The shoe is on the hand that fits, there’s really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s alright
Oh well a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway
And that was all I had to say and it’s alright
I will get by I will get by I will get by I will survive
Grateful Dead – A Touch of Grey
By the end of Rowland Winter’s first season as Director of Rugby, Coventry began to look like a side capable of competing for a top three finish, winning its last 8 games and playing some of the most exciting rugby we’d seen from a Cov side since 2014. It was a young and fairly inexperienced side, with only one player,, outside of the coaches over the age of 30 at the start of the season – Matt Price.
And of the coaches, Brendan Burke made just three appearances (two 0ff the bench), James Pritchard and Brendan Snyman had both gone by Christmas and Boris Stankovich’s injury had forced him out of the team by mid-November. Further, both captains, Eoghan Grace and Tom Wheatcroft, suffered injuries and/or a loss of form.
So after Christmas Rowland Winter turned to the senior pro, Phil Boulton, to lead the squad.
And didn’t he do a good job!
It’s not often mentioned, but Phil Boulton had already made 197 appearances for Bedford (I’m hoping that’s right and not actually 200!) prior to joining Cov and a further 29 for Rotherham before that – and he was still only 29 when arrived at Cov. He’s since made a further 37 (I think) whilst here.
Matt Price’s career record of 280 appearances, including 180 for Coventry, is also well worthy of a mention and he was very much a stalwart of the squad last season.
So whilst the input of Boris, Brendan and Nick Walshe was fundamental in the development of the side in RW’s first season at Cov, there was a belief that more experience on the pitch during games would enable Cov to push on further, especially in those games where cool heads were most needed.
In the summer of 2016, RW had brought together a squad containing a few players who had played regular Championship rugby, Phil Boulton and Eoghan Grace to name but two, some who were already playing in National One and several talented players unproven at this level.
James Stokes, for instance, had been at Nottingham for a couple of seasons prior to his move to Cambridge, but had made just the 2 appearances. James’ success in National One was pretty much guaranteed given his outstanding natural ability but he was relatively inexperienced when he arrived. Even Pete White, who came to us from Bedford having played there for a couple of seasons, had only made 13 starts, although he had come off the bench 26 times.
It was very much a mixture of players, a good one admittedly with some great potential, backed up by some quality coaches, but it was always the intention of Rowland Winter to look to develop his squad still further with the introduction of some more seasoned pros in Year 2 of what has become Project Coventry.
So, in 2016/17, there were just two players over the age of 30 appearing in a Cov shirt for over half of the season, as shown below.
By contrast, the next table shows that there are now 9 players over the age of 30 in the current Coventry senior squad – apologies to Matt Price who I’m sure has made one appearance this season but whose name has not been included by Statbunker.
If this is slightly inaccurate – then it’s not out by much.
The days, in brackets, are accurate up to today
|28-Oct-2017||Sam Tuitupou||New Zealand||01-Feb-1982||35(271)|
|02-Dec-2017||Brett Daynes||South Africa||08-Aug-1987||30(118)|
The squad now contains the old heads on slight younger bodies that were missing last season and it’s more than likely that at least 7 of the players listed above would make the current strongest Coventry starting XV and all nine would be included in the match day squad, with supersub Brett Daynes and maybe Phil Nilsen warming up the bench, although there’s a strong argument to be had to say Phil might actually start.
It can’t have been a difficult decision for Rowland Winter to bring players of such quality and experience into a squad that was already showing promise. It must have been a no brainer, but we’ve seen in the past how players who have played at a considerably higher level have come to Cov and failed to bring that experience to bear.
Will Johnson for one.
Rob Nash for two
And so on.
I have mentioned this before, but the Board should take some credit for backing Rowland Winter by agreeing to bring into the club such very high-profile players, players who might not have settled for a whole range of reasons. And credit, too, to RW and the coaches as well for a) being able to attract such big names into the club and b) making sure that they’ve fitted so well into what for all of them is a much smaller fish in an even smaller pond.
Take Cov’s three most senior acquisitions this season for example: Sam Tuitupou, Luke Narraway and Latu Makaafi:
Sam Tuitupou – Blues (38), New Zealand (9), Chiefs (13), Worcester Warriors (54), Munster (20) and Sale Sharks (110)
Luke Narraway – Birmingham Solihull (4), England (7), England Saxons (5), Perpignon (29), London Irish (60)
Latu Makaafi – Tonga (1), Bradford and Bingley (39), Hull (20), Wharfedale (25), Doncaster (112), Rotherham (17), Jersey (18)
They have over 470 games worth of experience at Championship Level or above between them, as well as 16 at international level. Add to the mix someone like Phil Nilsen who played 190 times for Carnegie and Phil Boulton’s record at Bedford and suddenly the picture changes significantly. Coventry now have the blend of experience and youth that over the next season or two should give them every chance of breaking back into the Championship for the first time in 8 or 9 years…and such is the start we have already made this season, you have to begin to believe it could be as early as next September.
