There are some games that live long in the memory…
…yesterday’s will stay with me for ever.
Even the growing distance we had put between ourselves and the chasing pack in the intervening weeks since the original fixture was postponed back in December had done little to dispel the one real concern that lurked in the back of the mind – that Darlington Mowden Park could be the potential dream breakers.
With two games against us in the final 8 weeks of the season, the team from the north-east could yet have been the party poopers.
Unbeaten at home and comfortably ahead of Plymouth Albion and Ampthill, they’d done enough to justify the belief until their defeat down at The Brickfields the week before that there were still a few twists and turns left in the season before the title was finally decided.
But after the win yesterday, Cov now appear to be in the home straight with the finishing line in sight and the rest of the teams yet to hit the final bend.
Mowden’s defeat away to Plymouth had shifted a lot of the pressure on to the home side, with yesterday’s game very much a ‘must win’ for them.
Talk coming out of the north-east during the days leading up to the game had become centred around the race for second place rather than any potential title-decider and those who travelled up on the Supporters’ Coach yesterday left the BPA in a mood of quiet optimism for the most part.
Everyone seemed to be of the opinion that Cov could win, most that we would win, with one or two fearing a close defeat, although believing that in the end it still wouldn’t be enough to derail Cov over the remaining weeks.
No one, but no one, expected Cov to win in the manner they did.
I’m not sure what the equivalent in rugby is of the 180 checkout in darts, the perfect 10 in figure-skating or the 147 break in snooker…
…but what we were privileged to watch yesterday at the Northern Echo Arena must have been as close to perfection as I have seen from any Coventry side over the last 50 years or so.
There wasn’t an area of the game in which we weren’t dominant and a passionate and enthusiastic home crowd left the ground at the end of the game shell-shocked and in disbelief.
‘Nilled’ at home having been unbeaten in their 11 previous games.
What had been unthinkable beforehand was all too real by the end of the game.
In fact there were a number of the crowd who left well before then, unable to watch their team forced to play second, and at times even third, fiddle and having to dance to the tune of what is increasingly looking like the champions-elect.
Cov have had some big wins before, some strong performances, but not against such a high-fling side, in such a pressured situation and in such a dominant manner.
The Newcastle win was special, very special, against a side packed with internationals, but we hardly dominated to quite the extent we did yesterday.
Almost everything we did came off.
For atmosphere and excitement nothing will ever beat the Newcastle game.
For the quality of the rugby, yesterday’s performance is going to be difficult to surpass. Never mind that it was a league lower, within the context of the game and the opposition, yesterday was special.
Those of us who had witnessed Coventry’s capitulation at the hands of Blackheath just a few weeks ago and who have suffered the odd nightmare or two since, were able to sleep somewhat easier in our beds last night.
As we watched the players warm up and the crowd started to grow, there was a definite buzz to the place, even with over 23000 empty seats in the ground (that sounds so wrong)…
Supporters were seated in a relatively small area of the main stand and, sitting amongst the Mowden fans, you could tell that they were confident of the win – not of winning the league by any means – but of definitely making some sort of statement.
The PA did his best to drown out the cheers of the Coventry crowd who clapped and cheered as the Coventry squad left the field for the final time prior to kick off.
And when the players re-emerged, the atmosphere was as good as at any away ground all season.
Despite being outnumbered, the Coventry support was awesome. As Phil Boulton led the team out, the response from the Cov fans was huge and seemed as loud as anything you’d hear at the BPA. Many home supporters looked around initially to see where it was coming from and then at one another and it was clear they’d not seen anything like it before…
…which is pretty much what several would be saying when commenting on Cov’s performance an hour and a half or so later.
I had a quick word with Rowland Winter after the game and asked him if anything in training midweek had suggested that this kind of performance was on the cards. His response was that you never really know how the team will react on the Saturday – it had gone well, the players and coaches had worked hard in their preparation, but until that first whistle, you can never tell.
But from the moment Coventry kicked off, they were a side possessed.
Possessed by a total self-belief in their own abilities.
It’s probably wrong to be talking about the Man of the Match having got no further than the kick off, but come the end of the game there wasn’t a Coventry supporter, not a solitary one, prepared to single out any player as MofM.
Too often we talk somewhat generically about a ‘team performance’, but in this case there arguably wasn’t one out of the match day squad of 20 who didn’t have his best performance in a Cov shirt this season.
They all played their hearts out.
Cov had scored by the end of the second minute.
We kicked off, Mowden cleared the ball to half way, Cov moved the ball directly into the Mowden 22, won a penalty which was taken quickly ( a sign perhaps of the intensity in Cov’s play that was follow), and took play to within 10m, then 5m…
…and then Jubby was over.
No desire to kick to the corner. The tap ensured Mowden had no time to regroup.
It was efficient and clinical. Under the posts…
Will Maisey duly did the honours and Mowden were 7-0 down without even having touched the ball.
The perfect start.
And back Cov went from the restart. Cov stole the first of several line-out, James Stokes kicked into the Mowden 22 and we continued to pressurise until a forward pass enabled Mowden to clear their lines.
