Fans’ Forum – April 2018
As Jon Sharp pointed out early in the proceedings, success breeds success…
…which probably explains why yesterday evening’s open invitation to supporters to join him and Rowland Winter was by some distance the best attended of any previous forum.
But then I’m not to clever when it comes to guestimating numbers.And it was an interesting 90 minutes or so, with contributions from Jon Sharp, Rowland Winter and Phil Boulton going over things old and new, with the audience given every opportunity to ask questions at any point in the presentations.
Apologies if this review of the evening is somewhat rushed – I’d like to get it completed in just the one post and as I’m already starting the writing of it at a fairly ungodly hour, there’s every chance that one or both of us will be asleep before what should be the post’s conclusion.
Inevitably there will be things I’ve failed to include, although hopefully nothing major.
Should anyone reading this and who was present last night spot any glaring errors or omissions on my part, please do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to amend the post asap.
Despite suffering from a ‘cough, a tickle and a sore throat’, Coventry’s Chairman, Jon Sharp, opened proceedings by talking about the club’s future plans for the stadium. He shared with us a couple of the ‘extreme’ artist’s impressions of what the stadium could look like after a series of phased developments, dependent obviously on acquiring the appropriate funding.
A considerable amount of time and money has already been spent working with architects. Great pains were taken to assess everything from the ergonomics involved in potentially bringing Premiership rugby to the ground, to maximising spectator experience. The central aim is to create a multi-sports stadium in the centre of the city that will generate further revenue to finance the playing side of the business…
Most likely, development of the ground will be over three main phases:
- an artificial surface at a cost of £1.5m, to include low level lighting and an irrigation system. There would also need to be additional changing rooms including those for women, children and the disabled – although as I read it, these would be part of that £1.5m spend. From what was said during the course of the evening I got the distinct impression that the plan is for the pitch to be ready for next September (2019);
- at the railway end a second stand would be built, to include additional bar and hospitality areas;
- a larger stand at the city end would finally be erected to also incorporate perhaps a hotel and/or apartments (and shops, I think?)
A couple of display boards were available (see below) showing what this could look like, although again this is the extreme scenario and is dependent on monies which, as of now, are not available.
Pretty hard not to get excited, but they are only plans…
However, JS stressed that for any of the above to go ahead the club must be financially secure, which is currently is. Any development of the ground must be sustainable but he sounded confident that monies would be forthcoming – just how much of course is very much an unknown. The ability to put out a competitive rugby team would never be compromised.
The three-year deal with current sponsors Unipart comes to an end this season. With Championship rugby beckoning, and as a result far more opportunities for exposure at a national level across a range of media, the club aren’t rushing into a decision as to who the next major sponsor(s) will be. The club will provide further details as and when…
In essence then, the stadium will be developed ‘incrementally’ and are looking at perhaps offering naming rights etc, BUT whoever the club opts to work with, it will be in the form of a partnership only – the club will neither sell its soul or its assets to any potential backer.
The club has received ‘100% support’ from the council.
Whilst plans maybe ambitious, the ground has already been deemed to be ‘Championship compliant’ following meetings with Championship representatives. JS stressed that a phenomenal amount of work has had to go into preparing for Championship rugby, citing as just one example a seminar on counter terrorism that he has recently attended, with more to follow (at the Ricoh!!!).
The move to Championship rugby is not without its complications but the club is addressing everything in readiness for a smooth transition in August/September.
Rowland Winter followed John Sharp and started by inviting questions from the floor about anything and everything connected to the 2017/18 season.
The first question reflected the mood of supporters:
So, Rowland at what point in the season did it all go wrong?
After plenty of chuckles, Rowland mentioned how much Saturday’s defeat had hurt. For the coaches and the players it wasn’t so much about the result as the performance and he was brutally honest, as he so often is, suggesting that in 8 or 9 games this season Cov had underperformed, at least in comparison to the outstanding levels achieved in the other 19/20 games.
Whilst for the most part the team has been able to get away with some substandard performances, in the last couple of games this hasn’t been the case.
