Can’t Stand To Lose

IT WAS a tweet from Richard Stokes that got me thinking.

A sense of frustration and bitter disappointment that Coventry Rugby undid themselves when they had the measure of – and better of – hosts Hartpury.

Now I’ve not met Richard in person, but from his tweets he sounds a sensible chap, a student of the game, with a love for Cov RFC – which counts high in my book.

He wrote: ‘Not sure I’ve ever heard Coventry supporters boo one of their own players so loudly, I’m not convinced that a kicking 10 and a lightweight pack is the best game plan.’

There was more disquiet on the Unofficial Coventry Rugby Forum, with fly-half Jake Sharp the butt of some supporters’ anger.

As a fellow supporter I hear the voices, I feel the pain and share the sorrow of another game on the road we could have, should have, won.

But while the scoreline against Pirates flattered the home team, both games were rather lost by Coventry than won by the opposition. Our boys haven’t been hammered and left for dead.

I have to confess, thanks to standstill traffic on the A30 and M5, I got to Hartpury’s ground late and just in time for the second half. And that half, and the game against Pirates, are all I’ve seen of Coventry this term.

And I have to confess to one other thing – I’m not sure we’ve seen the true Coventry side in this season’s Championship emerge.

But I’m actually pleased at the approach being taken. We’re trying stuff. Yes, it’s not come off today, but what if it did? I wasn’t a fan of Cov turning down a number of penalty kicks at Pirates, in favour of drilling the ball down the touchline. It didn’t work for us.

What if it had? Instead of a certain three points each, what if we came away with seven? How would Pirates have reacted? Cornish heads were dropping as Cov dominated the scrum and tackled them as they’d never been tackled before. How would they have coped going three or four tries down? It’s the fine line between success and failure.

What if Jake Sharp’s mis-cued kick today hadn’t sailed straight into touch, but hung in play? Surely Rob Knox would have bared down on it, having the advantage on the defender and then what? A try?

Yes, we all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but imagine you’re a 10, a chap who’s been around for some time and knows his rugby onions. You’re getting the backline going, helping Cov get on the front foot and then see that Hartpury, already suspect under the high ball, have come up flat. It’s heads up rugby at its best.

Tom Kessell showed a perfect example of heads up rugby a few minutes earlier. Having seen the ref’s arm go up for a Cov penalty on the edge of the Hartpury 22 he saw the defenders, suddenly ragged from a Cov side showing what they do best, weren’t focused, tapped and went. A lovely pass to James Stokes and last season’s leading try-scorer was over, albeit with a little work to do of his own.

However, if Kessell had been tackled short, or the pass to Stokes had gone awry, then we’d have all been angry that we hadn’t gone for the three pointer, a scrum or a kick to touch.

That’s the way of sport. So when Sharp looked up, saw the space and the lack of covering defenders, he showed courage to match his vision. Unfortunately, the touch was lacking. We’ve all been there. Or at least, I have, as a former fly-half/full-back. Yes, many felt he should have held on, that Cov should have kept the ball in hand and made the hard yards – me included.

What if?

Sharp’s in a position with plenty of competition for the jersey. Will Maisey topped the point-scoring chart in last season’s National League One for good reason. Tony Fenner, making a good fist of his new role at full-back, has also shown his class at fly-half. Ben Palmer and Tim Bitirim are part of the chasing pack snapping at the heels. Sharp isn’t at Cov to make up the numbers, to coach and quietly slip away from playing. He’s obviously impressed at training and wants to be number one.

He got the backline purring today with some deft passes.

One missed penalty. One mis-cued touch finder.

When our team loses, it’s probably right we look to the negatives at the expense of the positives.

Cest la vie, I think they call it in Coundon.

Another confession. I’ve not agreed with some of the decision-making by Cov at Pirates or Hartpury. I’d have gone for the posts every time at the Mennaye Field and oddly enough, today, with a penalty right in front of Hartpury posts, I’d have gone for a scrum instead of the three points. The home side had just seen one of their guys yellow-carded and I’d have tried to make the advantage count. Our pack had held their push in the previous scrums and seemed to be winning the arm-wrestle, so with a man down, I’d have fancied our chances.

Yet that being said, I’m not part of the Coventry set up. I’ve never played at the level these guys have and are doing week-in, week-out. So it doesn’t matter what I think. I do know, however, having spoken to several players recently for a series of interviews for Coventry Rugby Supporters’ Club, that they are encouraged to try things; that in Rowland Winter, Cov’s Director of Rugby, they have a man who wants his players to be ambitious and doesn’t want them strait-jacketed; that in Louis Deacon and Nick Walshe they have coaches bringing out the best in them; that thanks to Max Hartman and his team, they are getting fitter and stronger.

