By David Wilkinson

I chatted with Apps, earlier in the week about the squad leading up to the first game on Saturday.

The warm up games had gone very well with the two against Sheffield Tigers, then the Blues versus Whites Trial followed by the match against Hull, which was brilliant, then on Wednesday you get a phone call saying that Bowden had cried-off as they couldn’t raise a team!

Yes, it was disappointing to hear the news. Ideally we would have liked two or three matches in the final build-up, but it’s been a difficult time. Covid has completely changed everything, it’s been a very long build-up and some of the boys needed a break to take family holidays, and many have chosen to do this pre season, so it was inevitable that some players would be unavailable. It’s been difficult, but we make sure that our training simulates a game; we train 20% above a match tempo, so the game then feels a lot easier, than what a training session does.

I suppose the change of working with a full squad of 30 plus players has also helped to create match conditions.

Yes, when we were allowed to we actually got an in-house game before Christmas, then another before the Sheff Tigers games, we then had a big break and another in-house game before the Hull match. We’ve purposely made it difficult for the boys, playing against opposition from the league above us. Bowden would have been a bit lighter for us, but another game, unfortunately these things happen. They are really confident now going into a match situation, the boys train at such a high intensity that a game tempo seems easier.

It must be very different to a normal pre season; because of Covid we’ve had a really slow, long build-up; which is most unlike a normal season, where the boys get a big break and then a compacted series of warm-up games.

100%, because of Covid lads have been taking their holidays spread out over the summer, so we’ve often been missing players; this has been the same at other clubs that has affected us getting games. The whole rugby family has been affected not just the first team squad but all the other teams, the 3rds and the 4ths as well, so the captains of those teams are having to work really hard to get teams together to fulfil fixtures. Hopefully, once we have this weekend sorted, with some good results, all the lads will get back into the routine.

It’s been very difficult from the coaching aspect, to keep the lads interested, doing different things, as we’ve pretty much had an 18 month pre-season. It’s been a real challenge, but I think that it’s up skilled us, we now just need to go out there and do the business.

If you take that, the business, through this long period you’ve talked about the pace of the game, playing at a high tempo, is that something that you continue to work on?

Rugby is a series of competitions, you may consider a lineout as a competition, or a scrum, or a ruck, that’s a competition to get there first, in the best body position to be dominant. What we’ve been trying to push on the boys, is that we want to win every little competition, and with that if you’ve got the tempo in your game and the boys are switched on working hard, off the ball and on the ball, then you’ve got a high tempo game that’s putting other teams under pressure in all those little competitions. So that’s pretty much what we’ve been working a lot on, breaking those competitions down and focusing on how we address them, and then speeding them back up in game situation training. It’s going well, but we are still learning, we are still a young side and there are still more young players coming into that mix, so it’s really exciting but it’s also always developing. What we have now is a high tempo game that some sides will struggle with – if we perform it well on the pitch we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

From what I’ve seen a lot of the high tempo play emanates from the ruck recycle, how do you break that down to keep the pace on the game?

It’s a hard one, every ruck is a different competition, it depends on how many men have gone in, if it’s just one, we’ve got to rush to it, if two men have gone in together, it’s a little more safer for us, it’s also winning the height race, so if we win the height race, we’re down low and we’re down strong, then we’re pretty much secure. We then move on to the next job, which is the scrum half coming in, his delivery, how clean the ball is being presented for him, so if we’ve got a good length for him and a good presentation of the ball, it makes the scrum half’s job a hell of a lot easier to get quick ball away. For example we run a training session where our focus is all on ball presentation, looking at all the individual elements. So we are starting to see how we want the ruck to work, we are aiming at about a 3 second ruck, which really seems to be excelling us.

But it’s not just the ruck, the key areas for me are the off-the-ball areas, when one phase is happening we are getting organised for the next phase. Also, when play stops, when the ball gets kicked out, how long does it take us to get set for a lineout, what is that time span? So if we can shorten that time-span and put the opposition under pressure, they are not going to have an organised lineout or an organised scrum. So we always want to be there first, we want to win that race.

Are you saying you want to be fitter than the opposition?

No, it’s more about speed of thought, reactions, if we are there first we’ve already won that competition, put them under pressure. It’s those top two inches that we’re working on with the boys in training, when the whistle’s blown and we move onto the next session the boys are running there, they’re switched-on.

Looking at the Hull game, which I know you will have analysed in great detail, even though Hull were a much more experienced and bigger team, the boys were able to recycle the ball quickly and keep possession for long periods, you have to say they had parity with them.

Yes, we chose Hull, because we know what they are about, I like to refer to them as a Championship Vets team. They have a lot of boys that played Championship rugby, then, stepped down to play semi-pro rugby, so a lot of Yorkshire lads go to Hull. They’re big experienced lads, but the last thing they wanted was to be run around the park, by a bunch of young lads. I think that’s how we held our own in that game, we were efficient, we were there first on most occasions. They had the bounce of the ball on a couple of occasions, and OK we showed a lack of experience at times, but we got a lot of work-ons out of that game. In retrospect we competed well against a team a league above us, we were there or thereabouts on the day and performed well, which was the aim.

So we’ve now just finished, almost 18 months of not playing proper rugby, and during that time you’ve had a lot of new boys join the squad, but until you saw them actually play, you wouldn’t have quite known what you had. Presumably now you’ve got a good idea of your rugby stock.

Absolutely, we’ve got a long list of players, certainly in the 40s, who have all been pre-season training with us. There are some new lads that accept that they will be in the second team with us, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s great. But we also have a large squad of players that are able to play first team rugby. Some of the new lads might get an early start and end up keeping the shirt; the challenge ahead is to keep everyone happy, so we want the experience in the second team to be great, they will have their own lead coach and Physio going with them, so hopefully our fringe players playing in the second team are happy.

What’s the situation with injured players?

There are a couple of lads injured at the moment, but they are back in a week or so, so it’s literally waiting a few weeks then we are at full-strength. Long term injuries are Sam Stelmaszec, because in his injury to his knee he did multiple things to it. So he is in a rehab programme with Jay, and we hope that he’ll be back training towards the end of November. Billy has had his knee op now, so we hope he’ll be back training soon. Sam Brown is having a key-operation on his shoulder, so I think he’ll be six weeks. Harry Oliver just needs some more contact training then he’ll be good to go and Harry Blackwell will be about 4 weeks. It’s a shame that we are not at full strength, but we will be, within a few weeks.

It’s Tuesday, so there’s just tonight’s session and Thursday night and presumably you’ll then be picking the team for Saturday.

It will probably be done tonight, myself and Rick, we’ve got some ideas about who will be starting and it’s very close and tight, a really hard job, especially this first week, because everyone has worked so hard and they are all expecting a shirt. So there are going to be some disappointed lads, but it’s our job to make the call for this week, and the lads have to understand that we are a big squad – it’s all about the hunt for promotion and to do that, you can’t do it with just 18 players, we need a solid squad that all work together and chip in when they need to chip in. I hate having to pick just 18 players because sometimes there are 50-50s.

You’ve almost got your hands tied when you’ve only got three replacements, in having to look at the utility aspect of who can give me more options.

It’s good for some but not for others; if you’re on the fringe, but someone else can play in several positions, then they have got the shirt because you need those options. Whilst we will want to keep the backbone of the team throughout the season, it will change, it’s a long season, but we have those options to change.


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