The Friendlies – Season Four: Episode One – the one with the Cup
1204 made their way to the BPA yesterday.
The vast majority of them Cov fans.
Those Moseley fans who were present saw their side simply outgunned by Coventry who looked particularly sharp and focused for what was, after all, only the first of the pre-season friendlies.
Cov were into their stride quickly and appeared full of confidence as they eased their way past a Moseley side that struggled to match Cov in almost every phase of play.
Whilst a number of players in the Coventry squad had impressive games, one of the highlights for me was the strength and pace of current Tongan international, David Halaifonua.
As debuts go, his was pretty special.
In the opening couple of minutes the destructive power of his running was evident as the Moseley hooker, Ryan Roach, attempted to tackle Halaifonua pretty much head on and in doing so received what was clearly a serious injury to his neck/back.
Both team physios were on the scene quickly, but it took a full 15 minutes to stabilise Roach and get him onto a stretcher; it was clear from his lack of movement that it wasn’t something that could be hurried. He did seem to have some arm movement as he left the pitch to what was a generous round of applause from a very concerned crowd. Hopefully, it was one of those injuries that looked far worse than it actually was and the time taken to get him off the pitch was as much about precaution as it was about necessity.
Fingers crossed, he’ll be back to full fitness in no time.
I’m sure we all wish the lad well.
The longer Halaifonua was on the pitch, the more destructive he was, causing the Moseley defence all sorts of problems. Invariably he seemed to run through the first tackle and, when he was held up, he was constantly looking to offload, drawing in defenders around him and freeing up space for Cov’s support runners.
Whilst he didn’t score, he did provide the most memorable moment in the game, for me anyway…
From a kick deep into our half, playing at 15, DH caught the ball in a bit of space. Whereas most players would first run slightly laterally just to given themselves time to look for the gap, or at least to spot a potentially weak point in the opposition’s defensive line, he just ran straight. And with lightening acceleration. He ran through several defenders who just seemed to back off.
The power he seems to generate is immense, yet he is a fluid runner who glides rather than sprints. It was the proverbial hot knife through butter. And a red hot one at that.
If he stays fit and remains motivated at this level, he’ll cause every team in the Championship problems.
As one wag sitting close to me suggested, it was a toss up as to who showed the greater reluctance – the Moseley fans to come to the game, or the Moseley defence to tackle Halaifonua.
A little harsh given the injury to Ryan Roach, but not unfair…
He was voted Man of the Match (by the sponsors, I presume) and whilst there were a number of other contenders I’d already given him the nod when names were banded around in the area we were sitting, although there were several other contenders to be fair.
I’ve always been a little dismissive of pre-season friendlies in the past as they rarely live up to their billing, with both sides prone to experiment with different players or combinations of players and, as a result, these games can often appear disjointed, disrupted by constant changes to both teams.
Not so this one, though…
…it was played at pace and whilst there were plenty of replacements made throughout the game, somehow the intensity was there for much of the 80 minutes, with perhaps only the last 15 minutes lacking some of the earlier precision in terms of the quality of passing and handling.
This is the third pre-season under Rowland Winter – in each of the other two, as a National One side playing a Championship side, we were never humbled.
Jersey and Newport Gwent Dragons beat us fairly comfortably in 2016, but there were periods in both games where Cov were dominant. In 2017, the games against both Jersey and Rotherham were tight affairs and whilst we lost them, we had chances to win both, too.
With the roles reversed yesterday and Cov now playing as a Championship side against National One opposition, we were a class apart. The gulf was huge. That, to me, is one of the most pleasing aspects of the game.
Moseley are no pushovers and even last season they had the better of us in the second half in the Christmas fixture at theirs after we’d blitzed them in the first 40 minutes.
There will rightly be mention made of a much bigger playing budget and that we’re no longer comparing like with like. It’s a perfectly valid comment, too. BUT we were never outplayed and outclassed over the previous two seasons against Championship opposition in the way Moseley were yesterday.
Credit where credit’s due…
Moseley toiled hard all afternoon and their fly-half made two good breaks on or around our 22 to create their only two scores, but take those two attacks out of the game and I’m not sure they seriously threatened our line in the remainder of the 80 minutes and much of the second half was played deep in their half.
Moseley will improve on their 7th placed finish last season, although by all accounts they haven’t recruited many players over the close season. However, they were powerless against a Coventry side that had far too much strength and depth in every position.
No criticism of Moseley at all. They kept on going until the final whistle.
However, they looked a little shell-shocked by the end and what little ball they did get, they were forced to try and play out of their own 22 in the face of a defence that held its line well and missed very few tackles other than those that led to the two Moseley tries.
Doubtless when interviewed about the game, the coaches will play it down and there will be areas they can highlight as needing a lot more work before the Jersey game, but the squad yesterday did all that was expected of it from a supporter’s perspective, at least from this supporter’s anyway.
Although the crowd wasn’t a large one by any measure, I’m pleased those players new to the squad this season have at least now sampled the roar from the main stand as they jogged back to the changing room. They will have been hearing about the crowds here at the BPA for several weeks now, so to actually play in front of what was a very appreciative one will hopefully have whetted their appetite for the bigger games to come…
…strange to be excluding Moseley when talking about the ‘bigger’ games this season.
