The monkey on the back…
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends
And I can’t wait to get on the road againOn the road again
Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world be turnin’ our way
And our way On the road againWillie Nelson – On The Road Again
It might just be me, but the reactions from supporters to last weekend’s defeat to London Irish have seemed noticeably different to those of the players and coaches.
For many supporters, the consensus seems to be that Coventry’s performance was extremely encouraging and, despite the defeat, to have come away with a point against the pre-season favourites for the Championship was something of a bonus, no pun intended.
Much of the pre-match expectation focused on the need for an improved showing in front of a large home crowd in which Cov would look to make amends for a disappointing display against Hartpury.
And having got so close, Cov had regained much of its pride and sent a message out to the rest of the clubs in the Championship that at home at least, Cov are a match for anyone. Yes, we could have won it in the end, but there was more a feeling of relief, too.
Far from being humbled, Cov had run Irish close.
As I write this it occurs to me that I might be projecting a little too much of my own reactions here, but nevertheless that is how I read it. We hadn’t expected to beat London Irish, so coming as close as we did to what would have been the shock of the season so far in the Championship was as good as we could hope for.
Certainly the bookies shred that view…
Post-match interviews from players and coaches however, all seem to concentrate on the frustrations of a game that we lost, rather than Irish won. There was no hint Cov had expected anything else other than four points at least. I’ve not read or heard of anyone from within the club even remotely suggesting that Irish are particularly better than us, or that even that we excelled as much as they under-performed.
Comments from those actually involved in the game reflect a genuine belief that we had a number of decent chances that we wasted and had we not made as many unforced errors, the result could well have been different.
Certainly no sense of relief. Disappointment though, certainly. Frustration, too.
In a video interview with Paul Smith earlier in the week, Phil Nilsen mused:
We had a lot of chances, looking back we had maybe five or six chances that we ed tehcome out of attacking too early, knock the ball or turning it over too cheaply… “So we get those little bits of detail right and the game could have been won there.
And in a separate interview with Paul, Sammy Tuitupou was even more optimistic, believing that three or four away wins this season could ‘push us up into the top four‘. He suggests that although the players are on a pretty steep learning curve, Coventry certainly aren’t going to be phased by their first season in the Championship.
Sammy said of the game:
We put in a good shift and we felt it was one that got away from us…opportunities we missed – as a backline there were opportunities we should have scored and ended up taking one point out of the game when it could have been four…
‘Should’ and not ‘could’. Should suggests a desire without the outcome, could merely the possibility.
He and Phil Nilsen both commented on the difference in competing at home in front of the BPA faithful and playing away at grounds which are unfamiliar to some of the Cov players.
Nilsen accepts that whilst he has:
…played in the league a lot so I know a lot of the teams already, but a lot of the lads haven’t…it is a bit of a loosener for some lads, because the haven’t done that before.
but with a typical dose of northern reality goes on to say that:
At the end of the day, it’s a rugby pitch with two sticks on it. Surroundings, you can either think about it or not. If you think about it, it can get to you, so I try to put it at the back of the mind on the field
Nilsen goes on to suggest that our away form, two losses from two, as being down to a lack of confidence away from home as much as anything.
Given how we’ve not been able to reproduce anything like the performances against Jersey, Bedford and London Irish on our travels and coming as this does from a player involved in all five games so far this season, it’s a good insight into some of the reasons why Cov have yet to replicate home form away from the Butts.
On the excellent Rugby Show on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire with Alec Blackman, Richard Moon rightly talked about Coventry’s away record as being ‘the monkey on the (club’s) back‘ and such is the importance of picking up away wins in the Championship, an away win against Richmond on Saturday would go some way in reducing the pressure on the club, and for a lot longer than just a couple of weeks.
(I have to confess, I’ve only been listening to the Rugby Show in recent weeks but I’m something of a convert now. There’s plenty of interesting Cov chat and there’s often a supporter or two on as well to offer the fans’ perspective – well done to the Grover family this week).
The really encouraging thing for me of late is that in each of the last three Championship games Cov have been competitive, even bearing in mind we lost two of them. Against both Hartpury and London Irish we had chances to win irrespective of how well we actually played.
Whilst I can quite understand why it is that as a team Cov might be lacking in confidence so early on in their return to this level, there’s no reason for that to be the case on what we’ve seen so far. If Cov play to their strengths and don’t allow the opposition to play to theirs, then we should be a match for most sides even away from home.
Sammy T also suggested that Coventry aren’t as yet ‘mentally strong enough or tough enough‘ on their travels, a blunt statement but one that goes some way to explaining why perhaps we have under-performed away from home. There are plenty of experienced players in the Coventry side, but this is a team that is still very much a work in progress – the more they play together, the stronger they will get.
Cov suffered a similar problem away from home two seasons ago and I think I’m right in saying that in that first season under Rowland Winter’s tenure as DoR, our record away from home before Christmas was poor to put it mildly. Whilst we won at Hull and managed a draw at Darlington Mowden Park, the other away games all ended in defeats.
Cov still finished fourth, however, and post-Christmas we looked a very different side on the road to the one that struggled so badly in those early games. It took a while for the team to gel and for confidence outside of Fortress Butts to grow.
