When Irish eyes are smiling…

1Oct - by Tim - 2 - In Club talk

There’s a tear in your eye
And I’m wondering why
For it never should be there at all……

When Irish eyes are smiling
Sure, ’tis like the morn in Spring
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing

Bing Crosby  – When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Image result for irish eyes are smilingIf there were indeed any tears in the eyes of Cov supporters following Coventry’s narrow defeat to London Irish on Saturday, then I too would be wondering why.

(They) never should be there at all.

Cov had just produced a performance very much in keeping with the occasion.

A big one.

And even if the result didn’t quite reflect the feeling amongst many fans that the players had done enough to win the game against a skilful, resilient and doughty Irish side, it was a huge improvement on what coach Nick Walshe had rightly described as a ‘poor’ Coventry display the weekend before against Hartpury College.

A good few Irish fans had made the journey up to Coventry, but for much of the game they had little to celebrate as Coventry matched the visitors up front and, for the most part, looked the more threatening in the back line.

Cov were quickly up in defence and although at times Irish saw plenty of possession, putting plenty of phases together, their forwards weren’t able make headway and often even in our own 22 they ended playing the ball laterally with Cov eventually forcing the error.

And the Coventry crowd soon warmed to the players’ efforts, as they always do when Cov are the underdog at home. Cov rarely fail to deliver in these kinds of games.

Against Hartpury, the play had been far tighter with the ball seldom getting beyond the flyhalf until we were chasing the game a little. This time round, Cov seemed determined to keep the much-vaunted Irish pack out of the game as much as possible and as a result they played a more fluid, expansive game which was as effective as it was entertaining.

Cov put in near enough a full 80 minutes shift on Saturday; it was a real team performance.

It’s been said several times already, but this is a game we could have won.

Should have won?

Perhaps, although it was one of those games where both sides could argue their case effectively as there was so little between the two teams; small margins that’s all.

Once again, Cov made life tough on themselves – a penalty count of 13-9, better than last week but still too high, was arguably the difference between the loss and a potential win. All Irish’s points came directly from penalties we conceded – the kicks for goal and their two tries.

Both Irish’s tries came from training ground moves, to, and both the result of line-outs from Coventry infringements resulting in kicks to the corner. The first was a move from the back of the line-out, the second from the Irish centre choosing a great line and cutting us open in midfield.

Both perfectly executed.

That apart, there wasn’t much at all between the two sides and but for a forward pass here or a penalty for a dubious high tackle there, we might have witnessed one of the truly memorable Cov wins at the BPA.

This is beginning to feel very reminiscent of Rowland Winter’s first few weeks as DoR back in 2016 when Cov produced some inconsistent displays early on, especially away from home, before beginning to find some form in the run-in to Christmas. Back then, in our opening few games we had a couple of good wins but looked vulnerable away from home and our best performance was a narrow loss to Hartpury at home – not a dissimilar game to Saturday’s.

Two years on and whilst our home form remains good, on our travels we’ve looked far less confident and next week’s game against Richmond is one that I’d like to think could give us our first win on the road in the Championship. We certainly could do with it.

The week after, we play another of the teams that most Championship pundits believe will be in the bottom 3 or 4 in April – London Scottish.

Two very big games, but on the back of Cov’s performance against Irish, they are both very winnable. However, both teams recorded very good wins at the weekend, Richmond beat Hartpury 38-12 at home and, even more impressively, London Scottish beat Bedford 23-26. They also look to have found some decent form too.

The Irish fans brought lots of colour to the BPA on Saturday, but rather less noise…

But back to Saturday. Cov’s crowd was over 720 up on the next best attended game in the Championship and as far as I’m aware there were no problems with behaviour before, during or after the game – the message appears to be getting through.

The Cov faithful certainly got behind their team and although there were a fair few Irish fans, many colourfully attired too, they remained pretty quiet and as the game went on they had more and more to be quiet about.

They were extremely generous in their praise of Coventry and were as  magnanimous in victory as befits a club with its tradition and heritage.

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Having been a little bemused by the ‘policing’ of the main stand since it was first introduced at the Wasps game pre-season, I thought it worked well on Saturday. The stewards were there early and a brief show of your ticket quickly determined whether you were heading in the right direction – it didn’t seem to cause any hold-ups or unwelcome queuing.

I didn’t go into the clubhouse so I can’t comment on whether there were further problems involving queuing/bar service, but I didn’t hear of any complaints at the time and it’s not something that has been raised since – which might just show how a good performance on field deflects from any possible criticism off it.

The pitch looked in really good nick, as good as we’ve seen it for almost 12 months in fact. Eric’s efforts have been regularly acknowledged on here and elsewhere, together with those of his volunteer helpers. Fortunately, the weather played its part too and there was little wear to it during the game. Another two weeks should see further improvements to the one or two areas where the grass hasn’t yet completely returned.

Even an hour and a quarter before kick off, it felt as if the occasion was going to be a special one. The car park was already filling up and there was a buzz around the ground as more people than usual chose to sit in the stand rather than watch the football being screened in the clubhouse.

By the time the players had completed their warm-up and begun their now customary jog back to the changing rooms, the expectation was almost palpable:

As for the game itself, well it was breathless at times. Cov probably had less territory and ball in the first half and they went into half time with a narrow lead having defended deep in their own 22 on a several occasions, with Irish winning phase after the phase but unable to turn their advantage into points.

Cov even managed to hold the ball up over their line twice and in the end such was their tenacity in defence that Irish either made infringed or Coventry were able to steal.