RW was asked if he had learned anything new about his players following the DMP game. No was the answer. There were probably 23 or 24 players in the current squad who shouldn’t be up for selection on Saturday, the result of carrying minor niggles and so on. There are probably only 14 fully fit players and there will be those who play who need aren’t anything like 100% fit. Despite looking sharp and scoring a couple of stonkers, Max Trimble was carrying an ankle injury last weekend, one of many players who perhaps shouldn’t be playing. RW was in no way making excuses, just stressing that the current campaign has taken a lot out of the players and it’s beginning to show now as the season draws to an end.
Everyone connected with the club, the players, coaches and management, have reached ‘unbelievable heights’ since 18th June last year and mentally it’s no wonder something has to give.
For many of the players, promotion has been the target for the last couple of seasons; for everyone the last 10 months. Now they’ve achieved it, it’s only human nature to take the foot off the gas. RW admitted that he is just as guilty – since Caldy he has had to also focus on the pressures of preparing for next season and at times it’s been difficult to keep an eye on the day-to-day preparations as well.
Another question from the floor was about what Cov could expect from Hull this Saturday given the dire situation the club currently finds itself in at the foot of the table. They are currently two points behind Rosslyn Park and Loughborough who each have a game in hand as well.
RW’s answer was quite revealing in many ways. Rather than dwelling on just how much Hull need the win, he mentioned the talk the players had been given before yesterday’s training. They were asked to think of the embarrassment involved in picking up the championship winner’s trophy at 4.45 pm on Saturday having just lost to one of the teams at the bottom of the league.
Losing to Ampthil and Darlington is one thing, both being near the top of the table and always likely to cause Cov problems. Losing to Hull at home, though, would be something entirely different. Any team is capable of beating any other in National One…but even so. That should be motivation enough.
Saturday is very much about Cov and not about the opposition. Whatever the result on any given Saturday, the following week is about how the players can improve their own performances and those of the team. This week is no exception. For a coach, the weeks where Cov has lost or underachieved are always the most interesting…
Rowland Winter then looked at the Playing Pathway, explaining something of its history and what developments were planned for mid-term.
In 2016, alongside the senior squad the club there were 6-8 players in the Development Squad and in 2017 this number was increased to 30. The club entered the Zoo League and despite some problems the DS played 16 or 17 games, probably 3 fewer than expected, with a number of the youngsters being involved in senior squads in what has been a championship-winning season.
From September 2018 onwards, whilst still very much still remaining a player in the senior squad, Phil Boulton will take up a full-time role overseeing the newly formed U18s group. I’m not sure I quite followed how this will work but it was something to the effect of each month Phil and his team providing coaching and guest sessions for the first three weeks (on a peripatetic basis) and in the fourth those that are deemed to be the most talented youngsters on display will be invited to the ground to train for one evening and play in a game another.
Below the Premiership it appears the U18s aren’t particularly well catered for and this is very much seen as a way of bridging the gap across the city and even further afield. Even Wasps will only take in approximately 5 in that age group, so there are many very talented youngsters who are getting little quality support locally.
It is hoped that the U18s will have games against Premiership and Championship sides, all friendlies, together with the likelihood of an end of season tour.
In 2019 Cov will increase their U18s intake and look to enter a league and from 2020 there will be a fully developed U18s cohort as well as the introduction of an U16s group.
Cov aren’t looking to replicate the Henley set-up, it’s rather designed to run alongside that offered by Warwickshire and improve upon it, addressing the current underlying issues and identifying local talent at that age group that is presently going undiscovered. RW repeatedly made the point that it is his aim to ensure that in the years to come Rob Knox isn’t the only Cov lad playing for his local Championship (or Premiership!) side.
The coaching structure available to the U18s will be a quality one – led by Phil B (currently taking his Level 3 qualifications and working with Earlsdon as well) and supported by Jake Sharp (a Level 4 coach already) and Nick Walshe as well.
One of things PB will be undertaking is to work with schools to encourage more teachers to offer rugby as part of the curriculum. With Matt Price going off to further develop his business interests, it’s been an opportunity for the club to restructure its own community development/engagement programme.
There will be another addition to the team with a new Community Manager who will focus on community engagement and whose task it will be to increase participation in sport, provide fun opportunities for youngsters and ensure that the core values of sport generally, and rugby in particular, are upheld.