And then Mowden began to come back into the game and we entered perhaps the most crucial period of play as Mowden found a bit of confidence after that initial Cov success and, for perhaps 8 minutes or so, they exerted real pressure on the Coventry defence.
Camped in our 22, they went through phase after phase of possession, at one point getting to within a metre of our line. Cov conceded two, perhaps three penalties in good positions, with Mowden opting to kick for the corner on each occasion.
And we knew what as to come – the ubiquitous catch and drive. Each time though Cov were able to halt the Mowden pack, and on one occasion actually stole the lineout only to be forced back over our line for a Mowden scrum.
Cov’s tackle count must have been pretty impressive by the end of that period of Mowden pressure, but the thin red line held firm and resolute and Mowden could find no way through.
Whereas Cov’s line speed had been a little sluggish in some of the more recent games, we were quickly up yesterday clearing out the rucks and at the breakdown we were able to win good ball. Mowden just had no answer to our pace and power. Yes, we were a bit over zealous on occasions, but so were they and we did concede one or two penalties as a result, but playing with such pace as we did, that is always going to happen.
I can’t remember a single occasion until well in to the last 10 minutes that our defensive line was actually broken – and Mowden are no poor side either.
And after all that pressure and after yet another steal, Coventry got the ball out wide and within 20 seconds from deep within our on 22, the game was effectively over when we raced the full length of the pitch to score out wide. James Stokes touching down.
It was a killer blow.
After soaking up so much pressure, Cov were able to turn defence into attack and, as was the case all afternoon, our pace out wide was just too much for Mowden to cope with. 14-0 down and yet Mowden had had much the better of the previous 10 minutes. It was a huge blow to the home side and one from which they never really recovered.
After that they just didn’t look like getting back into the game and try as they might, Coventry’s defence held solid and Mowden were forced into trying to run the ball from deep which just didn’t work, with tackle after tackle limiting Mowden to sideways rather than forwards movement.
Coventry’s tactical kicking, limited in use in comparison to many away games this season, was accurate and highly effective. The Mowden defenders had a torrid time under Pete White’s box kicks, with the chasers causing panic amongst the receivers and who must have knocked on three or four times, with the young Newcastle Academy full back having a particularly difficult time of it.
The lineout became a really destructive weapon on their ball, with a number of steals and our own throw-in being watertight. The scrums, evenly matched to begin with, started to go Cov’s way after 30 minutes or so and, having conceded a penalty for the first scrum after Luc Jeannot’s arrival, we were then totally dominant with the youngster becoming increasingly influential as they game went on.
Some of the tackling was immense, with Grove and Stevens putting in hit after hit and, as fast as Mowden got up, Cov would knock them back down. Tactically we got it spot on and by half time we had built up a commanding 20-0 lead and the only worry was how Mowden would come out in the second half.
Whilst Coventry had dominated for the final 20 minutes, near enough, of that first 40, the scoreline was still close enough for Mowden to get something from the game. A slow start to the second half from Cov and the home side could still be back in it.
Yet it was Coventry that came out all guns blazing, with Cov scoring within 3 minutes of the restart and the bonus point secured just 4 minutes later.
47 minutes into the game and Coventry were 32 points up – with tries from Trimble and then Stevens (another one of those training ground moves in which the opposition can’t get close enough to even lay a hand on the scorer).
Replacements came off and back on and at one point we had a back row of Dacres, Nilsen and Daynes, but even then we still dominated. Everyone, but everyone, played their part.
Within 10 minutes of the restart the first of the Mowden supporters were making a discreet exit. The crowd were silenced and it was left to the Coventry supporters to make all the noise despite the best efforts of the beleaguered PA who regularly tried to gee up support, even whilst the ball was in play (poor form in my book).
In the end, even he decided it was a futile task for a good 15 minutes until Mowden game back into it a little in the final 10 minutes, with young replacement no 8 Simon Uzokwe making a real impact when he came on – even bouncing Sam Tuitupou as he made the tackle.
And that’s not something you see very often.
By the end of the game, Mowden’s biggest crowd of the season, 1789 (barely more than Cov’s average) was left shell-shocked but those around us were full of admiration for the Coventry performance, one that they hadn’t seen the like of before at the Northern Echo Arena.
The scenes immediately after the whistle were great to watch, with the Coventry players enjoying the post-match celebrations and showing great appreciation for the travelling support, being more than happy to spend a few minutes shaking hands and having their photos taken.
The hugs and handshakes amongst all the Cov players and officials were enough to suggest that they thought they’d put themselves into an almost unassailable position with what was the best performance of the season, of any recent season…and well beyond.
Coventry played at a level well above anything we’ve seen this season and I don’t think there is a team in the league who could have lived with us over those 80 minutes. Plymouth in a few weeks time is going to be tough, but if we produce that kind of performance, then we’ll have too much for them even away from home.
I’d even wager that the Hartpury of last season would have struggled to beat us had we been able to play with that degree of intensity and skill over at theirs last season.
It was a day that will be long talked about by those who were there to witness it. A great performance from a team that is on the verge now of achieving something special.
Thank you to everyone of the players and support teams who made it such a fantastic day out, and to the Supporters’ Club for providing the means to get there.
(And to Rob Moody for the loan of his coat…I’m so sorry).