Probably the biggest compliment paid to Cov all afternoon was in the early minutes of the second half when having been awarded a penalty well inside our half , Irish chose to kick the points rather than go for the corner, something they had declined to do on several plays in the opening 40. Coventry’s strength defensively appeared to have caused something of a volte face in terms of Irish’s game plan during the half time break.

Coventry, on the other hand, were growing in confidence and when Cov declined a similar opportunity a bit later and kicked to within 10 metres of the Irish line, they were able to convert what was brave decision into a try for Scott Tolmie.

The whole pack were superb and although Irish had come to BPA on the back of having shoved Bedford around all afternoon the week before, Cov had the dominant scrum in the first half. Jubb and Voss/Gray (and how well did he play when he came on?) were again commanding in the lineout and whilst we did lose two on our own throw, Irish lost 4.

The backrow were imperious and for me. Peters and Ram, in particular, were candidates for my Man of the Match award, together with Sam Tuitupou who is looking better and better with each game. David Halaifonua was made MoM by the sponsors, but although he threatened a couple of times, I thought it was in defence that he looked most assured.

Behind the scrum Kessell and Sharp looked secure and  seemed to have the makings of a strong pairing.  I was delighted for Jake Sharp – to come out and play with such confidence in the face of what has been a tough few days in terms of what was unwarranted criticism, criticism of which he was well aware, showed great character.

He doesn’t look as if he’s going to be a side-stepping, quick-footed flyhalf who likes to break defences with a swerve of the hips or a neat side-step, but he clearly has good hands and a good rugby brain and several times he set the backs moving with some inventive play. He reminds me a little of Luis Criscuolo, a player who was a bit of a maverick when he was at Cov but be could unlock defences with the most audacious of plays and I can see Sharp having the vision to do something similar as he grows into his role here at Cov.

He also took one or two heavy hits but was quick to get back up.  No shirker, that’s for sure.

His performance on Saturday was the best possible response to the worst of the criticisms levelled at him after the Hartpury game – other than perhaps a two-fingered salute.

His kicking also looked far more secure and he put Irish on the back foot on several occasions with some big, booming howitzers which were chased down well by the Coventry flyers, as well as some probing kicks which made us good ground.

Kessell remains a bit of an enigma to me. He’s a quality player, but no more so than the likes of Tigger Dawson, or Shaun Perry back when we were last in the Championship. It was noticeable that the introduction of Pete White and Rob Knox coincided with Cov stepping up the tempo and taking the game more to Irish when it was most needed.

I’m not quite sure what has become of Will Maisey, but at the moment it is Jake Sharp who holds all the cards after Saturday. Will will have to bide his time I imagine, but he has done so in the past and his time will come again.

Andy Bulumakau didn’t seem to be able to make quite the same impact out wide as he has when he’s been in midfield and I thought Rob’s greater physicality when he came on caused Irish a few more problems.

When fit, Dave Halaifonua is always going to be the first wing pencilled in, but so far out of Andy and Junior Bulumakau and Rob, I think my preference would be for Rob, although that probably offers you slightly less out-and-out pace. Max Trimble will also soon be back into the equation so there are plenty of options, but I do think Rob will get plenty of game time this season.

I’d arrived at the ground believing that I’d be happy to come away with a point.

I left disappointed that it hadn’t been four.

Irish eyes were indeed smiling come the end of the game, but more so out of relief than a genuine sense of pleasure at the quality of their side’s win..

We had Irish on the ropes at one point, but we just lacked that final knockout blow – when we were 17-18 down, I would have put money on a Sharp penalty or drop goal to win it for us in the dying seconds of the game.

We’ve been rather spoiled in these past couple of seasons – after the home defeat to Hartpury back in 2016, I think we’ve pretty much won all the games that have ended up with a margin of less than 5 or 6 points and we’ve got used to nail-biting finishes going our way.

It was a thoroughly entertaining game and even though Cov lost, having watched the game and experienced the atmosphere, I felt proud of what had been achieved. Whilst some supporters had been quite upbeat about the performance against Hartpury, and I’m not sure why, we’d all needed a bit of a lift. The response the coaches got was impressive and there was a real sense of a growing self-belief the longer the game went on.

Richmond on Saturday is another huge game for Cov, but we’re in a season of huge games and every fixture is going to have significance in a league where the difference between fourth in the league and twelfth doesn’t look to be nearly as wide as I thought it would be. Results have been unpredictable so far, so if Cov can leave RAG with an away win, then that would be something really special…

After all, Hartpury couldn’t manage that this last weekend…

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Good luck to London Irish for the rest of the season – quite whether their eyes will still be smiling in April is unclear, but they’ll do well to go unbeaten on the form they showed on Saturday.

With Coventry still recruiting and with at least one more player still to come, then by the time we meet them in the second half of the season, I rather expect us to be a stronger side then than we are now.

Saturday’s performance was encouraging, but we must also play like that against some of the teams in the mid-table and below as well; we can ‘t just save such performances for the best sides in the Championship.

So, be warned Richmond…

 

2 thoughts on “When Irish eyes are smiling…”

  1. Good blog Tim. And one player who knows the pitch well at Richmond is Jake Sharp Havin been at co tenants London Scottish. Very much enjoying the Championship it’s certainly a step in class from ND 1. My player of the month would be Tom Jubb always puts in a hgoo shift on the field.

    1. Thanks, Mick – great point about Jake, although having seen the team sheet, RW doesn’t feel that’s significant enough to include him. Maybe he’s saving him for Scottish next week? You know my thoughts on Jubby – if ever a man gives his all when he’s out on the pitch it’s TJ

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