The remit will include:
- involving youngsters from 2-6 (Tots Scheme?) through delivery at nursery/schools;
- providing sporting experiences on match days, to include tours, activities and so on;
- building positive futures for NEETs (those not in education, employment or training) – ie those for who education hasn’t necessarily provided them with the best of starts for whatever reasons
The club will begin by offering fun zones around the ground where very young children can be offered exciting and enjoyable activities that will keep them occupied whilst allowing parents to also relax and enjoy the rugby as well. In so doing, it’s hoped the youngsters will ‘fall in love’ with Cov and become the supporters of the future.
There will also be cashback schemes for schools/colleges offering them incentives to sell tickets and a Cov Kids’ Club, about which more will be revealed shortly.
All the above, especially the team that will be led by Phil, is designed to spot and nurture talented youngsters at all levels. In addition, parents and/or teachers can get in touch with the club about players who might benefit from being part of these sessions, or indeed additional ones and this applies to those outside of the city as well – for example Kenilworth or Leamington.
(At this stage a question was asked as to whether players prefer a synthetic surface to a grass one. RW mentioned Ealing and how they had adapted their game to the artificial playing surface far better than most clubs. Phil B stressed that as a forward a good grass surface was always preferable to him, although he recognised synthetic surfaces were the way forward. He felt that Rosslyn Park’s inauspicious first couple of seasons with an artificial surface was as much the result of poor recruitment as anything. Nb…He also was at pains to stress the appreciation felt by the players for the support they had received from fans all season).
RW then moved on to the Development Squad. The current group of players will be reduced to a just 20 players next season, with perhaps 10-12 of this season’s squad being retained. Promotion has raised the bar to the next level and for some of the current youngsters it’s just a step (or leap) too far and they need to be playing their rugby at the appropriate level for them next season.
Those 10-12 who stay will be augmented by another 8 or 9 and there will be a new head coach to take charge of them. The appointment has already been made and is someone currently attached to a Premiership side and who has been a DoR in National One this season. He is a specialist in player development. All sounds very encouraging…
In terms of club personnel, there will be two full-time analysts next season with Matt Harland taking overall responsibility with his assistant also working with the DS squad. The DS side will have its own team manager and S+C and rehab/medical support. In short, they will be very well catered for indeed with a support team of 15-16 in total (RW was quick to stress they weren’t all receiving payments!).
It is hoped the DS will play something in the region of 18 fixtures next year, including some against Premiership and Championship sides (include U23s) and whilst they are still entered in the Zoo League, that might change if there are enough fixtures available elsewhere. Games might well be on days other than a Saturday and hopefully will be ‘married’ into the Championship fixtures when they are released. Two Wednesday DS games against Championship sides have already been announced.
RW gave a few details of the new competition to replace this season’s B&I cup. There will be three leagues, organised geographically and we’ll be in the North League, along with Nottingham, Doncaster and Yorkshire Carnegie. Each team plays the others home and away and the top two advance into the quarter finals. RW is a firm believer that cup runs create momentum and as such Cov will be in it to win it, so-to-speak, and the coaches will endeavour to pick the best team available.
RW then talked about how the current squad stands for next season as of now…no great surprises here.
He confirmed that Waita Setu, Matt Price and Jimmy Litchfield would all be moving on, explaining that whilst Jimmy L was the most capped prop over the last couple of years it was felt that he wasn’t yet good enough to play in the Championship for Cov and at the age of 24 he needed to gain experience at another club. That said, he will be joining a Championship side (which underlines how ambitious Cov are really)…
He also mentioned that Nathaniel Titchard-Jones, Ben Palmer and Fraser Dingwall would all be back next season. Also included on the senior squad list was Cameron Gray which is really good news given that he’d seemed to go off the radar for a while.
In answer to a question regarding how happy RW was about how well those recruited for next season will buy into the club ethos, the DoR said he had met with over 80 players in the last 7 months and given that we have only taken on 14 in total, the implication is that the recruitment process is thorough! Those who do join us are seen between two or three times before a decision is made and there have been several players from top clubs who haven’t been recruited simply because it was felt that, despite their obvious ability, they just wouldn’t fit in for whatever reason…
Phil B made the point that for many Championship players the opportunity to player for a traditional club upholding traditional values and playing in front of a proper crowd is just too good to miss. Ealing play in front of just 500-600 supporters for instance and it’s all a bit soulless and the least said about Rotherham’s ground the better (I’m censoring what he actually said as ‘shithole’ might not be wholly appropriate 🙂 ).