If yesterday’s game is anything to go by, then Cov will continue to play their rugby in the Championship at pace and certainly the speed of passing was impressive at times, with several tries resulting from quick interchanges enabling the ball be moved out wide, creating overlaps or forcing Moseley’s cover to shift direction, leaving areas elsewhere exposed.
In the latter minutes of the game, a few errors started to creep in, but with play taking place 70 or 80 metres from the Coventry line and Cov’s defence rock solid for the most part, Moseley were forced into errors of their own or simply into kicking possession away.
The newcomers in the squad all got a decent run out and there were several individual performances other than Halaifonua’s that caught the eye. The lineouts and scrums seemed to go well and the catch and drive again featured in a couple of tries, so there’s every likelihood that the combined try tally of those wearing the 2 shirt is going to be well into double figures by the end of the season. Both Davidiuk and Tolmie scored yesterday.
Junior Bulumatau looked threatening and took his tries well and will add even more competition for a starting place out wide. I thought the young lock, Scott Russell, looked promising and carried well, and Charlie Beech put in a very decent first shift.
Tom Kessell came on early for Pete White who was injured in the process of scoring – Pete looked really fired up and I’m sure having Tom above him in the pecking order is going to raise his game even more.
There was no sign of Dave Brazier whom I’m sure will have a role to play given his ability, provided he isn’t loaned out. With Will Flinn coming on and appearing to fit in seamlessly, there are 4 very good 9s at Cov this season.
In the second half, I thought Jack Ram looked really sharp and must have been a close contender for the official MoM award. He’s very much in the Jack Preece mould, although probably even more mobile and he is going to be a real menace to opposition at the breakdown in particular.
Tim Bitirim also scored and did well enough to suggest that James Stokes (who scored two tries himself) and David Halaifonua aren’t going to have things all their own way this season.
I thought the two Bens, Adams and Nutley were fairly quiet by comparison, but when you add the likes of Latu, Adam Peters and Olly Povoas to the mix, there are plenty of options in the back row, especially when you consider Kailus Hutchinson and Nile Dacres have both been talked about as future 6/8s.
Most of the players from last season put in good shifts too. Both Will Maisey, in the first half, and Tony Fenner, for much of the second, looked comfortable at 10. Whilst Will Maisey probably gives the side more attacking options, Fenner’s defensive work at this level could prove really useful. He’s fearless in the tackle, probably too much for his own good at times, and if he can stay fit he’ll get plenty of game time.
High-profile signing, Jake Sharp, seemed to pick up an injury soon after coming on to replace Maisey at 10 so we saw relatively little of him. I understand he’s something of a playmaker, too, so he’s sure to add to Coventry’s attacking options. It might well be a case of ‘horses for courses’ at fly half this season.
Tom Jubb also picked up a bad knock, appearing to falter minutes after a fairly lengthy injury, having been taken out when jumping for a high ball. Whether the two were connected I’m not sure, but Tom has suffered concussion in the past. Hopefully it’s something and nothing and he’ll be back next week.
As pre-season openers go, this was as good as I can remember. Moseley are a big step up from the likes of Nuneaton and Broadstreet whom we’ve faced in the past. Yet Cov were far less effective as a National One side playing opposition from lower leagues than we were yesterday as a Championship side playing decent National One opposition.
I mentioned yesterday the danger of reading too much into these pre-season games, but it’s hard not to, given how good we looked against Moseley. The simple truth is, though, that the scoreline probably accurately reflects the gulf between the respective squads and as such is what we should have expected.
But what makes the result exciting is the fact that very few of these pre-season friendlies are as one-sided as this. These games don’t go true to form for any number of reasons. Ask Bedford who lost to Plymouth Albion on Friday.
That this one did perhaps suggests that the coaches have got it spot on and that the squad is exactly where it should be at this stage in the season…
Next week, Cov have a massive test in the form of Leinster.
Despite being advertised as the Development Side, Rowland Winter confirmed yesterday that Cov are expecting to play near enough a Leinster Academy side, equivalent in ability to the one that had the successful British and Irish Cup run last season, only succumbing to Ealing Trailfinders in the final.
And if that is the case, then it’s a significant step up in terms of the strength of opposition, although still most likely a little short of what we can expect from the top sides in the Championship this season given the B&I Cup was an opportunity for most clubs to play a mix of fringe first teamers and reserves.
Perhaps the fact that Leinster’s fringe players were fringe players in the Leinster squad that won the European Champions’ Cup might just raise the ante somewhat.
Those who decided not to come yesterday missed a treat.
Those Cov fans who did make it, enjoyed one.
Two cups won already and the season has yet to start…
Finally, here’s hoping Ryan Roach is back to full fitness shortly…and good luck to him and Birmingham Moseley for the coming season.
It’s getting a little late (or rather early to be totally accurate), so I’ll give the results to the poll re: attendance in the next post…apologies if you were hoping to see them in today’s.