Glenn Delaney addresses the troops
The curtains have closed on the Championship season for Nottingham Rugby with a failure to progress from the pool stage of the play-offs. A season full of twists and turns came to an end this month against London Welsh in front of an appreciative home crowd, and although the Green and Whites promotion hopes had been put to bed already, it has been a hugely positive campaign. A lot of new faces have made their way through the doors at Meadow Lane, a World Cup winner has joined the streamlined boardroom, and the team have been pushing the top sides close in the league, truly satisfying the club’s growing fanbase.
There have only been two matches for the team this month and with results not going their way elsewhere, hopes of progressing in the play-offs were slim when they took to the field against Doncaster Knights. With the side needing a bonus point win to keep their hopes alive, they put in a decisive and disciplined performance to seal a 38-7 victory and the five points they needed to give themselves a sliver of hope. Playing into the wind during the opening 40 minutes was tough going. The first score arrived when a ball was hacked through by James Arlidge and some more good footwork by Juan Socino saw him cross the line and give the Green and Whites the lead, only to be pegged back before half-time.
However, after the break it was one-way traffic, the Knights not troubling the scoreboard while Nottingham made the most of the conditions and dominated every aspect of the game. Two early tries from Andy Savage and Socino, both converted by Arlidge, put them well in control with plenty of time to find the all-important fourth try, which arrived when Craig Hammond broke through to set up Alex Lewington. And the scoring wasn’t done there: Brent Wilson soon went over while there might have been more tries, but the bonus point was by now in the bag.
However, before they took on London Welsh in their final match, hopes of promotion were already gone. Even so, the team wanted to put on a show for their faithful supporters in the season swansong, but it wasn’t to be. Despite the Green and Whites having plenty of possession, the performance understandably lacked intensity and Welsh duly ran out 33-25 winners.
It had all started so well for Nottingham when Sione Kalamafoni went on a trademark break through the defence to score the opening try in his final game for the club. An Arlidge conversion and penalty stretched the lead before Welsh bagged a try of their own and the scores were level until Socino crossed the line deep into stoppage time to re-establish a seven point half-time lead. After the break the teams exchanged penalties before Rhys Crane marked his return with a try that pushed the gap to twelve points, giving false hope to the Green and Whites. Two penalties and a late try for the visitors nudged them one point ahead going into injury time, and when Craig Hammond was sin-binned Nottingham conceded another try and with it any chances of finishing on a high.
Arlidge: Mr Consistency
Despite a disappointing end to the campaign, Director of Rugby Glenn Delaney believes it’s been a good year for the team. He said: “We didn’t make the semi-finals, which we’re desperately disappointed about, but I see it as the start of a process. We’ve finished fifth in the league, had a much better season results-wise, and had a much better season in the play-offs. We’ve certainly moved forward from where we were 12 months ago. The reality is that we have a side that’s progressed and grown to having the ability to be as good as the top team in the league. When we faced the top four sides, we lost the game at Bristol in the eighth minute of injury time. We drew at home to the Pirates. We lost first game of the season to a shot at goal against Bedford, so that’s the margins.”
With the season now over, the players have five weeks to relax before conditioning begins ahead of next term. But while his players enjoy some deserved time off, the New Zealander is already thinking about pre-season and making the side stronger than ever: “We need to eradicate the unforced error. Against London Welsh in the first game and Bristol at home we made two errors each time and it cost us two tries. We need to eradicate those errors or get to a point where we don’t get punished. Every team makes mistakes, but not being punished for them is what’s important. And we need to stop conceding from turnover play. We need to continue to work heavily under pressure on the training ground to make sure the players are composed in all aspects of their game.”
While a strong forward pack has been vital to the team’s attacking, free-scoring style, in previous seasons the defensive side of the team has been a severely exposed Achilles heel. But this season it’s all come together as the team ended the league season as the fourth highest try scorers and one of the four tightest backlines in the division. The turnaround, in what has been a transitional season for the club, has been magnificent.