Sam Tuitupou is out of plaster now and is desperate to play again and would have done so this weekend had he had is way. His attempts to persuade Hannah that he’s fit enough and his leg strong enough, even though the plaster was removed just days ago, unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears. Although something of a practical joker, his professionalism is unsurpassed by anyone else in the club and he just can’t wait for the Championship season to start.
Next season Cov will be allowed to field an average of 6 non-EQP (English qualified players) in their match day squad of 22 over a period of a month. Failure to do so would result in the RFU withholding that month’s payment. So as I understand it, you could play more than the 6 non-EQP players in one game provided that over the month it averages out at only 6. Squads can include any number of non-EPQ players, it’s only those in the match day squad who are counted.
There will be a number of additions to the support teams prior to the start of next season, indeed some have already started. There will be another full-time physio to work under Hannah Walker and a new club doctor (I think as I understood Phil Nilsen’s wife was filling the role currently, or had been?)…
Max Hartman will shortly launch the Cov Performance Centre which will be centred in the newly created gym at the railway end of the ground. It will offer a variety of classes run by Max or his support team and will be a commercial business the revenue of which will be ploughed back into the club.
The new GPS system will be used to replicate match day conditions in training and is already having an impact. For instance, it’s been determined that the ball is in play an average of 37 minutes per game and so training sessions will try and reflect this – any longer and that might lead to fatigue, any less and players might struggle in match conditions. The same is true of the distances players travel during a game and so on.
Stats generally will be analysed in far more detail and to facilitate this there will now be two full-time members of the support staff crunching the numbers (and I believe that Jake Sharp is also a bit geeky in that respect 🙂 )
RW mentioned that Jake Sharp as well as coaching the youngsters will also be involved in coaching the seniors too and now that Cov are no longer directly in competition with Loughborough, we might see Boris Stankovich back working part-time with the forwards, perhaps for a session a week. Now that’s something that I’m sure will go down well with most supporters!
As for the impact the removal of rolling subs will have, well RW was again upfront when he suggested it wasn’t clear as yet. The coaches will know their players well and by September and it will be obvious which players will make a greater impact from the bench and which players will start to tire earlier than others. Generally, the experienced players are better starting and making an impact early on, whilst those relatively inexperienced are better finishing a game, although that is something of a generalisation obviously.
In terms of setting targets for a promotion into the Premiership, RW stressed that the first target was a top 4 finish – after that targets would then be reassessed. When the question was asked, it was worded in a way to suggest that clearly Cov won’t be promoted in the first two or three seasons. RW’s reaction was an interesting one.
He looked absolutely deadpan when he asked of the questioner ‘Why not?’ and later on he referred to promotion being a possibility in 8 months time. I’m sure he was just challenging the audience to set our targets as high as he and his coaches/players sets theirs, but usually there’s a mischievous twinkle in his eye or a faint smile, but not this time. From what he intimated, I think he feels Cov could fare okay and we can expect a similar season to his first at Cov – a slow start and a much stronger finish. It is a squad more than capable of playing in the top half of the league.
He did state unequivocally that whilst he’s at the club, Cov will always play attacking rugby. Game plans might have to be a bit more pragmatic at times given the type of rugby played in the Championship, but he and Nick Walshe always favour enterprising rugby. Game management will need to improve, as will the quality of the kicking (something Jake Sharp will be focusing on as coach).
At this stage I was struggling to keep up, but it was virtually the end of the forum by then anyway.
After RW, JS finished by stressing that a culture of investment is vital if the club is to develop further and details of how everyone can get involved will be released shortly. He finished by saying 190 season tickets have so far been purchased, 25% of them by new members which he felt was an encouraging start considering the current season isn’t yet over.
That’s it then…as I warned at the start, a bit rushed towards the end but it’s pretty much all there, or at least the most important bits are.
I think everyone appreciated the openness and honestly from both JS and RW, as well as some of the insights from PB.
The plans for the future, both on and off the field, are bold and progressive…
…being a Cov fan right now feels pretty darn good.