On the 6th Day of Christmas the Coventry Rugby Club MVP you voted for is…

30Dec - by Tim - 0 - In Club talk

Day 6 of the Coventry’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) 2017 poll results and this time it’s 7th place that’s up for grabs.

And you voted for:

Latu Makaafi

With a further 6 places still to be decided before the winner is revealed, two of my pre-poll favourites for a top 5 spot have now already featured.

I made mention yesterday that I felt Sam’s value to the club was not just as a player on the pitch, but also as an ambassador off it, bringing in plenty of interest both from supporters and potentially new players attracted to a club that enjoyed the services of someone of Sam’s ability and experience in its squad, despite being in the third tier of national rugby.

Latu Makaafi’s worth to Cov, lies very much in what he does on the pitch.

At 36, it’s probably fair to say Latu’s best day’s are behind him. However,whilst he might lack a little of his former pace and stamina these days, his experience and understanding of the game still make him the best blindside flanker in the league and it’s been a real privilege watching him play. Lest anyone forget, Latu was in the Championship’s Dream Team XV last year so it’s hardly a surprise that he is proving to be such a dominant force in a Cov back row that has been without parallel in National One so far this season.

 

And one of the reasons that Latu has been as effective as he has is due in part to the careful way he has been managed by the coaches over the first half of the season.

It was clear from the start that he was never going to play 80 minutes every game, with Rowland Winter suggesting early on that we could expect Latu to play around 20-22 games for Cov this season.

Half way into the season and he’s already  made 13 appearances, with 11 starts, so that would tie in roughly with the early predictions.

Of the 13 games Latu has played, he’s come off in 11 of them, almost always when Cov has been well clear of the opposition and Latu’s job has been done and done well.

For 50 or 60 minutes Latu remains a Championship player. I can’t remember a game yet where he has looked as if he’s physically tiring so the chances are he has a fair bit more in the tank should it ever be needed when things are looking tight.

When he arrived at Cov, Rowland Winter described him as:

a hard-working, no-nonsense, abrasive back row which is exactly what we want, he is more than comfortable at 8 or 6, and he’s got plenty of rugby left in him

Six months on that remains the perfect description of him.

At the time I was somewhat sceptical of RW’s decision to bring in Tuitupou and Makaafi purely on the basis of their age. At a time in their careers when most players would be thinking of hanging up their boots, to take on the two of them for two seasons and expect them to produce the kind of performances good enough to see us into the Championship just seemed a step too far.

But that’s what the ill-informed like me do, we form judgements without giving thought to the knowledge and experience of those making the decisions. RW knew exactly what he was getting and left me and others who thought something similar to self-flagellate and ask for divine forgiveness.

I’m not too proud to say I was proved wrong from day one.

The way Latu is playing at the moment suggests that another 18 months shouldn’t be a concern as far as his fitness or desire to play are concerned.

Latu, ball in one hand, running in unchallenged to score against Loughborough – (photo courtesy of John Coles)

For me, Latu is the archetypal rugby-playing South Sea Islander. Big, bruising, hair everywhere, preferring to run straight and hard and always trying to keep the ball alive wherever possible.

Cov supporters have always warmed to the Latus of this world, the players who give their all every game and who aren’t in the least bit showy, who just get their heads down and do what is required of them.

The crowds this season have taken readily to Latu and he always get a great reception when he leaves the pitch, something he is quick to acknowledge in return. He’s an exciting player to watch because he’s so physical and clearly relishes the big impacts the modern game seems to generate. At times he’s almost like a third centre, hanging off from the maul to take the crash ball, drawing in defenders with the ability to off-load in the tackle, or simply power through the opposition defences.

He’s often the Cov receiver  from opposition restarts and he appears to like nothing better than to run straight and hard, setting up quick ball more often than not.

There’s probably been no better example this season of Latu’s ability to run through the tackler than in the game against Moseley just before Christmas. Following the restart after Cov had been awarded a very, very harsh penalty try (well, I thought it was at the time and the slow mo hasn’t changed my view one iota), Latu takes the ball and breaks through the first line of defence, makes good metres and feeds a marauding Nile Dacres and just three or four phases later we’ve scored.

