To mark Coventry Rugby’s 150th anniversary year former Coventry Telegraph and Birmingham Mail rugby writer Paul Smith looks back on some of the club’s most memorable matches with the help of those who were there.
The series continues with the September 2004 win over Nottingham which also marked Cov’s return to a refurbished Butts Park Arena on a site the club left for Coundon Road in 1921.
Putting it in Context
John Wilkinson covered rugby for the Coventry Evening Telegraph between 1989 and 2008 then continued as a freelancer for another decade.
Here’s how he remembers the backdrop to Cov’s return to its current home…
“Trying to get into the top division under Gerry Sugrue’s ownership in the early days of professionalism saw the club spend a huge amount on players,” he said.
“It was a gamble that targeted a share of the funds invested into rugby by Sky who had recently got involved in televising the Premiership.
“But they fell just short of promotion after losing a play-off to London Irish and administration soon followed before the club was purchased in 1998 by a consortium including former player Keith Fairbrother.
“Coundon Road was a wonderful, magical place but it was also falling to bits and when a few years later it was sold to developers and Cov moved back to the Butts it was greeted with great excitement.
“Ian Carvell and former no.8 Graham ‘Godber’ Robbins were both heavily involved in running the club at that time. They did promotional work in the run-up to the game including holding an open day – it is fair to say there was plenty of enthusiasm about the move around the city.”
On the pitch the blue-and-whites had narrowly avoided relegation in their last season at Coundon Road with consecutive wins over Manchester and ill-fated Wakefield.
But under director of rugby John White – a former Moseley prop whose stay at the other end of the A45 lasted only from January to October 2004 – and coaches Steve Williams (who succeeded him) and Mike Umaga (who then succeeded Williams!) a new squad was built with an enticingly international flavour.
The Cov Tel preview sounded a suitably optimistic note about “a season of high expectation in which National League One appears wide open” when it added “Cov are determined to be up there in the promotion mix following a busy summer of recruitment.”
The piece then goes on to quote chief exec Carvell: “A good start is very important. We didn’t have that last year losing at home to Plymouth on the opening day then getting into a rut we couldn’t escape.
“Although Nottingham’s season may be about staying in the league first games can be banana skins so we can’t be complacent.”
Under the headline ‘Cov take Route One to Victory’ the Cov Tel match report describes the home side as “being reminiscent of many Cov sides of yesteryear” after they turned round an early ten-point deficit through a powerful display from their forwards.
After Neil Stenhouse kicked Nottingham into an early lead the visitors then claimed an interception try through winger William Logan which Stenhouse converted.
But after that it was all Cov with Gareth Cull’s penalty being followed by driving lineout scores for Dan Farini and Rhys Williams.
Barker took over kicking duties from a misfiring Cull and his penalty gave Cov a 16-10 half-time advantage before “a 25-metre drive off another lineout saw Gareth Gravell touch down.”
Kisi Pulu soon went over from close range to clinch the bonus point before Nik Witkowski and Paul Jones added tries five and six in the closing stages.
Head coach White said his team suffered from being anxious in the early stages before going on to produce a performance about which he was generally happy.
“It took us 25 minutes to settle down then we just needed to simplify things, hold on to the ball and not allow them running opportunities,” he said.
“If opponents aren’t able to defend the drive we’ll keep doing it. Had they thrown players in to stop it we would have been forced to move the ball away but they didn’t.”
John Wilkinson recalls Coventry putting together a competitive side ahead of the return to their former home.
“The Welsh contingent Paul Jones, Craig Richards, Gareth Gravell and Gareth Cull were strongly connected to Steve Williams and were all good players,” he said.
“Richard Davies, who was on the bench that day as he was coming back from injury, was a prolific goal kicker who also had a stint at Rugby Lions.
“Islanders Mike Umaga and Alex Telea plus Canadians John Cannon, Leif Carlson, Nik Witkowski and Jared Barker had all been to the 2003 World Cup, Kisi Pulu went on to win lots of Tonga caps while Mark Giacheri was an experienced Italian international second row with Aussie roots.
“At the other end of the spectrum prop forward Nick Cox was a local lad who played at Kenilworth then went to Scotland where he became heavily involved with the church.
“Maybe the best-known name was Shaun Perry who went on to Bristol and won England caps including the 2007 World Cup.”
What John failed to recall was the colourful backstory surrounding powerful South African no.8 Shaun van Rensburg which he described in the Cov Tel at the time.
“Van Rensburg was used in a trial match by former international coach Graham Henry before it was discovered he was ineligible to play for Wales,” he wrote.
“He has also not given up on the idea at another attempt to appear in Big Brother after getting through the first two auditions for the last version of the cult reality TV show.”
Coventry: Jones; Richards, Cull, Umaga, Telea; Barker, Perry; Cox, Williams, Olver; Giacheri, Gulliver; Farani, Gravell, Van Rensburg.
Replacements: Gluth, Pulu, Campton, Brown, Chrystie, Witkowski, Davies, Beddow.
Nottingham: Jackson; Logan, Kirk, Van den Berg, Wyles; Stenhouse, Brennan; Fuller, Loney, Hall; Morley, Moore; Hammond, Lloyd, Easter.
Replacements: Jenkins, Mills, Starling, Pain, Corcorran, Shaw, Thompson.