I think we’re probably seeing something similar this season and it would only need a couple of wins, starting with Richmond on Saturday, for things to change significantly. Easier said than done of course, and Richmond looked to have found some decent form with a comprehensive demolition of Hartpury last weekend.
🎞 TRIES 🎞
1 – great offload 👌
2 – super step 🕺
3 – dream line 🤩
4 – Fairy liquid hands 👐
5 – short-range snipe 🕴
6 – POWER 💪
— Richmond Rugby (@RichmondFC1861) October 2, 2018
As the clip above shows, Richmond look dangerous when they move the ball wide, although the last try demonstrates just how effective their forwards can be when they get a roll on.
It might just be my poor eyesight and the grainy nature of the footage when expanded to full screen width, but the Richmond 9 looks a dead ringer for Pete White.
He also looks a real threat.
Sammy T described Cov as appearing to ‘grow a third leg‘ in front of the BPA crowd, a quote that probably doesn’t stand quite so well in isolation, but there certainly seems an energy there that isn’t quite so evident when we travel.
The team can’t just rely on the lift they get from a packed and ‘partisan’ (as it was described in the London Irish match report) Coventry crowd. Good as the away support is, it’s never going to replicate the atmosphere of the BPA.
No, what’s required is a bit of Phil Nilsen’s pragmatism – wherever Cov play, whether home or away, ‘it’s still only a rugby pitch with a two ‘sticks’ on it‘.
I’m not sure as to how effective the use of psychologists are in sport but when Sammy T refers to the side as lacking a mental toughness, it seems the problem is as much in the mind as it is in the overall ability of the side. We saw last season just how effective Cov can be when they have the right mental approach – the nilling of DMP at the Norther Echo Arena must go down as one of the highlights of our time in National One.
Cov were ruthless that day, yet we’d been down to Blackheath a few weeks earlier and got turned over good and proper. There was no obvious reason to explain Cov’s performance that day, we just didn’t appear to be mentally up for it.
If it is a question of learning from our experiences, then the two defeats in the last two games must have taught us that at our best we can beat anyone and even when we play poorly, we’re still good enough to win games. Stop those basic errors, ensure that our discipline is a good deal better than it has been for much of the season so far and we’ll give ourselves a far better chance of success. Rowland Winter talked about ‘narrow margins’ and that’s all it seems to be…
Whilst I’m by no means ‘uber’-optimistic, despite the three losses I’ve been encouraged by Coventry’s performances so far this season. When the fixture list was first released, I was worried that we would be ‘found out’ by one or two teams so early in the season, but that just hasn’t been the case at all. There’s a lot to be confident about.
Like Hartpury did two weeks ago, Richmond provides us with an opportunity to take the next step in terms of consolidating our position in the Championship. Sammy T’s suggestion of perhaps a finish as high as fourth is a long way off unless we start to make our presence felt away from home as well.
A quick look at the table shows that four points at Hartpury instead of one would have put us fifth, and with games against three of the top five teams in the league already out of the way in this first half of the season, that’s would have made for an excellent start.
As it is, seventh in the table isn’t too shabby and I’m looking forward to the trip down to Richmond on Saturday, confident that Cov will be far more competitive than they were two weeks ago and more than capable of bursting Richmond’s bubble. Even so, with two wins themselves they are going to present a tough challenge in their own backyard.
With no team obviously struggling more than any other this season with the exception of perhaps Yorkshire Carnegie, it looks as if the bottom four or five clubs are all going to be closely grouped for some time to come. Like Hartpury, Richmond have the benefit of experience at the lower half of the Championship – two years of it in their case – something that must work in their favour. However, there’s more than enough experience in the Cov side to believe that even in a tight game, Cov can edge it.
Winter’s comments earlier in the week that Voss won’t be available this weekend and that the club are looking to make a late decision on James Stokes who is struggling with a hamstring, suggest there will need to be at least a couple of changes from the side that started against Irish. The Cov DoR has tended to make one or two changes on top of injuries anyway, so we might see a fair few.
I imagine that we’ll see a Championship debut this season for at least one of Oram, Woolford or Faleata and perhaps a return at full back for Halaifonua or Fenner. And whilst the loss of both Voss and Stokes would be a blow, the players coming in don’t weaken the overall strength of the side unduly.
With the Supporters’ Coach now full and a goodly number of fans making their own way there, Cov should be well supported on Saturday. Richmond’s average attendance this season is 935, but one of the two games at the RAG was a local derby that attracted 1506 (against London Scottish who share the same ground as Richmond), the other just 602 (against Hartpury). The lower of the two attendances is probably rather more reflective of Saturday’s crowd.
Amongst a crowd of that size, the players will be well aware of the Cov support. Another pre-game lift as they leave the pitch after the warm-up is a must.
Not quite home from home, but definitely a great opportunity for Cov to get that monkey off their back.
On the road again with the Supporters’ Club…
On the road again
Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world be turnin’ our way
And our way
and ‘our way‘ is going to be the winning was as we head off to Richmond this weekend.
Come on Cov…