I certainly wouldn’t want them to be like the Hartpury players, sticking to a game plan even when it wasn’t working. Rugby robots rather than players.

Yes, at times Coventry are playing as individuals. We’ve not got a settled team as yet and some approaches, both team-wise and individually, aren’t working.

Imagine when they do.

Fresh from the disappointment in hearing that some Coventry ‘fans’ had abused the referee last week, it gives me no pleasure to hear that some supporters had taken to booing one of our own today.

That’s the last thing anyone would need. Especially after a defeat that was visibly hard to stomach for pretty much all the boys in blue and white.

We all make mistakes. Well, I know I do.

And the referee today made a couple of clear howlers. I’m still not sure how the system works, but the touch judges need to be more help. Unless, I really am one-eyed. Stokes was tackled and brought to the floor, but when he hit the ground, the defender lost hold of him. The winger carried on and was penalised.

Knox jumped for a high ball. It hit him on the shoulder and the ref called it a knock on.

Both instances happened near to the touch line where there was no attempt to tell the man with the whistle he was wrong by the touch judge. Shouldn’t the officials be working together?

There were clear hands in the ruck by Hartpury during an unsuccessful Coventry sally forth on the opposition line, but with the ref unsighted, no attention was drawn to it.

If this is sour grapes, then I’m wrong and apologise. It just means that you lose faith in the officials if you see mistakes or don’t understand why a decision has been made. And don’t get me started on the touch judge who seemed to knock 10 yards off Coventry gains when we kicked for touch.

Maybe it’s just me, out of touch with the modern game, rule changes and the way it is run on the field.

Maybe it’s the rub of the green going against Cov.

But this short, fat has-been has seen plenty to be encouraged about.

Winter and his coaching team are building a team that is emerging and when it all clicks, it’s going to be some sight to see.

 

 

 

 

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Kind Of Blue

THEY came, they saw, they faltered.

While the 35-10 scoreline flattered Cornish Pirates, they were good value for money. They worked their tries well, but it was largely Coventry mistakes that betrayed the visitors.

And injuries – with the dangerous James Stokes and David Halaifonau both casualties of the visit to Mennaye Park. Junior Bulumakau also limped off the pitch on his debut.

Pirates are no mugs, finishing fourth in last season’s Greene King IPA Championship. While error-strewn would be a bit unfair on Coventry, some of the decision-making, for this has-been at least, was curious.

How would Pirates have fared if Coventry had taken the three pointers on offer? Coventry could have nudged ahead in the first half, having won the arm-wrestle up front. Yet they failed to profit from the Pirates’ misdemeanours and at key points failed to be as clinical as we know they can be.

There were also times when Coventry, enjoying the upper hand, shot themselves in the foot with avoidable mistakes.

But don’t be fooled. This Coventry side is one to be reckoned with, and Pirates supporters were breathing huge sighs of relief at the end, judging not on reputation or rumours but what was played out in front of them.

Pirates may have had the rub of the green, both with the bounce of the ball and the whistle of the ref, but Coventry could have no quibble with either.

Halaifonau put in a couple of bullocking runs, Stokes dashed and jinked, while Bulumakau left defenders clutching air on several runs forward. Tony Fenner, ever the class act, proved a good call at inside centre before being asked to move to full back when the game starting slipping from Coventry’s grasp.

The signs are good.

In the pack, the front row of club skipper Phil Boulton, Phil Nilsen and James Gibbons, was imperious after an early push backwards and the locks, Tom Jubb and James Voss, worked well. The back row was industrious in defence and attack, but in all, something was lacking. Still, they pushed the Pirates close and on another day would have blown away the home forwards.

Tom Kessell is a class apart and showed great vision and skill until he was shipped out to the wing when Stokes departed. The balance was off – with two scrum halves and two 10s in a backline that wasn’t exactly misfiring but failed to set the game alight.

I lost count of the penalties conceded by Pirates. You would expect Coventry to make them count, but instead of putting Pirates to the sword, they let them off the hook.¬† With three points on offer they went to the corners, yet failed to convert. Three or four times in the first half that had even Pirates’ fans scratching their heads. The complexion of the game might have been very different had those three pointers been taken.

Even so, the home side were rattled. Quite why some of their players escaped censure with their attitude towards the officials is one thing, quite why a yellow card wasn’t shown for repeated infringements is another.

