Were I asked to pick any of the games this season to represent the difference in the Coventry of this season to that of last, then this is the one I would choose.
There have been games in which we have scored more tries, been more dominant or which have provided more entertainment in the final minutes, but none which demonstrate the character, the resolve and the depth in squad that we saw out there yesterday afternoon.
Rosslyn Park are a good side and had we met them at home earlier in the season, the result might well have been different.
With a couple of minutes to go to half time, Cov were losing 15-24 and had just conceded a soft try to a kick and chase that saw former Cov winger Mark Kohler win the race for the line.
An already tough test had suddenly become an even harder one and to win from there we’d have to see a side to Cov that we hadn’t witnessed before this season. Park were arguably deserving of the lead at the interval but had they gone into half time 9 points up, the momentum would have been very much with them and Coventry would have had a far harder job to turn the game round in that second 40 minutes.
It happened all too often with Coventry last season – Coventry conceding tries at important moments in the game, especially just before or after half time.
But this is a team that has character and a growing self-belief. From the restart following Kohler’s try, which isn’t the strongest facet of Coventry’s game at the moment, and with 39 minutes on the clock, we won possession and worked the ball out left. It looked for all the world as if Rob Knox had gone over in the far corner, only for the assistant referee to indicate that he’d put a foot in touch.
Disappointing, but even then Coventry wasn’t finished.
Injury time in that first half and moments later Cov won a penalty, kicked to the corner and, from the ensuing line out, the catch and drive saw Jimmy Litchfield get that all important touch down.
It was a pivotal moment in the game and whilst I had been concerned by a Coventry performance which up to that point that had been mixed to say the least, as we went into the break I was optimistic we would take the points come the end of the game.
I’m not sure why I was quite so confident, but I was. To win would mean Coventry would have to do something that they had struggled to do all season, namely put in a sustained final 40 minutes where there wouldn’t be that Cov wobble, that 10-15 minutes where we lose concentration, discipline goes out of the window and we give away vital points which make the win that much harder.
It’s happened in most games this season, even at home, but the difference is we’ve usually had a decent lead going into the break, enough to cushion that period in the game where we go off the boil before finishing strongly again. Sometimes we’ve left it late, very late and relied on the boot of Will Maisey to see us through, but there’s been enough gas left in the tank to get us over the finishing line.
Against Rosslyn Park there was no cushion. We simply had to produce a second half display that was up there with anything we’d produced all season.
And boy did we do just that.
20-24 down at the break and against a Park side that had looked extremely dangerous whenever they ran the ball at us and yet we only allowed Park to score just 3 points in the second half, winning the half 16-3 and putting in one of the most disciplined performance I’ve seen from a Cov side for a long time.
Cov’s forwards began to exert more and more dominance in the set pieces and increasingly Park’s pack became more and more fractious, with Ed Milne doing his best to wind up both the Cov players and the crowd. He is a great player to watch, aggressive and in the faces of the opposition all the time, but also extremely quick around the pitch and always in the thick of the action.
Cov’s defence, which had been pretty solid in the first half, became a brick wall in the second and Park were never able to exert any sort of authority on the game in the final quarter. Cov’s discipline, so often a cause for concern earlier in the season, was immense and despite some provocation, Coventry held their nerve and won out worthy winners in the end with Will Maisey scoring all 16 second half points.
Will Maisey will rightly take most of the plaudits following his 21 point haul which saw him surpass the 200 point mark for the season. I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog just what a revelation he’s been since his return and he is just one of a number of examples of how Rowland Winter and the coaches have got right something that Phil Maynard and Scott Morgan failed to do last season.
Whereas we were told back in August 2015/16 that the players coming into the squad were at last as good as, if not better, than those already present, that proved in retrospect not to be the case, either that or they just didn’t perform. This season, the reverse has been true and when one player has been injured or simply rested, another has stepped into the position and performed just as well…Maisey for Fenner, Poole for Conquest, Grasso for White, Harry for Povoas/Grace, Bone etc, Price for Tolmie, Wheatcroft for Knox or Stevens (I thought Tom W looked really sharp when he came on yesterday)…
That depth has been one of the keys to Coventry’s successful second half of the season. Admittedly there has been more consistent selection, with fewer changes being made from week to week, but when players have stepped up, they’ve slotted in almost seamlessly.
