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Travelling to Coventry for what ahead of the weekend was a scheduled Round 11 fixture in the Championship and a 1st versus 3rd clash, the Cornish Pirates expected nothing less than a big challenge on the Butts Park Arena’s artificial turf pitch.
Well, ‘yes’, it was challenge – but it was one so admirably taken on by the Cornish side who duly persevered to record a superb victory, and one based on a show full of heart and desire.
Selection for the Cornish Pirates saw one change in the backs from the team that ran out at home against Nottingham seven days earlier, with centre Joe Jenkins, who has arrived in Cornwall on short term loan from Bristol Bears, selected at outside centre. In the forwards, Matt Johnson was handed a starting role at tight-head prop, whilst there was a reshuffle involving certain other personnel. Fit again Will Gibson returned at open-side flanker in place of skipper John Stevens who moved to number 8 in place of Hugh Bokenham, who in turn stepped forward a row to partner Steele Barker in the engine room. On the bench Cory Teague was understandably keen to make his first competitive match start for the season, plus there was a welcome return to fitness for Josh King.
Match underway the first scrum of the game saw the Pirates looking capably solid once more, but it was Coventry who were quick to impress with ball in hand. A pick-up and run by their young Fijian prop Vilikesa Nairau provided an early threat, only for him to be halted in his tracks by Pirates’ full-back Will Trewin.
An injury to Pirates’ fly-half Bruce Houston was a concern, as he had to depart for a head injury assessment which resulted in him being permanently replaced by Tom Pittman.
Penalty awards to the home side added further pressure on the Pirates, with Tongan international fly-half Pat Pelligrini opting to kick for the corner rather than attempt kicks at goal. To credit, however, the visitors’ defence held strong with skipper John Stevens once again inspirational.
The hosts, though, looked as if they would not be denied the game’s opening score, only for referee Mr. James to have deemed that a pass to Coventry’s noted try-scoring winger, Ryan Hutler, was forward one.
Coventry certainly held territorial advantage in the first quarter during which the maul defence by the Pirates was fully tested, and up to the task. Then, suddenly, a quick tap penalty and go by Coventry’s Fijian powerhouse number 8 Senitiki Nayalu, with back up from prop Nairau and lock Obiuna Nkwocha, set alarm bells ringing. Success was not immediate but, when another penalty followed, quick reaction led to the game’s opening try scored by strong running centre Will Rigg. Pellegrini added the extra two points.
The Pirates looked to respond, with the efforts of flanker Alex Everett
earning a penalty. Added to this, some unnecessary back chat from Coventry saw them marched back 10 metres, and Pittman fired the ball into their ‘22’.
A real chance was provided for the Pirates to open their account, and when they did it was centre Joe Elderkin who got on the try-scoring sheet for a third game running. Bursting over the line on the right, he cut back to near the posts and Pittman’s conversion levelled the scores.
Coventry had edged the start of this contest, but the Pirates had admirably refused to buckle, keen to not make matters in the slightest bit easy for their Warwickshire opponents.
In the build to halftime both sides strived to score again, each going through the phases. Scrum half Alex Schwarz provided relief with a clearance kick for the Pirates, and when Coventry applied further pressure in the final minute or so, it was determination defensively that enabled the visitors to hold out come the break for the whistle to blow with the score reading 7-7.
Concerns for the Pirates were a lack of first half possession, plus perhaps what quality performers in the home side might still have to offer, including former England flanker Matt Kvesic and experienced former long serving Premiership scrum half Will Chudley.
As it worked out the Pirates would conjure up two converted tries in the space of just three minutes. A first, off the back of a potent maul, went to Stevens, and the second went to replacement scrum half Ruaridh Dawson who, shortly after being introduced to proceedings, not for the first time this season made a telling interception that saw him run some 70 metres to the line.
Into the last quarter, with the clock ticking nervously away for supporters of both sides, penalties awards were going to Coventry. Both sides were also introducing a string of replacements, including for the home side young prop Eliot Salts who has played for Cornwall under 20s.