The latter point could resonate for Coventry, too. Far too many penalties given away and while we didn’t lose men to the sin bin as in last week’s clash with Jersey, Rowland Winter and his management team must have concerns about the discipline on the pitch.

High tackles around the neck are unnecessary anyway. But in a season when the sport’s officials are being asked to show zero tolerance, there is no excuse. My sports teacher used to say ‘a man can’t run without legs’. That was meant to make us tackle round the legs – the proper way.

While I wonder if a man could run without a head, there are no excuses to go high – or high enough to warrant a whistle from the official. Coventry went high at least three times.

This was a game Coventry could have won and won easily. Strangely, I think it is a good thing Cov lost because it will hopefully drill home the lesson that opportunities must be grasped, sometimes snatched. It will leave the players, who physically gave their all, asked no quarter and gave no quarter, with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Coventry, on this evidence, are a much better team. Tougher assignments will come that they will conquer with ease.

For now, it will be a time of reflection. The one that got away.

 

 

When The Going Gets Tough

WE OFTEN tend to forget the dedication and hard work sportsmen and women put in behind the scenes.

This fitness lark is tough. Make no bones about it.

And to make a living from it, where fitness, strength, suppleness and other physical attributes are key, is something else.

Professional in the constant limelight, professional who doesn’t get recognised in the street, semi-pro or amateur, the demands remain the same.

That’s without the mental toughness, the steel that marks out winners, those with a constant desire for improvement, being factored in.

I fully appreciate the greater values of sport, that it’s the taking part that counts, but that doesn’t stop someone wanting to excel. As long as cheating is not a last resort, I’ll take the athlete that goes behind the accepted demands. Johnny Wilkinson, England’s World Cup hero and record points scorer, famously stayed behind at practice sessions to hone his kicking skills. Alastair Cook, England’s record-breaking cricketer in terms of runs, catches, wins and wins as a captain, cherished physical fitness, which, in turn, gave him better chance to focus on the mental attributes needed to stay at the crease in the face of hostile fast bowlers.

When you’re the best, everyone wants your scalp. Everyone wants to beat you. To prove themselves. Individually, or as a team.

I’m past it, with 50 looming on the horizon, but I’ve tried to improve my fitness of late. Except I’ve fallen off the fitness wagon, or at least, struggled to pilot it through a rut or two.

I pulled a muscle in my left elbow moving house.

I had other issues to focus on than fitness as we tried to get the new house sorted. There are still boxes we haven’t unpacked.

With a touch of misfortune in the air, I succumbed to the temptation of alcohol, and chocolate.

It’s easy when you’re 20 and fit.

Not so much when you’re middle-aged and fat.

I got back to training on the bench a month or so ago. Little bits here and there, light weights, just to focus on perfect form and get the body accustomed to training after my short break, wary of the muscle pull.

I’ve added volume in terms of weight or reps and sets each time. So much so I work up quite a sweat. And I know I’m physically spent, capable of lifting no more, when I’m done. Knackered. Past it.

But it means that I appreciate the focus and determination of athletes even more as I struggle through. Coventry City might be in the third tier of the English football league, but don’t underestimate the effort the boys put in behind the scenes.

Coventry Rugby are now among the top 24 teams in English rugby – having won their first game back in the Championship, they’re among the top 18! – and those players work very hard at their fitness and the punishment they take on a weekend afternoon is immense.

We need to forgive the odd dropped pass, knock forward, or upfield kick gone awry. Perfection is all very well, but think of the sheer guts, physical and mental effort that goes into getting ready for kick-off. And that goes for the players who might have missed selection, too.

Fitness is hard work. There is no magic trick, no sleight of hand to build muscle or run quicker or burn more calories.

I pushed myself a tad too hard this morning and felt sick afterwards. A balance is sometimes difficult to find.

I’m seeing and feeling the benefits, but well aware I’ve a lot of improvements to make. To be at the top of your game and looking to eke out minor gains here and there must be something else.

Defence Of The Realm

THE old adage still rings true. The best form of defence is attack.

But the opposite has become a bastardised saying in recent years and that rings true for Coventry Rugby’s performance today.

Back in English rugby’s second tier for the first time in several arguably unhappy years and up against a difficult Jersey side, a Channel Island XV who have finished seventh, sixth and fifth (on points difference).

The Reds have been getting better since their 11th place finish four seasons ago, while Coventry were the new boys, some people’s favourites for the relegation place without a ball being kicked, passed, or a tackle made in anger.

