What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Kelly Clarkson – Stronger
Just over 12 months ago I remember travelling back from the Ealing game down at their place and feeling extremely downbeat.
Ealing were a top Championship side and there had been a real sense of anticipation, even expectation, on the coach that day as we set off from the BPA.
It had been a chance to prove ourselves against the very best away from home, having already put in what was arguably one of our strongest performances of the season against London Irish a couple of weeks earlier at the BPA.
As it was, in what the CoventryLive reporter wonderfully described as ‘a watch-from-behind-the-sofa opening 30 minutes‘, Cov gifted the home side 38 points and as a contest the game was as good as over.
We were poor and Ealing didn’t have to do much more than play to their strengths.
Fortunately, our second half display that day gave some cause for optimism, losing it 19-12 but showing we could be at least be competitive against the better sides.
A year on and despite losing heavily 46-7 against run-away leaders Newcastle Falcons on Sunday, I certainly didn’t feel particularly depressed about either the performance or the result. Newcastle were head and shoulders the better side, better in every facet of the game near enough and they put down a marker in terms of what is required if we are to be serious contenders for promotion in seasons to come.
We lost, but there was absolutely no disgrace in defeat as there had been against Ealing the year before.
I listened to Rowland Winter’s post match comment in which he talked about Cov being ‘off the park all day‘ and ‘second best to everything, the break down, the scrum, the lineout’, whilst also graciously acknowledging that Newcastle are ‘a quality side‘.
In short, Cov didn’t ‘bring their A game‘.
He was clearly disappointed that Cov hadn’t done themselves justice, despite coming into the game well prepared and buoyed up, whilst also accepting the gap on the scoreboard reflected the gap between the two teams on the pitch and that Newcastle are a ‘bloody good side‘.
And they are, too.
For me, a good deal better than Irish were last season; the best we’ve faced competitively for many a year.
Which is why those Cov supporters at the game I spoke to weren’t anything but complementary of Newcastle and relieved that Coventry actually did themselves some credit, despite RW’s disappointment. The supporters’ views against those of the coaches will often be different; this is one such game.
Unlike Ealing 12 months ago, Cov actually had the better of the territory and possession in the opening 20 minutes and created a couple of opportunities to get on the scoreboard themselves.
However, what Falcons did, they seemed to do at pace. Even in defence, they were up so quickly – it’s the first time this season where I’ve seen a team actually use their defence as a form of attack. The ball carrier was either caught isolated or forced into making passes that put the receiver under pressure, too.
They turned us over far too often in that first half and when they attacked, they did so with frightening speed and in numbers. There was one instance when the ball was kicked deep into our 22 and James Stokes found himself facing 4 Newcastle chasers with no Cov support in sight. I’m still not clear just how he avoided giving away a penalty.
To say they were clinical would be an understatement, turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye and ensuring if they got into our 22, for the most part they’d come away with the points.
Their back row was immense and their no 8, Gary Graham, was a tour de force the whole game both in defence and in attack. They were a great platform for the backs who were extremely pacey and creative, with Toby Flood’s stand-in, Joel Hodgson, running the show at times.
No, there was no disgrace whatsoever in the result or, or more importantly, the performance and there were a number of positives to take out of the game.
Those first 20 minutes for starters. How many times since we’ve been in the Championship have we begun games slowly, allowing the opposition to build up a lead that we have had to chase down? The fact that Cov put them under pressure for a while and silenced the home crowd of close on 5000 was an achievement itself.
As was the final 5 minutes of that first half when Newcastle were camped out on our line and despite a couple of penalties and kicks into the corner, Cov withheld their attempts to catch and drive and defensively worked exceptionally hard. In fact, Newcastle’s frustration was such that it all began to get a bit heated, with the referee wisely calling a halt to the half as handbags were about to be exchanged.
No that every decision Mr Kirby made was a wise one…
I’ll leave it at that.
By contrast, though, the second half couldn’t have started any worse for the blue and whites. Tom Kessell looked to be harshly yellow carded for a high tackle as the ball carrier went to ground and then Cov conceded a try almost immediately as Newcastle seemed to smell blood and stepped up the pace even more.
