A powerful start to the 2018/19 Championship season was all too short-lived for the Reds, who faded in the last hour of a lively encounter at Butts Park Arena and finished well beaten.
Hosts Coventry recovered from the concession of two early tries, withstood a torrid conclusion to the first half that included a brace of yellow cards, and then dominated the second half.
Unable to maintain the momentum that saw the majority of their league points won away from home last season, the Reds were left licking their wounds, notably a suspected ruptured achilles tendon for prop Alec Clarey. The visitors headed home with a lone bonus point, achieved with the last kick of the game through Brett Herron’s penalty.
A thunderous reception accompanied the home side’s entry to the field, marking an eight-year wait for rugby at this level since ‘Cov’ were relegated at the end of the inaugural season of the RFU Championship. But the crowd were silenced by early Jersey pressure; first Jason Worrall was superbly tackled by David Halaifonua in the corner, but soon afterwards the winger took an audacious long pass from Brett Herron, cut inside and made space for Auguy Slowik to race over in the corner.
Soon afterwards the Reds’ mauling prowess was showcased with a well-worked lineout move that saw Nick Selway open his try-scoring account for the season.
The temporarily-subdued atmosphere stemmed not only from Jersey’s productive start, but also from the home side squandering several opportunities. Winger James Stokes had a half to forget, failing to keep hold of two interception attempts and then somehow failing to ground the ball after going over in the corner – credit to Slowik for his tackle after Stokes was slow to ground the ball. Home skipper Heath Stevens, one of three former Jersey players in the starting XV, then crossed and touched down, but the scoring pass was ruled forward.
Finally the hosts were able to get on the scoreboard, first through Will Maisey’s penalty and then after a spell of pressure that culminated in another ex-Red, James Voss, strolling over unopposed in the corner.
Although barely two minutes remained of the half after Voss’s try, the Reds had time to establish a platform on the Cov line, and as the hosts defended desperately, two-thirds of their back row saw yellow. First of all Latu Maka’afi, still going strong 12 years after becoming one of Jersey’s first pro players, was dispatched to the bin for dragging down the maul and then fellow Tongan Jack Ram killed the ball and earned a card of his own.
A third Jersey try looked inevitable, but in seeking to press home the advantage from their scrum, the visitors were penalised and Coventry headed to the dressing room relieved to have maintained their deficit at two points.
Staying in the game was the home side’s priority after the break and in truth they survived the remainder of the sin-bin period with few alarms. Jersey had begun to ring the changes with Charlie Maddison, Janco Venter and Leeroy Atalifo coming on, the latter entering the fray during a lengthy interruption for injury to Clarey, who departed on a stretcher.
Scrum-half Homer had been a lively presence for Jersey, and his break almost set up a try, with Worrall taking the ball within 10 metres of the line but failing to find Roy Godfrey with a pass that was nearer the skipper’s forehead than his ‘bread-basket’.
Tongan full-back Halaifonua gave his side the lead for the first time, crossing after replacement flanker Ben Adams launched a pacy counter-attack.
There were chances at both ends and it was something of a mystery that the total try tally was not far higher than four. Koch Marx and Apakuki Ma’afu both broke through but couldn’t find support runners, while Venter was a rampaging presence in the loose. But Cov also looked dangerous, and only desperate scrambling by Mark Best stopped Stevens scoring after a 60-metre race after a kick ahead.
Best’s defensive rearguard took its toll and proved to be his last contribution, with Homer pressed into service on the wing after Worrall’s earlier departure for a head injury assessment, James Newey and Hilton Mudariki joining the action.
Maisey gave his side breathing space with a penalty, and the Reds’ could have finished the game empty-handed but for Herron’s late three-pointer from the home side’s 10-metre line. Tellingly this was just about the first penalty Coventry had conceded in the second half, after an ill-disciplined first 40, and helped the hosts claim the win they craved on their Championship return.
There was little surprise that a word beginning with ‘F’ was first on the lips of Jersey Reds’ Head Coach Harvey Biljon after defeat at Coventry in the opening Greene King IPA Championship match of 2018/19.
The Reds took an early lead, but then went 65 minutes without scoring, a period in which their opponents scored 20 points and withstood a 10-minute spell with two players in the sin-bin.
‘I’m frustrated – there were some crucial moments for both teams, and particularly at the end of the first half [when Coventry had just 13 men on the field],’ Biljon said. ‘We won a large number of penalties, but got no reward, and that came back to bite us. We made some poor decisions, but you also have to give credit to Coventry for the way they played.
‘Our replacements brought some energy, but we couldn’t score points. We shouldn’t get carried away – it’s the beginning of the season, and fair play to Brett Herron for getting us the bonus point at the end.’
While the Reds’ maintained a poor record in the opening game of a Championship season, with the 2016 victory at Richmond their lone win in seven attempts, Coventry were delighted to buck the trend for promoted sides making their Championship bow.
Doncaster’s win over Plymouth Albion in September 2014 was the only time in the past six seasons that ‘newbies’ had registered a victory, so Coventry’s Director of Rugby Rowland Winter was delighted.
‘It’s a tough league and a really difficult opening fixture – Jersey chucked everything at us,’ he said. ‘We could have made it easier for ourselves if we’d taken our chances, but our discipline was much better in the second half and we still had lots in the tank.’
The Reds’ attention will now turn to another away game, one of three to start the season, when they travel to Goldington Road next Saturday to face Bedford Blues.
/*pics courtesy Rob Clifford*/
James Gibbons, Phil Nilsen, Phil Boulton, Tom Jubb, James Voss, Adam Peters, Jack Ram (YC 40), Latu Makaafi (YC 40); Pete White, Will Maisey; James Stokes, Sam Tuitupou, Heath Stevens (capt), Rob Knox; David Halaifonua.
Ben Adams (for Knox, 40 mins), Tony Fenner (Maka’afi 46), Scott Tolmie (Nilsen 46), Charlie Beech (Boulton 46), Pete White (Kessell 50), Kailus Hutchinson (Peters 68). Not used: Luc Jeannot.
Jersey Reds (1-15)
Roy Godfrey (capt), Nick Selway, Alec Clarey, Jerry Sexton, Dave Mckern, Max Argyle, Conor Joyce, Kyle Hatherell; Will Homer, Brett Herron; Jason Worrall, Mark Best, Apakuki Ma’afu, Koch Marx; Auguy Slowik.
Charlie Maddison (for Selway, 44 mins), Janco Venter (Hatherell 44), Leeroy Atalifo (Clarey 50), James Newey (Worrall 58), Charlie Beckett (Mckern 60), Hilton Mudariki (Best 60), Cameron Holenstein (Godfrey 68).
REFEREE: Christophe Ridley; Assistants: Paul Burton, Nigel Carrick.
Half Time: 10-12
Tries: Voss 38, Halaifonua 52
Conversions: Maisey 38, 52
Penalties: Maisey 31, 71
Tries: Slowik 10, Selway 15
Conversions: Herron 15
Penalty: Herron 80