In October, Ray Trew stepped down from the board with Luke Jones and Jason Brewer leaving the Notts County board to focus on the Green and Whites. At the same time, Meadow Lane has seen a lot of new faces coming into the team, so much so that the season’s opening game saw a starting line-up full of new players. And while the Director of Rugby is pleased with how things have come together since then, he feels that the play-offs came just too soon for his developing side. “We lost points with some inaccuracies and less cohesive performances that, when you look back on them, just shows that perhaps we hadn’t spent enough time together. And if you look at the back-end of our season from Christmas,” he added “we lost a number of games to weather and ended up playing four games in nine days so we had to rotate the squad. We played two completely different teams over the games and that really had a stifling effect on the development of the players we’d chosen to play in the play-offs.”
This positivity means Delaney is focused on offering some of his current players new contracts for next season rather than delving into the transfer market, although he admits he may look to replace the Gloucester-bound Kalamafoni. “He’s been outstanding for us for two years and now he’s going to the Premiership. He’s a lad we picked up from Tonga who’d been on missionary work in America that no-one had ever heard of and now he was a standout player at the World Cup for his country and he’s off to the Premiership. There are a lot of players out there like that that we can go and find again to make a big difference to Nottingham Rugby.”
With the pieces of the puzzle fitting seamlessly into place there is a special buzz around the team for their chances next season. The changes made to the club are part of a two-year plan for building a platform to the Premiership and Delaney says that the lessons learned this time round will make them an even more fearsome prospect come the autumn: “If we continue the progress, then promotion’s got to be something that we see as attainable. We were 5 points short of fourth place this year; it’s just one win so next year we’ve got to make sure we’re one win better.”
In a city overflowing with top sports teams, rugby is growing in popularity and bucking a trend across the professional game. While attendances elsewhere are shrinking, the Green and Whites are seeing more and more come through the turnstiles to watch World Cup stars to enjoy – and contribute to – the side’s great home record. Delaney said: “We believe we’re giving Nottingham and the county a great sporting offer and we hope that people want to come along for the journey with us and the numbers speak for themselves.” And he believes that the club’s work in the community is another reason for their growing prominence. “It’s a club. The supporters, the players, the staff, we’re all in it together and it’s very much an ‘us and us’ mentality.”
Ollie Taylor and Tom Calladine
Although the season may now be over, there’s still plenty happening at Meadow Lane. Academy stars Ollie Taylor and Tom Calladine have swapped Nottingham for New Zealand as they join up with Delaney’s old team, Linwood, so as to help fast-track their evident talents into the first-team. Both players featured in the British and Irish Cup but failed to find a regular place in the Championship line-up. Delaney commented: “They’ve gone out there for a bit of finishing. I grew up and played there and Simon Beatham actually played for them as well so it’s a well-trodden path. Tom and Ollie have come through our academy system and deserve that opportunity. Mitchell Todd’s another at the right stage of his career to step up. We do look at our academy first. The guys do a great job in bringing the best of the local talent through and skilling them to a level that means we can then look at them for our first team and our view will always be to look inside before looking over the fence.”
Meanwhile, the club have announced a new partnership with industrial supplies company Hall Fast that will help deliver coaching sessions to junior clubs and schools in north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Classes will kick off in June and will be run by community coach Josh Salathial, with help from first-team stars as they look to tap into the pool of talent that has delivered James Stokes and Calladine.
Finally, there has been some recognition for one of Nottingham’s outstanding players this season. The club’s top try scorer, Juan Socino, has been named in the RFU Championship’s 2011/12 Dream XV. The Argentine’s attacking flair and ability to cross the gain line has earned him ten tries and seen him chosen for the second year running. There was good news for James Wigglesworth and James Stokes, too, as they were selected for the Under-20 England Counties side to face Scotland on May 4. Stokes has been part of Nottingham’s British and Irish Cup squad and Wigglesworth has been part of the Hull side in National Two under Nottingham academy manager John Widdowson.
It’s been a long and eventful season for the Green and Whites, but the progress has been huge. While the semi-finals remain a step too far, the performances have been promising. Having completed a first campaign together, the players are beginning to form a formidable unit that can mount a serious promotion challenge. Next season will be even more difficult as the play-offs shrink to include only the top four sides and, in a tight league, the slightest slip-up could make the difference. But Glenn Delaney and everyone at the club is positive about their prospects of returning to the top-flight. I can hardly wait!