Straight from the kick off and without Moseley laying a hand on the ball.

It’s worth watching the highlights of the Moseley game again (or if you’re like me, again and again and again – thank you Martin) to remind yourself of just how strong a runner Latu is – the restart is on 2 minutes 20 seconds.

Having players who can offer that degree of physicality is a huge bonus. He’s not a typical 6 in some respects as, unlike Brett Daynes for example, he’s not used greatly in the line-out, although when Luke Narraway plays alongside him there’s no need for him to do so anyway. Nor is he as tall as some, and with Jack Preece at 7, there isn’t the height that you often find in back rows at this level.

But Latu’s value isn’t just in attack. Defensively, he is fearsome in the tackle and such is his strength, he can wrap a player up, thus slowing opposition ball down giving his team mates the opportunity to work the ball free in the maul or forcing the referee to give Cov the scrum as the ball hasn’t been grounded.

Even last season I think it’s fair to say Cov lacked real steel in the back row, good as players like Darrel Dyer were. Olly Povoas looks to have that and is definitely one for the future and on the occasions he’s played he’s never looked out of place, but RW knew from the start that last year’s squad was a young one and it lacked the key players with experience across the spine of the team.

Latu’s arrival has ensured that the harder edge that RW mentions below is now present and the combination of Makaafi, Narraway and Preece seems to work well as indeed it should, given that this is a back row a class above anything anywhere else in National One:

Latu is undoubtedly one of the best back rows in the Championship…he’ll bring a harder edge than we’ve had this season and I think he is the type of player we have been missing. He’s a hard-working, no-nonsense, abrasive back row which is exactly what we want, he is more than comfortable at 8 or 6, and he’s got plenty of rugby left in him.

 

Whilst he can play at 8, there’s no real cause for him to move into the middle of the back row as if Luke Narraway is unavailable, then Brett is comfortable there anyway.

He also seems a genuinely nice bloke, too and is seldom without a smile when not playing. It wasn’t until I went over to Jersey that I realised just how well thought of he was. He had first played for the islanders as far back as 2006 and was their first professional rugby player. He got a great cheer when he game on over there in the Summer and talking to a couple of locals, it was evident that they still have a great fondness for him, as he does them:

Makaafi first arrived at Jersey in 2006 as the club was beginning its stunning rise. “They really look after me because they know I turned up from Tonga and came here,” he said.

“It’s not about the club, it’s not about rugby, it’s about a family. Everyone knows everyone and everyone hangs out together”.

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I always enjoy watching Latu as in many respects his style of play typifies the brand of rugby that Coventry has come to play over the last couple of seasons. Whilst he is a powerhouse of a forward, he also has the ability to be creative and brings others into the game  ensuring that forwards and backs  play together, which always makes it that much harder to defend against. It’s no surprise that he regularly features in the man of the match polls in this blog, together with Cov’s other flanker, Jack Preece.

Latu has fitted extremely well into the Cov family and I would love to see him have his swan song back in the Championship next season. If we do go up, every game is going to be a real challenge and we’ll need even more players of his experience and ability and, whilst no one is ever irreplaceable, finding another Latu Makaafi might be easier said than done.

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Half way there now – six places left and just look at some of the names not yet included: Pete White, Andy Brown, Luc Jeannot, James Stokes, Max Trimble, Cameron Gray, Tony Fenner, Dave Brazier, Matt Price, Jack Preece, Nile Dacres, Nathanel Titchard-jones, Brett Daynes, Jimmy Litchfield, Phil Nilsen, Will Maisey and Scott Tolmie – there’s 17 players for just the remaining 6 places for starters…

There are going to be some big names outside of the top 12 in six days time!

Day 7 tomorrow…and maybe another surprise?

 

Current standings – Coventry Rugby Club MVP poll 2017:

Day 1 – Anthony Mototo (12th)

Day 2 – Phil Boulton (11th)

Day 3 – Heath Stevens (10th)

Day 4 – George Oram (9th)

Day 5 – Sam Tuitupou (8th)

Day 6 – Latu Makaafi (7th)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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