In addition to the contribution they are all making on the pitch, Luke Narraway is also adding his experience to the coaching staff and his role as defence coach appears to be having a significant impact on a team that is already conceding, on average, just under 11 points a game less than last season. 11 points equates to over two unconverted tries a game, a gap by which many games are won and lost.
And it’s not just Luke Narraway, eirher – both Phil Nilsen and Sam Tuitupou can often be seen on the training ground working with the forwards and backs respectively, offering them the support and advice that come with such a wealth of experiences.
The influence these players are having on the younger members of the squad isn’t something that has been highlighted particularly as yet, but I can only imagine what it must feel like for someone like Olly Povoas to have Luke Narraway, Makaafi and Preece training alongside him, or Will Maisey to have Sam Tuitupou next to him in the backs.
When Narraway, Makaafi and Tuitupou’s arrivals were announced at the back end of last season, there was a tinge of concern on my part – given their ages there was a nagging doubt that we wouldn’t be seeing a great deal of them and what we did see would be a pale shadow of their glorious pasts.
I needn’t have worried – these guys are super fit and are exceptionally well managed by Rowland Winter and the coaches who ensure that none of them are over-used. It is evident that they are going to be available all season as needed.
For instance, despite the influence that a player like Latu Makaafi has clearly had on the team this season, he has only made 9 starts, as well as coming of the bench once, so he has already had 4 games where he hasn’t been involved at all and, when he has started, he has only tended to play 50 or 60 minutes.
Plenty of time to affect the outcome of a game given his ability, though.
Luke Narraway has made 10 starts and come off the bench once and Sam Tuitupou has managed just the 6 starts and one appearance off the bench, although the relatively low number of starts in comparison to the others is self-inflicted!. None are in danger of burning out over the course of the season and, as a result, in the bigger games they should all be available if rested elsewhere.
It’s one big jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces that all seem to becoming together at the right time.
As it happens, Coventry’s opponents on Saturday, Ampthill, also has a senior opportunities policy…
…although they have taken it to the next level.
Whilst they have a similar number of players over 30 in their squad, five of them are all older than Latu, the oldest member of our squad. Maama Molitika, so often Ampthill’s most influential player is 43, at least, yet he still maintains exceptional levels of fitness and was on the score sheet against Darlington at the weekend.
The top 5 in the table below have all made significant contributions to Ampthill’s success this season with Molitika making 7 starts, Barrett 8, Lutui 13, Hehea 8 and ex Covman, James Pritchard 12.
|21-Oct-2017||Stefan Liebenberg||South Africa||08-Apr-1984||33(196)|
If we accept that experience is a key to success at this level, then it’s no wonder Ampthill are doing so well. And whilst there might be some issues around just how fit a side they are, earlier in the season they beat Loughborough convincingly on an artificial surface and matched Darlington point for point until the dying moments of the game last Saturday.
They will be tough opposition.
Over at theirs last season, they beat us in a scrappy game which was played in tough conditions, but in the return game at Cov we dominated much of the game, coming out on top worthy 29-19 winners, despite a mini Ampthill revival at the start of the second half.
We know their game and what to expect. Where I feel we have such a big advantage is in the quality of the bench, where our finishers would all be ‘beginners’ in most National One teams. Ampthill will tire in those last 20 minutes, but we are fitter and have far more options later in the game.
It will be an interesting match-up, but quality will out and at home, you’d have to fancy Cov to have enough strength in depth to see the game out, although there are never any guarantees.
Whilst I couldn’t find any footage of the Cov v Ampthill game at home last season, I have included some brief highlights of the 2016 fixture which was Dave Addleton’s last home game as coach and Matt Price’s 150th for the club, as well as the final appearance of the likes of Pailor, Oliver and co. It was an emotional afternoon…
…and there are a couple of decent scores there, too.
Remember Grateful Dead…? Jerry Garcia…?
One of my brother’s favourite bands back in the 70s but never really one of mine.
I went to California a couple of years ago and up in Haight Ashbury they are still fondly remembered, with images of Garcia everywhere. There are still plenty of loyal fans…
..this is for them.
Touch of Grey…
Seems quite appropriate given this season’s influx of senior statesmen.