Apologies for the title.
Fans of Hanna-Barbera will best be in a position to understand…
The pressures of leading a title chase over several months are now long gone. Players have been able to relax a little and, whilst it certainly wasn’t a case yesterday of demob fever creeping in, nevertheless Coventry certainly lacked their usual intensity and discipline.
As a result, Ampthill appeared to want the win more. In fairness, the home side’s coaches would have needed little in the way of a team talk yesterday – a quick showing of the highlights of the earlier encounter between the two sides, back in December when Ampthill lost 63-14, would surely have sufficed?
Beating the league champions is always a good motivator, too.
And so it proved yesterday.Little else in the way of motivation would have been required, especially for several of the ex-Coventry players in yesterday’s side who would have been left smarting after what was a somewhat ignominious defeat back at the Butts.
James Pritchard, the former Coventry full back and defence coach and now resident at Ampthill, had been scathing in the way his team had succumbed to Coventry back then, questioning their efforts publicly in a tweet after the game. No such tweet was needed yesterday.
Pritchard had joined Ampthill originally on a short term contract last season after his departure from Cov, but now into his second season there he has been a regular for them, playing most of his rugby out on the wing.
JP had clearly been unimpressed by his teams efforts at the BPA:
Hard to sum today up really. Can’t play a game when no one wants to be there. Individually we need to go away and have a hard look at if we really want to be here. Extremely disappointing day for @AmpthillRufc
— James Pritchard (@JPritchard_21) December 9, 2017
He must have been extremely proud of his players yesterday, though, and his team ended up deserved winners in a game where the home side outplayed the league champions convincingly to win the game 22-10.
Director of Rugby, Mark Lavery, alluded to the win as being one of near biblical proportions:
It’s not often that David beats Goliath or a Town beats a City, the week went well and I thought we responded to last weeks disappointment in the right way.
Whilst I guess it is a rather obvious comparison to make in some respects, it is perhaps indicative of the measure of the performance and of what it might mean to the players and coaches.
Yesterday was the warmest day of the year by far, so much so that unbelievably there was a danger of sunburn for those spectators watching the game from the popular bank side.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the ground is like no other in the league. Not only is it some distance from the clubhouse, down what appears to be a country footpath in places, on arrival there is nowhere to shelter of any sort. You are completely exposed to the elements.
Fortunately weather-wise, yesterday was the first real day of spring and shirt sleeves and shorts were more the order of the day than raincoats and wellies. That said, it still made for a surreal stage on which to play a rugby game at what is, after all, a semi-professional level. The photo below was taken just 90 minutes or so before kick off and clearly shows what a beautiful, if somewhat remote, setting it is.
And the pitch….it was in perfect condition despite all the rain. I guess that’s what you get when it is only used a limited number of times in a season.
As the ground started to fill up, there was definitely an end of season feel to the occasion. The crowd was overwhelmingly blue and white in colour and expectations were high among the Coventry faithful. Having beaten Ampthill so comfortably at home earlier in the season and having won the league title at something of a canter, well why shouldn’t we expect anything but a comfortable Coventry win?
The afternoon almost had a Sevens feel about it, with Coventry deciding to erect its own covered awning of sorts for the players to change under after the end of the pre-match warm up to save them having to go all the way back to the changing rooms which were a good few minutes away. The afternoon had clearly been thought through by the coaches and preparation appeared thorough which makes the actual performance that much more of a surprise.
I make no excuses for the players. They were well-beaten in the end and the result was anything but acceptable given the high standards they have set themselves over the rest of the season, Blackheath excepted – a point well made by Kwaku Asiedu when he came onto the supporters’ coach prior to its departure after the game.
However, with so many of the players used to playing at grounds somewhat more geared to national league rugby than Ampthill’s, then perhaps given the situation they found themselves in, motivation wasn’t as great as it might otherwise have been.
Little was at stake yesterday for Cov really, other than pride, and although I’m sure the players had gone into the game having trained as thoroughly as for any other game, however much preparation they had done, it couldn’t have prepared them for what confronted them. Yes, most have played at Dillingham Park before, but not as league champions and not with so little to play for.
Ampthill were far quicker out of the blocks and were in Coventry’s faces from the first whistle. They clearly were relishing the role of party poopers and quickly saw an opportunity to de-throne the league winners and what’s more, they had the game to do it. It didn’t make for pretty rugby though. Ampthill had a game plan that worked for them and they stuck to it and in the end Coventry were far too one-dimensional and seemed unable to adapt their tactics once it became clear that a change in approach was needed.
Whilst I haven’t heard it officially, several supporters coming back onto the coach after the game had been told that a couple of players had been physically sick before the game and that there appeared to be a bug in the Coventry camp.
I mention this only now because it shouldn’t detract from what was a very impressive Ampthill display and to make too much of the fact would only I was I am in the business of making excuses for the team. I certainly won’t be an apologist. But if that is the case, it might go some way to explain why Coventry’s performance was so sluggish in comparison to what we have seen during so much of the season. I must add that I have no evidence one way or the other that it was a factor in Coventry’s defeat, just that it is what some supporters had been told.