Referee: Tim Beddow
Tries: Farani, Williams, Gravell, Pulu, Witkowski, Jones
Conversions: Barker (2)
Penalties: Barker, Cull
Penalties: Stenhouse (2)
Gulliver is a familiar name in Coventry’s engine room courtesy of the great Tony (or Gully as he is known to most) who wore the shirt of his hometown club with such pride and distinction on 381 occasions between 1979 and 1996.
Eight years following his retirement Gully’s son Ben – a chip off the old second row block – was in the middle of his four-year, 94-game spell at Coventry.
Despite being a relatively raw 21-year-old Ben remembers the impetus provided by the move but also the difficult background against which it happened.
“I remember how excited everyone was about Cov going back to the Butts and after narrowly staying up the previous year it gave the whole club a big boost,” he said.
“I grew up watching Dad play at Coundon Road and I loved the place but it really was time to move on.
“It was still early days for professional rugby and it hadn’t really settled down. To be honest Cov felt quite unstable back then and that was the main reason behind me eventually leaving in 2006.
“It was all so different to the well-run club Cov has become; back then if you were safe by Christmas there was every danger that the higher earners would be moved out to save cash. It was really hard to get a phone call telling you some of your good mates were losing their main source of income.
“As a result, we went through lots of players and coaches in that era – one year I think 64 people played – but that’s how things were then.
“I remember Adrian Olver’s debut; we picked him up from a service station and he played a few hours later not knowing most of our names or having trained with us.”
Ben remembers the 2004/5 Cov line-up as being full of quality and says he learned plenty from a group of players who stayed together for a relatively brief spell.
“Gareth Gravell at open-side was one of the best flankers I played with and I remember Craig Richards and Paul Jones being very dangerous in the back three,” he said.
“We used to call Mark Giacheri ‘Jock’ and I learned an awful lot from him about calling the lineout.
“Shaun Perry was out of this world – we also played together at Worcester in later years – but at that time he was a real point of difference for us. He was then still working as a welder alongside his rugby before moving on to Bristol.
“Looking back now that was really a very strong Coventry side with some real quality and I’m very proud to have been part of it.”
Ben recalls there being plenty of emotion among the fans and that the players were caught up in the party atmosphere generated by Cov’s homecoming.
“Nottingham were newly-promoted from National Two but it was a special occasion for us and we played some great rugby that day,” he said.
“Jared Barker is a good friend of mine and he won’t mind me saying he didn’t have a great time at Cov overall, but I remember him being outstanding and running the game for us.
“At the end of the game we’d played so well we thought we might win the league but the season as a whole didn’t go that well for us.”
Carvell agreed with Ben’s assessment in the post-match reaction he gave to the following Monday’s Cov Tel.
“It was great to see Jared perform so well,” he said. “He was keen to stay at the club at the end of last season and show he is a better player than we had seen. On the strength of that we agreed to retain him and I’m delighted for him after Saturday’s performance.”
Cov went on to finish sixth of 14 in what was then known as National League One. Bristol Shoguns were promoted in a good year for the South West which saw Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance & Newlyn (as the Cornish Pirates were then known) complete the top four.
Rotherham, Otley, Sedgley Park and basement club Orrell gave the north a much bigger representation than is now the case. The Wigan-based “layby off the M6” as Harlequins once described Orrell prior to being beaten there in the cup, became one of the early casualties of professionalism as in time did London Welsh and Pertemps Bees who were also part of the 2004/5 second tier.
The Ben Gulliver Story
Ben played his early rugby at Earlsdon then after suffering a bad ACL injury aged 16 played in what in the 1980s and 90s was traditionally the strongest colts line-up in Warwickshire at Barkers Butts.
While at university he became part of Saracens academy and played in the under-21 league and their second team before moving back to Coventry.
Ben’s first appearance for his Dad’s former club came against Exeter as a replacement in 2002/3 and 94 games later he left for Plymouth at the end of the 2005/6 season.
This wasn’t quite the end of his playing career at Cov, however, as he appeared from the bench in a midweek friendly against a Canada side heading to the 2019 Japan World Cup while working as the club’s Community Manager.
Between leaving Plymouth and making what he describes as “an emotional one-off return to Cov that gave me some closure on playing rugby” Ben’s lengthy career took in spells at Cornish Pirates, Leicester, Worcester, Bedford and Ampthill.
The former lock, who is now a father to twins Freddie and Lottie, works as a sales rep in Devon for a company dealing in shoulder and hip replacements.
He and partner Georgie coach Ivybridge Ladies together and enjoy following Cov from afar.
Coventry Rugby’s 150 Legacy Club
The 150 Legacy Club is an elite season package, carefully curated to mark this historic event.
Membership gives priority access to the club’s celebratory events, a selection of exclusive, limited edition Coventry Rugby memorabilia and the chance to become part of club history, with your name etched on our 150-year commemorative plaque.
The 150 Club package includes:
A Limited Edition 150th Year Anniversary Coventry Rugby Club Shirt
A 150th Year Limited Edition Coventry Rugby Sekonda Watch
150th Year Commemorative Coventry Rugby Badge
Bottle of Anniversary Coventry Rugby Gin
2 x Tickets to Coventry Rugby’s End of Year Gala Dinner
Exclusive access to player Meet and Greet events
Your name engraved on Coventry Rugby Club’s 150 Year Anniversary Plaque
Find out more details here:
Information is available from firstname.lastname@example.org
With thanks to John Butler for statistical information and to John Wilkinson and the Herbert Museum for archive materials.
Next Time: The Glory Years – the 1974 John Player Cup final against London Scottish