So picture the scene when Jersey had scored two tries and Coventry remained scoreless. Seasoned side giving the new boys a whipping.

Except, this Coventry side are a different prospect and don’t lie down easily. Director of Rugby Rowland Winter, head coach Nick Walshe and forwards coach, Louis Deacon, certainly know their onions and give our boys the best possible chance of winning the battles that will swing any game.

Coaching, pure and simple. Coaching done well.

There is an aura of belief when you pull on the blue and white jersey these days and how much the epitome of the Cov Dog, Tony Gulliver, can influence his charges as first team manager, is an unknown quantity for those of us on the outside.

But Winter has picked his team well and Gully must have helped imbue a key characteristic into players who seem to play for the shirt. It is how it always was, Coventry a tough, uncompromising team who fought for scraps and turned them into feasts.

Give the opposition sod all. And then the advantage of two players, and give them sod all.

Some effort, Cov; a beautiful, brilliant effort.

I wasn’t able to be at the game, but 280 miles away listening to BBC Radio Jersey and reading the Twitter updates from Coventry and Jersey meant I didn’t miss much but the visual. Coventry’s official Twitter account has improved vastly and mirrors the desire to improve, evident at the Butts Park Arena in recent years.

Phil Nilsen, Heath Stevens, leading from the front as first team skipper, and David Halaifonu, on his league debut for Coventry, were all mentioned in dispatches, as the whole team manned up and tackled their heart out.

You could sense the unease in the commentators’ voices and in the tweets of Jersey that Cov’s defence truly was the best form of attack. How must the Jersey boys have felt? That ability to quell a certain try would have thrown doubt into the minds of the attackers, while the counter-attacking and then Cov on the front foot will have caused a few more questions.

When Jersey manouevred into a position where a try ought to have been the only result, the Cov Dog stood up and repelled them. Time and time again. On the line, over the line and inches short, the Cov Dog proved its bite was worse than its bark.

Yes, we were playing at home and the trip over by plane isn’t the best for any side, although Jersey must be used to long commutes by now. Next weekend’s game, with the journey to Cornwall, will prove a different prospect for Coventry. Pirates are fancied to be up their with the big boys come the end of hostilities next spring.

What a test that could prove.

Rule Coventry out at your peril. Our badge has the elephant on it – an animal known for its obdurate tendencies – and memory. The memory of how to scrape a win will be key for Winter’s charges this campaign.

 

 

 

Turn Of A Friendly Card

CHILDHOOD support of the Sky Blues in the 1970s meant a grudging respect for Scottish football.

Okay, the Jocks went all Braveheart and tore up the pitch at Wembley, but my first memories of Coventry City were of Scottish players tearing up the Highfield Road pitch in very different circumstances.

Colin Stein, Willie Carr, Tommy Hutchison and Brian Alderson were names to conjur with in a magical line up. I remember going to the newsagents at the corner of Tarlington Road and Forfield Road and buying a packet of pink bubblegum because, with every little rectangle of the chewy stuff you got six football cards.

That last year of plain sky blue was one where I almost got the whole team in embossed rectangular form. Bill Glazier, for whom Jimmy Hill broke the world record fee for a goalie when he enticed him to Highfield Road from Crystal Palace, Dennis Mortimer and Alan Green were the other cards I remember having. The one missing player from my line up was Mick Coop.

Two or three years later and I had about seven Mick Coop cards, all proudly in the Admiral tramline kit, but could never find or swap for Tommy Hutch.

And that team introduced a quartet of Sky Blue Scots in Ian Wallace, Bobby McDonald, Jim Blyth and Jim Holton, who was not six foot two and didn’t have eyes of blue – except in Coventry or Scottish colours, maybe.

In case anyone wants to argue, I got that from the man himself, before his untimely death, when he ran the Rising Sun in Spon Street. A lovely bloke, but I was never going to argue with him.

Football cards were a rite of passage for a schoolboy football fantatic. I lived and breathed Coventry City. I had the kits and – in the back garden and entries – all the moves. Well, so I thought. The much-dreamed of football scout, poking his head over a six foot wall to sign me up on the spot never appeared.

All of my soccer skills ebbed away when I went to rugby-playing Blue Coat, which cemented my love of the other football club in Coventry, the one that played at Coundon Road.

But through the 1970s, most of my attention was focussed on the Highfield Road heroes. Rugby didn’t have cards like the other football did.

I wasn’t alone. Pretty much all the boys at Coundon Junior supported the Sky Blues, apart from the glory boys who followed Stoke and Leeds in the early years, before turning red and following Liverpool, Forest and Manchester United.

Most followed Coventry City.

We’d go to school on a Monday morning and excitedly discuss the Sky Blues’ game on the Saturday, watched either through sleepy eyes on Match Of The Day or Star Soccer on a Sunday afternoon, after the last scraps of pudding were stirred round the bowl.

Monday mornings we’d echo our dad’s perspective, picked up over the weekend from TV coverage or the Pink.

Monday evening, we’d echo our friends perspective, or that of their dads.

Following a win, I’d hope and dream of another pack of bubblegum cards. I’d drop hints, try to win brownie points by offering to do some chores, or simply beg. Forty odd years later I still remember the joy of bagging a Sky Blues star. And the agony of waiting a month or more for the cards that came with boxes of tea or cereal.

Les Cartwright, David Cross, Jimmy Holmes, Barry Powell, John Craven…I remember giving away my Larry Lloyd card, when it emerged that City had thrown themselves into the financial brown stuff…John Beck, Yorath, Oakey, Dugdale, and Mick Coop. I saw him emerge from the pack so many times I used to dread seeing that haircut.

We’d make our own rules, too, sticking cards in the pages of the books as and when a new name was signed or a departure announced. Yorath in a Leeds kit, Holton in the red of Manchester United.

But there was always a disappointment when you saw a former City hero in the strip of his new club – Carr at Wolves, Cross at West Ham, Lloyd, reborn at Forest and Mortimer running the show at Villa Park.

There was always disappointment following Coventry City in the 1970s, when relegation was often in the air and mid-table obscurity felt like a good result.

When we promised most, in the days of the chocolate brown away shirt, we fell agonisingly short of Europe – 1977/8, when the whole city held its breath, somehow Peter Shilton’s fingertips denied Coventry the three points needed to leap frog West Brom.

Some you win, some you lose.

I wish it had been different.

I wish I still had those playing cards.

I wish Coventry could still be in the top flight giving the top sides a run for their money.

 

 

Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines

I’VE spent some time on Youtube watching aviation videos recently.

Part research, part sheer enjoyment, part nostalgia.

I was lucky enough to enjoy day trips to Coventry’s Baginton Airport during the 1970s and early 1980s for the annual airshow.

The weather was often unkind, leaving the flying display curtailed somewhat, but Coventry attracted the cream of the RAF crop, some American goodies, Concorde and occasional visitors from foreign climes.

What would have passed back then for ‘modern’ and aircraft of World War Two vintage – a heady hotch potch of aviation putting on a show that had the boyhood me entranced.

These were the days when the Red Arrows would sneak up behind the crowd, scanning left and right, and delight in making people jump. When the Vulcan would soar above, its bomb bay doors open and noise racketing into the next county.

When the RAF’s Lightning force was still to be reckoned with, one of those jets flying in fast and low and then climbing like a sky rocket into the heavens. When the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight held special memories for the men in the crowd who had flown the Spits and Hurricanes of Fighter Command or the Lancs of Bomber Command.

Men like my grandfather, who also flew Mustangs – the Flying Cross, he would explain, before muttering it was the best plane of the war. This was a man who rarely spoke of what he – and tens of thousands like him – did.

So while the drone of Merlins powering Spitfire and Mustang held a special significance for us, so too did Concorde. My Uncle Bob, a former Chief Petty Officer aboard HMS Hermes and Ark Royal, he had quit the Fleet Air Arm and gone to work on the Concorde project, first at Filton on the outskirts of Bristol and then at Fairford.

A number of journeys had been undertaken in my grandfather’s blue Austin 1100 down to Fairford before the supersonic airliner entered service, to watch it carry out circuits and bumps. A slim white cigar miles off becoming¬† a roar of white above in a matter of moments.

The RAF Phantom was always my favourite. It was a noisy, odd-looking beast that I feel thumping through my body, like a bass drum shaking the blood in my veins. It would come in low, twist and turn away and the sound would remain.

Memories of being woken up at the family’s cottage at Clee Hill in Shropshire on a summer’s morning, three Phantoms disappearing in the distance having shaken the house on a low level pass.

Coventry’s Air Show was up there among the best. Before the 1988 tragedy when the Meteor went down. I was there that day and still remember the collective gasp as people heard the thump and then saw the ball of smoke.

By then the number of accidents at air shows had prompted a rethink of the format at a time when the RAF was cutting back and costs meant organising such a show was no longer viable.

The Lightning had said its farewells the year before. The Phantom had four more years in RAF colours. The Vulcans had been grounded and scrapped.

I’ve been to the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford, and flying displays at Duxford. None come close to the Coventry Air Show in its pomp for the boy that was there, at least.

 

 

 

Natural Selection

MOSELEY – once a clash of titans. Now a pre-season curtain raiser.

The fortunes of rugby.

And when the new-look, Championship new boys Coventry step out onto the Butts Park Arena pitch on Saturday how will the fortunes of the playing team pan out?

For the pre-season games are likely to give an idea of the team make-up come September 1 and Jersey’s arrival for the Championship opener.

How much will the initial XV alter during the course of the campaign, on form or injury, or the different challenges England’s second tier will throw up?

That is one of the fascinating aspects of the coming season for me. Who will get the nod in each position, because in 40-plus years of following Coventry, I can’t remember such stiff competition for a starting berth.

In the heady days of blue and white dominance at Coundon Road, there was more often than not a couple of players in the shadows – the calibre of which would have Rowland Winter and his coaching team drooling at the prospect of their inclusion.

But today, Winter appears to be building a squad of players able and willing to fight for the jersey. Win, lose or draw, he’s put in place a system that would have coaches of the past drooling.

A nod to Coventry Rugby’s heritage. Pride in the jersey.

As a former full back, I’m intrigued by the battle for the 15 shirt. After a stunning season in National League One, James Stokes is – or should be – the man to dislodge.

Powerhouse Tongan David Halaifonua is listed as a potential challenger, although he played more on the wing for Gloucester, while Junior Bulumakau is also an option. Tim Bitirim, a man who hopefully won’t be held back by the ‘utility back’ tag, looked impressive on his showreel on joining Cov, while homegrown Rob Knox is a footballer who could easily slot in at the back and make a good fist of it.

Knox and Max Trimble were the two wingers of choice for last season’s promotion-winning side, but will face challenges from Halaifonua and Bulumakau. And who knows when the development squad quartet of Kwaku Asiedu, James Neal, Max Titchener and Louis Roach might get a look in.

At first glance, the centre pairing looks set to be between Sam Tuitupou, Andy Bulumakau and skipper Heath Stevens. But Halaifonau, Bitirim and Knox can all play there. And we also saw Tony Fenner at inside centre to good effect last campaign.

He is part of a mouth-watering shoot out for the 10 jersey, alongside Will Maisey, a star player in National League One, former London Scottish fly-half Jake Sharp, and promising youngster Ben Palmer.

Not forgetting Bitirim’s credentials as main playmaker, either.

Tom Kessell, who made such a difference in two months at Cov last season as injury cover, would be an odds on bet to be the main performer at nine in the Championship, but Pete White and Dave Brazier enjoyed a battle royale for the shirt when they were fit. How much they want the shirt will be evident from their opportunities in the pre-season friendlies.

If there is huge competition for places in the backs, the challenges in the pack are fearful. It would be a brave man to call the front row correctly when the season begins in earnest.

Who would have Winter’s job?

Nathanael Titchard-Jones had some storming games in the blue and white of Cov and the red of the Army, but faces strong challenge from James Beech, one of the new faces around Butts Park Arena.

And what about at hooker? Phil Nilsen or Scott Tolmie was the choice last season – and how close was that? Darren Dawidiuk’s move from London Irish, after a long spell at Gloucester and before that Cornish Pirates, means the three-way battle will be even more intense.

At tighthead, will club captain Phil Boulton manage to escape the challenge of promising youngster Luc Jeannot? How will Charlie Beech and Jack Higgins fit into the mix?

What about at lock? George Oram, Tom Jubb and Niles Dacres were among the stand-out stars of the 2017/18 vintage, but James Voss and Adam Peters will be in contention, along with Cameron Gray, who stepped up from the Development Squad on several occasions last year.

Voss, Peters and Dacres will be looking to stake a claim for a back row berth, but that back three of the pack looks to be the most keenly contested.

Jack Preece was a star last season, Latu Makaafi defied the years with amazing performances while Olly Povoas continues to show what a promising footballer he is with all the skills to be a top contender.

But then throw in the additional weight and experience of the new boys and it becomes an awful conundrum for the coaches penning that Championship starting 15. Jack Ram, Ben Adams and Ben Nutley are all going to be doing their best to impress.

As pre-season training comes to an end for the pre-season fixtures, how much of an eye is being cast to that first Saturday in September?