DIRECTOR of rugby Rowland Winter concedes that selection was difficult for Coventry’s National League One season-opener at Hull Ionians tomorrow.
With competition for places intense throughout the squad after a strong pre-season, the starting XV includes eight of Cov’s summer signings, six of those in the pack.
“There were some tough decisions to make, and having such a strong squad with quality players who have performed exceptionally well over the summer made it more difficult,” said Winter.
“It was always going to be that way, but it will be a long season and everyone will get their chance.”
Tight head Phil Boulton captains the side with Phil Nilsen (pictured) starting at hooker and other Cov league debuts for Nile Dacres and George Oram in the second row and the back row of Latu Makaafi, Jack Preece and Luke Narraway.
In the backs, Kwaku Asiedul and Alex Grove line-up in the three-quarters while Tony Fenner gets the nod over Will Maisey at fly-half.
Cov have won all six of their previous meetings with Ionians, who needed a strong finish last season to pull clear of the relegation places, but have always found Brantingham Park a difficult place to win at and will take nothing for granted.
Said Winter: “We are excited to get the season under way and we are looking forward to playing Ionians. Last season we enjoyed two really tough battles against them, and we expect Saturday to be no different.
“The whole squad is raring to go after eleven weeks of pre-season, the intensity has increased again this week, and we had close to a full squad to select from.”
Missing through injury are second row Tom Poole and wingers Max Trimble, Anthony Matoto and James Neal, along with Josh Palmer and Kailus Hutchinson from the Development Academy, while centre Tom Wheatcroft has gone out on loan to National Two North side Hinckley.
“The competition for a midfield spot in the first XV is high, so we have agreed with Tom to loan him to his home club,” said Winter.
Coventry’s Development side, captained by fly-half Ben Palmer, warms up for their inaugural Zoo Sports Shield campaign with a friendly against Cambridge 2nds at Broadstreet (3pm, free entry).
“It’s a good opportunity for more game time and, with Cambridge also playing in the Zoo league, a good chance for us to get a real indication of what the competition will be like” said Winter.
“While we expect to be able to strengthen with people coming back from injuries, it’s an opportunity for experience for the younger lads, who have all impressed, and valuable for the senior players involved who will be champing at the bit to get into the first team.”
COVENTRY: 15 James Stokes, 14 Kwaku Asiedu, 13 Alex Grove, 12 Heath Stevens, 11 Rob Knox, 10 Tony Fenner, 9 Pete White, 1 Jimmy Litchfield, 2 Phil Nilsen, 3 Phil Boulton (captain), 4 Nile Dacres, 5 George Oram, 6 Latu Makaafi, 7 Jack Preece, 8 Luke Narraway.
Replacements: 16 Scott Tolmie, 17 Andy Brown, 18 Brett Daynes, 19 Dave Brazier, 20 Will Maisey. Travelling reserves: 21 Harry Morley, 22 Olly Povoas, 23 Sam Tuitupou.
COVENTRY DEVELOPMENT: 15 Max Titchener, 14 Louis Roach, 13 Brendan Burke, 12 Cliffie Hodgson, 11 Joe Lane, 10 Ben Palmer (captain), 9 Connor Adams, 1 Nathanael Titchard-jones, 2 Willie Priestley, 3 Freddie Clark, 4 Tom Jubb, 5 Mike Ryan, 6 Tom Price, 7 Sam McNulty, 8 Waita Setu.
Replacements: 16 Tarik Tin, 17 Matt Price, 18 Phil Ackuaku, 19 Luc Jeannot, 20 Myles Hibbs, 21 Ciaran Grimmer, 22 Sam Payne.
Tom Little previews the rest of this weekend’s National League One programme
Welcome to the first review of the season, one which promises to be the most open for some years. The quality of National League One has been improving year by year and most games should offer an exciting product. Please note that Darlington Mowden Park intend to start all their home matches at 2pm, subject to regulations.
Birmingham Moseley v Ampthill & District
Bishop’ s Stortford v Caldy
Blackheath v Plymouth Albion
Darlington Mowden Park v Loughborough Students kick off 2pm
Esher v Old Elthamians
Fylde v Cambridge
Hull Ionians v Coventry Rugby
Old Albanian v Rosslyn Park
Two of last season’s top five meet at Billesley Common where Birmingham Moseley entertain Ampthill & District. They have had somewhat differing pre-seasons as it has been all change at Moseley, both off and on the field, whilst Ampthill appear far more settled. On the field Moseley have lost 12 key players with four going to local rivals Coventry, but they have recruited well with some astute signings. By contrast, Ampthill have lost fewer players and have recruited some experienced ones, looking to improve on last season’s third place. Moseley, with home advantage, might just sneak this one.
An equally difficult game to predict is at Bishop’s Stortford where the champions of National Two South entertain National Two North champions Caldy. For both this is the first time in National League One after moving steadily through the leagues with mainly local recruitment and a well-controlled budget. An experienced visiting pack against a free-scoring home side makes it difficult to predict with a slight bias towards home advantage.
Last season Plymouth Albion finished a creditable second despite many pre-season changes off and on the field. This week they travel to Blackheath, who last season finished a disappointing seventh despite promising much. The much-travelled new head coach of Blackheath, James Shanahan has brought in some experienced players, especially in the forwards, including four from his former club Old Albanian. Albion start as one of the favourites for promotion but in facing a revamped Blackheath side might find it more challenging than perhaps expected.
Tenth and 11th place last season, Darlington Mowden Park and Loughborough Students meet in the north east. Park had a poor start then with a largely rebuilt side, however this season they have more of a settled look about them and in getting back playmaker Warren Seals from Yorkshire Carnegie should prove too strong for a Students side probably still finding out its best combinations. The new links between Leicester Tigers and Loughborough Students will be looked upon with interest by the other National One sides.
Esher, who finished eighth last season, have promoted Old Elthamians as their visitors. Esher have seen very few players leave and some excellent recruits come in, together with links to Premiership sides Harlequins and London Irish , which could put them among the top four if they can get rid of their inconsistent label. On the other hand, Old Elthamians have seen five promotions in eight seasons, including beating Sale FC in the play-off for promotion to National One. They continue to recruit well with players from the higher league clubs in the London area and playing a fast, off-loading style they certainly have the backs to trouble most sides. Whether they have the forwards to control games remains to be seen, but they could be the surprise package of the season.
Two sides looking for far better seasons than last, Fylde and Cambridge meet at the seaside. Both play an adventurous off-loading game sometimes to their detriment. It has been all change at Fylde, both off and on the field, and they will rely on more youngsters and a selected recruitment policy. Perhaps a more pragmatic playing style will be required. Cambridge have a similar playing style but defensive lapses almost cost them their league status. The coaching side and, presumably, the defence has been boosted by Darren Fox coming in, so this is a game which could go either way At home, Fylde might just have the edge.
Somewhat secretive Old Albanian have the more open Rosslyn Park as their visitors. OA have seen some experienced players leave, mainly to Ampthill and Blackheath, and little information has been released so far about replacements. It appears that a core of players remain and but their close connections with Saracens should see a steady number of dual registered players attached.
Rosslyn Park, who ultimately finished sixth last season after another poor start, have a new head coach in Kieran Power while few players appear to have left and recruitment has been well targeted. It should be a comfortable win for Park with their overall experience and quality.