A second Coventry try, scored on 65 minutes by wing James Martin, heightened the tension among what was a big crowd. It followed a pinpoint kick out of hand by Pellegrini who was less lucky with his conversion attempt.
In what was now going to be a crucial, nail-biting last few minutes, a faulty line-out was not now helping the Pirates’ cause, plus they also lost the services of John Stevens because of injury, but with continued character they held out for a fine victory despite a last minute converted try scored by Coventry’s Will Lane, which also provided some consolation in earning a losing bonus point.
Teams are well aware of how difficult Coventry are to beat at home on their artificial turf pitch, and having started to acquire the legendary atmosphere that in decades past made Coventry a feared place for opposition teams to visit, there was credit that the Pirates, for the immediate present, had managed to subdue the home support in what was otherwise another thoroughly entertaining Championship contest. It was also a fourth league win on the trot for the Cornish side who move up to second place in the Championship behind Ealing Trailfinders.
Cornish Pirates’ joint head coach Gavin Cattle, who had said pre-match that if you want to be in the hunt at the top then the likes of Coventry away, along with Bedford and Ealing, are the teams you need to aspire to beat, was an understandably pleased man after the game. He commented:
“Some bits were not pretty but in terms of attitude and some defensive sets in that first half, and absorbing that pressure, we did well to go in at halftime 7-all against a quality Coventry team.
“There were elements in the game, a lot of pressure, and I thought both sides contested each other’s set piece pretty well, but I go back to the attitudes and endeavour, the chase backs, the no talent stuff that requires heart and desire which was there by the bucketload.
“When you are used to playing on such an artificial surface, as Coventry are, you are waiting for the game to break up and there was a bit of a wee chase towards the end that they capitalised on. I would also have liked for us to control possession better, but we importantly stayed in the fight with that heart and desire mentioned, and we will take the win.
“We have just been plodding away and set a task for today and our next two games to see where we are at. That is the first one done but we now have a bit of recovery to do this week because we have a couple of HIAs that will perhaps not make the Bedford game, so we are again digging deep into our resources.
“I would also like to make special mention of Tom Pittman who has been in the background working hard in a diligent manner and really going about his business, so to get an opportunity off the bench today and to play an instrumental part, including defensively, he deserves credit.”
Coventry: 15 Tobi Wilson 14 Ryan Hutler (22 Lucas Titherington, 30) 13 Will Wand 12 Will Rigg 11 James Martin 10 Pat Pellegrin 9 Will Chudley (21 Will Lane); 1 Vilikesa Nairau (17 Elliot Chilvers, 45) 2 Jordan Poole (captain; 16 Will Biggs, 66) 3 Adam Nicol (18 Eliot Salt, 63) 4 James Tyas (19 Rhys Anstey, 66) 5 Obiuna Nkwocha 6 Tom Ball (20 Paddy Ryan, 49) 7 Matt Kvesic 8 Senitiki Nayalo.
Cornish Pirates: 15 Will Trewin 14 Robin Wedlake 13 Joe Jenkins 12 Joe Elderkin 11 Matt McNab 10 Bruce Houston (22 Tom Pittman, 05) 9 Alex Schwarz (21 Ruaridh Dawson, 51); 1 Lefty Zigiriadis (17 Jacob Morris, 65) 2 Morgan Nelson (16 Rhys Williams, 68) 3 Matt Johnson (18 Fin Richardson, 40) 4 Hugh Bokenham 5 Steele Barker 6 Alex Everett 7 Will Gibson (19 Cory Teague, 63) 8 John Stevens (captain; 20 Josh King, 68).
Replacement (not used): 23 Frankie Nowell.
Coventry – tries: Will Rigg (20) James Martin (65) Will Lane (80);
cons: Pat Pellegrini (21, 80).
Cornish Pirates – tries: Joe Elderkin (27) John Stevens (52) Ruaridh Dawson (54);
cons: Tom Pittman (28, 53, 55).
Referee: Joe James Assistants: Andy Wigley & Kevin Williams