutes and not do anything extravagant’…
For me, that’s what we’re lacking at the moment. There’s skill and ambition in abundance, but not the experience as yet to go with it.
Phil Boulton and Tom Wheatcroft have served the club well when captaining the side and they will definitely be regular players next season, but me, I’d look elsewhere for a captain. If there’s one of the newcomers who fits the bill, someone who is going to be first choice and who is a natural leader, preferably having undertaken the role before, then that’s where I’d be looking, perhaps with one of the younger players as a vice captain, someone who has shown the necessary qualities in training and who can learn on the job without it necessarily affecting their game.
We have a strong squad, a squad that even without the players presently being recruited will improve over the next couple of seasons. The talent and ability are there in abundance, but we are still lacking a core of players to lead by example when things don’t quite go to plan or when we find ourselves on the back foot.
Some of the away games have cried out for players to take control of what is happening and recognise where the problems are and adapt play accordingly. Yes, the coaches still have an influence and can use the bench to that effect, but quite often the first 15-20 minutes, well before the time replacements come into play and the coaches can impact on what is happening, a game can be won or lost and it’s at such times when more experienced players should be exerting more of an influence.
Who the other signings are as yet is unknown, but I never tire of hoping for another Zinzan Brooke, Andy Blackmore or Mark Tinnock…or even a Derek Eves for that matter…
…but only as a player, though!