It wasn’t until the coaches rang the changes that Cov began to look like threatening the scoreboard again as they had in those opening 20 minutes or so, with Pete White and Rob Knox appearing to change the tempo and be far more direct.
Pete W scored one try and had two interceptions from around the half way mark where against most other sides he would have scored but for the out-and-out pace of the Newcastle flyers, especially Adam Radwan who chased him down having looked too far off when Pete first took the pass.
White has been in great form these last few weeks and although he changes games when he comes off the bench, he must be worth a start in the Cup games.
Once concern was the Cov scrum which seemed to struggle all afternoon, even more so when the entire front row were replaced; from then on Newcastle had complete dominance in the set piece and won several penalties as a result (see the video highlights below).
Once again, Coventry didn’t seem to tire overly which was heartening against such a well drilled and organised side, but they were outgunned and there could be no complaints about the scoreline, although we tended not to have the rub of the green this time round.
Newcastle had saved their best performance, from their strongest side so far, for Coventry. That in itself says something about how they viewed the fixture. In the Championship so far, at home and fielding ‘weakened’ sides without their World Cup stars, Newcastle have beaten Hartpury 45-7 and Jersey 42-19.
Their Head Coach had asked for a big performance from Falcons on Sunday and that is exactly what he got, in front of a crowd 700 bigger than their previous best this season. They knew Cov could cause them real problems.
Yes, the gulf between the two teams was apparent, but unlike Ealing 12 months ago, Newcastle still had to play well to win, whereas Ealing didn’t.
And here’s the big test for Cov…
…in 12 months we’ve gone from conceding 120 points against Ealing in two games to drawing one and losing the other by 5 points.
Over the next 12 months we have to make sure that we do something similar with the relegated side next season, whoever that might be. A 39 point gap away from home this season needs to be a single figure one (or better) next. It’s a question of developing the squad we currently have and adding to it over the summer to ensure each season we see an improvement.
And that’s something Rowland Winter and the coaches have been particularly good at.
It’s worth remembering that even though we have brought in a number of new players this year, 10 of the 15 who started the game yesterday were with us back in September 2018 and 16 out of the 23 in the match day squad. It’s not just a case of buying in new players to strengthen the squad, it’s also very much one of the coaches working with the existing players to improve them as well.
Sunday’s game showed the gap that currently exists between a side that to all intents and purposes is of Premiership quality and one that has aspirations to be a top Championship in the short-term and a Premiership one in the longer one.
Cov worked extremely hard all afternoon and could have even been close to a bonus point (for scoring 4 tries!) had we had a little more luck.
On the coach coming back, there were no moans or groans about Cov’s performance as there so often was last season. No, I think everyone recognised that we had played a team destined to return to the Premiership this season, one that will probably go through the season unbeaten and that Cov’s performance against them was far better than that against Ealing or even Irish away from home last season.
Cov came up the day before and were staying overnight in Newcastle on the Sunday, too. With next weekend being a free one, a night out together won’t do them any harm. This has been a tough old start to the season and Cov have pretty much held their own against the best sides this division has to offer.
Six games in and Ealing and Newcastle away from home both out of the way, as well as the long trip to Jersey, means that there’s only the visit to Pirates left to really worry about, the others are all eminently winnable (although that doesn’t mean we will win, of course).
Given the above, 5th in the table is a good place to be, a springboard for the remainder of the season and one I would have been happy with back in September knowing the fixtures that lay ahead.
The next Championship game, home against Nottingham just before Christmas, is going to be a cracker, if you’ll excuse the pun. Two sides with similar records, an early evening start, in front of the cameras with everyone gearing up for Christmas – it has all the makings of a classic.
One definitely not to be missed.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Cov fell short on Sunday – by a fair distance too. But there positives to take from the game and I’m a firm believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
As RW said post-match, sometimes you lose to good sides and you have to take it on the chin. The coaches and players will analyse the areas where they came off second best and doubtless will work hard on them to ensure they become a stronger side as a result.
A tough afternoon up at Kingston, but perhaps a necessary one if this current squad is to reach its potential in the weeks and months ahead.
And it will.