And then we’ve been able to benefit from the introduction of the Development Squad this season, with Jake Byrne coming into the side and performing exceptionally well, proving that if looked after by the coaches, players as young as Jake, and who aren’t part of the Premiership Academy set-ups, can still make the jump to tier 2 and compete effectively.
And yesterday was a big test for Jake. The Park pack, especially the front row, are one of the best in the league and they gave us a torrid time down at theirs before Christmas.
Not so this time round, though.
After Jimmy Litchfield had had 40 minutes to rough up the Park front row, together with Phil Boulton (what an unsung hero he is) and Matt Price, Jake Byrne came on at the start of the second half and had his best 40 minutes so far. If anything, the scrum looked even stronger and after several penalties at the set piece, after 70 minutes their prop was yellow carded and Coventry scrum was completely dominant.
It must give Boris Stankovich great pleasure seeing Jake come on the way he has in just a few short months. The club have been very canny in the way they initially introduced him into the squad at training and then as a travelling reserve and choosing the right games to give him 20/30 minute run outs from the bench. He’s going to be a real asset and is proof of just how effective the Development Squad can be and, when expanded further under the watchful eye of Matt Price next season, hopefully we’ll see another one or two Jake Byrnes make the transition into the first team.
Another decent crowd of 1266 watched what was a thoroughly entertaining game, one that ebbed and flowed in the first half and saw Coventry exert their dominance in the second.
I’m sure there will be those for whom this season hasn’t been what they’d expected, and that fifth place is just not good enough but anyone who has bought a season ticket this season will have watched Coventry win 13 out of 14 games, narrowly losing against Hartpury, score 557 points at home, conceding just 320 and score a staggering 74 tries in the process (all ‘ish’ figures as I’m reliant on Statbunker!). There have been some fantastic finishes to games in amongst those stats, with last minute tries and penalties to win games.
And above all, there is a growing belief that Coventry are building towards something special. The season has pretty much panned out as we we told it would, although perhaps home and away form has been more polarised than anyone could have foreseen back in September.
The foundations have been laid…a core of, so far, 19 of the current squad retained (including Stevens and Byrne) and 6 players recruited, 4 of which are all of proven Championship quality with more to come, with a couple of very positive announcements in the offing by all accounts.
It’s hard not to look on the positive side, although in fairness with last season being so disappointing, the bar was set pretty low back in August when Rowland Winter took over.
Performances like yesterday’s only keep raising the bar higher and higher and whilst it’s important not to get too carried away, it is worth remembering that we’ve beaten all the main contenders for promotion next season at home, have started to show some real form in the final weeks of the season and, following some judicious pre-season recruitment, will have a squad that is a good deal stronger next season.
The Butts has become the fortress we all hoped it would and there’s much to look forward to.
Old Albanian next week end is going to be a tough game, far harder than perhaps it might seem so soon after such a good performance against Rosslyn Park. It’s never the easiest of places to go and they ran us close, far too close in fact, back in December when we were 33-42 down with just two minutes to go. Enter Will Maisey, stage right…
With three games to go and with Cov on 86 points, surely the remaining target must be to break that 100 point barrier?
Admittedly, that would mean another 3 wins, but that isn’t beyond the realms of possibility with OAs (a), Darlington (h) and Loughborough (a) still to come. That would give us an overall record of Pl 30 W20 D1 L9 – one that I would certainly have settled for at the start of the season.
That said, whatever happens between now and three weekends time, games like yesterday’s show the potential this squad has under Rowland Winter and the coaches. Louis Deacon watched much of the game from the technical area/pitchside and must have been impressed with most of what he saw. He, Nick Walshe, Boris Stankovich and Brendon Burke must be rubbing their hands with anticipation when they contemplate the next couple of seasons and what Cov could achieve if things progress as they are.
And if they aren’t, I certainly am…
If you haven’t already voted for Cov’s ‘Man of the Match’ v Rosslyn Park, and would like to do so please see below: