by Paul Smith
Coventry head coach Alex Rae admits to facing some selection posers ahead of his club’s Championship opener against Caldy at the Butts Park Arena on Saturday (4pm kick off).
The blue-and-whites gave game-time to 33 players during the course of a September Premiership Rugby Cup campaign which saw them narrowly pipped for a semi-final place by Gloucester.
With a number of younger players taking their chance to impress plus the recent signing of Adam Nicol from Jersey adding front row depth, this leaves Rae plus coaches Gordon Ross and James Scaysbrook with plenty to ponder.
“People get better by being pushed and we have that situation in a number of positions,” Rae said.
“For example, in the second row James Tyas sets the standard but all our younger players are doing very well and driving each other forward as a result.
“We have seen real development in George Smith over the year since he joined us – he now looks a man playing man’s rugby. He has filled out and become much more physical as we saw in his good performances during the Premiership Cup.
“Rhys Anstey ticks all the boxes you would want from a second row and he is working very hard in training to make some progress.
“Obi Nkwocha is part of the generation of academy players that lost out to COVID. Since joining us from Saracens you can see he just wants to learn and develop – like Rhys he is a gifted athlete and they both have a very exciting future.
“We have a similar situation at fly half where an opportunity opened up for Evan Mitchell when Pat Pellegrini went to the World Cup with Tonga.
“Evan had a stuttering start at Gloucester but impressed everyone with how he recovered from that to deliver a composed display.
“Pat has come back from France looking really sharp – being around world-class players like Piutau and Fekitoa has obviously rubbed off on him.
“He is as good an attacking fly half as I’ve seen and it has been good to see Evan look at this and try to bring some of it to his game. They’re both small in stature but tough and brave which is great to see.”
Wirral-based Caldy were promoted into the Championship for the first time as winners of National One at the end of the 2021/22 season and last term went on to defy the doom-mongers by winning seven of their 22 games to finish in tenth place, 18 points clear of relegated Richmond.
On their way to finishing seven positions higher, Coventry completed a bonus point double over Saturday’s visitors when their 48-19 success at the Butts Park Arena in March followed a hard-fought 18-27 win in the North West during the autumn.
Caldy’s opening day brought a 31-44 home defeat at the hands of a Nottingham side that left the Butts Park Arena with a draw a month previously so Rae is expecting a good contest at a venue where Cov are unbeaten in over a year.
“Everything that has gone before counts for nothing now – we have to start again against Caldy who will come to the Butts looking to end our proud home record,” he said.
“Caldy found their feet in the Championship really well last year and by beating Ealing they showed everyone they are well capable on their day of a big performance. We nearly lost up there last year so we know if we’re not on song they are very capable of giving us problems.
“When Nottingham got a draw here in the cup we saw how they celebrated and it made us realise that we’re in a different place now where teams are viewing us as a big scalp instead of us being the underdogs.”
Photo shows George Smith playing against Saracens (credit – John Coles)