That said, Rowland Winter himself probably best summed up Coventry’s display yesterday afternoon:
We lacked accuracy, our discipline was poor and we didn’t look after the ball which made it hard to compete, especially against a side like Ampthill on their own patch. We may have taken our foot off the gas but all credit to Ampthill who were better than us in every phase of the game. We must re-group for the remaining fixtures.
For the first six or seven minutes Coventry didn’t have hold of the ball at all as Ampthill showed exactly why they are such a difficult side to beat at home. They retained the ball well and forced Coventry into defending deep for much of that period and with the referee showing Coventry little sympathy, we were pinned back for much of that first half. Their forwards dominated the loose and made life increasingly difficult for us and despite the heat, they seemed to show little sign of its effects, despite the fact they included one or two ‘senior’ players.
Their back row appeared that much quicker to the breakdown and although I thought Jack Preece was back to something approaching his best yesterday, he was often isolated and Ampthill were able to clear the ruck and get good ball all too easily. On the rare occasions we did win possession, we failed to make good use of it, and I lost count of the number of times our passing was either inaccurate or we simply spilled the ball.
We had to survive on scraps, an interception here, a turnover ball there and it was often so deep in our own half that Ampthill had time for their defence to chase the ball down and start over again. Ampthill rarely missed a tackle whilst Cov, the further into the game and the more we were forced to chase it, the more our defence was incline to open.
In fact, it wasn’t until Nile Dacres was yellowed carded in the 33rd minute that we actually started to play with any real intelligence and it was when we were down to 14 men that we scored our only try, after good work from first Pete White (who would have been my MoM) and then Rob Knox allowed the forwards to carry the ball to the line, with Scott Tolmie eventually scoring the points.
Unfortunately for Tolmie, a couple of minutes later a clash of heads (with Brett Daynes by all accounts) saw the end of his game and potentially his season if he is deemed to have suffered any lingering concussion.
A 7-0 lead at half time was hardly deserved, but Coventry just weren’t able to capitalise. The set pieces were solid, although we lost a golden opportunity when a line-out throw appeared to go long deep in their 22 in the final quarter.
The second half became a fairly fractious affair, with Coventry falling foul of the referee far too often and the trusty boot of James Pritchard doing the rest. Ampthill’s first try, scored by former Moseley flanker Joe Bercis (whose dad appeared to be standing next to us) came from probably the best move of the game and after that Coventry were behind and chasing shadows for the rest of the afternoon.
Coventry’s discipline let them down again and for the final minutes of the game we had just 13 players on the pitch as both Stokes and White were yellow carded and there was a sense of inevitability almost as Ampthill scored their second and final try on 72 minutes.
It was a disappointing day all round as Coventry failed to produce anything approaching a performance befitting the league champions. Coventry’s fans, who had travelled down to Ampthill in numbers, had little to celebrate other than the relief that we won’t be having to visit Ampthill next season. Having lost in all three visits to Dillingham Park, it’s become something of a bogey ground for us and one that we’ll be glad to leave behind when we become a Championship side next season.
In some respects this was a more disappointing display than the one against Blackheath back in January. Admittedly we shipped far fewer points, some 40 less almost, but in the Blackheath game we scored 4 tries and looked to take the game to the opposition. In yesterday’s encounter we were surprisingly toothless in attack and in truth we rarely ventured into Ampthill’s red zone at all. Certainly the Blackheath game was a far, far more entertaining one to watch.
Whilst this was very much a Cov side weakened by injuries or absence, with Development Squad players Palmer, Asiedu and Priestley all on the bench ( and all of whom saw action earlier than might have been expected as Coventry suffered a number of on-field injuries as well), Coventry’s squad is big enough this season, and with enough depth, to cater for days like yesterday. Injuries shouldn’t be seen as an excuse as on the day Ampthill were better in virtually every phase of the game and sad, to say, we were second best by a distance.
There will be some moans about the referee again, but the yellow cards seemed justified to me, although it wasn’t always clear why we were being penalised at the breakdown as often as we were. Fortunately, the supporters were able to go home happy, as they will for the next two games as well, irrespective of the score, safe in the knowledge that Coventry will be playing Championship rugby no matter what next season.
It’s not one of the games where you can really apportion blame. It was more a question of it being another case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ in many respects. Maybe the players weren’t mentally quite up for the game as much as they needed to be, but I’m sure the coaches would argue that they’d worked on that midweek.
It would be a little churlish to be too critical of a side that has won 26 of its 28 games this season and perhaps therein lies the reason. The mental strains of leading from the front, with expectations so high – from the chairman, DoR and coaches right the way down to the supporters themselves – must have been draining and perhaps yesterday was a reaction to that fairly sudden release of pressure.
There were few complaints from any of the supporters I spoke to on the way home, all appreciating the team’s performances in the previous games. Talk was more about preparations for next season and not the conclusion to this.
There are still two games to go though and home ones at that. The performances over the last couple of weeks won’t have done much to pull in the kinds of numbers Cov are hoping for on the last Saturday of the season against Hull, but a strong display against DMP next weekend could yet address that.
Bad days at the office do sometimes occur. We all know that.
Cov will quickly be forgiven for what was, after all, just an off day among so many far more memorable ones this season.
After all, we are champions of National One and looking to join the top 24 élite clubs in English rugby once again…
I’m more than happy to settle for that this weekend.