Exclusive: Hometown head coach Alex Rae on making Coventry’s supporters proud

Alex Rae grew up in Coventry and joined as forwards coach last summer
©Coventry Rugby

“Someone dropped off some oxygen to the physio and it was a lad I know,” Alex Rae laughed. “There are multiple cases on a match day where I see people I haven’t seen for years. That comes with a bit more pressure at times, but it is good.”

Having grown up in Coventry, taking charge of his hometown rugby club is clearly a point of pride for new head coach Rae.

He admits that he maybe focused on football too much when he was younger, but still remembers playing his school rugby finals at Coventry's former home, Coundon Road.

In the years that followed, Rae would never play professionally for the club, instead making his way over to Worcester where he played his Academy rugby before moving to Northampton Saints, Nottingham, Bedford Blues, Saracens, Wasps and Jersey Reds.

After several years coaching on the Channel Islands before a return to Bedfordshire to work with the Blues, the 36-year-old initially joined Coventry as forwards coach ahead of last term.

But as fate would have it, he would be taking on the top job by seasons end. With Rowland Winter departing midway through the campaign, Rae was announced as interim head coach to see out the season.

The side finished in an underwhelming eighth position in the second tier, but when it came to the Championship Cup competition, under Rae, the team made the final. Falling to Ealing Trailfinders in the capitial, whilst that loss was a disappointment, at boardroom level, Jon Sharp knew he had his new head coach.

For Rae, that period was one of immense learning. On top of his regular role, he had to shoulder a lot more responsibility, something he will have to become used to in the years to come.

“That Championship Cup gave us some really good momentum,” Rae said. “You don’t change much, really, I suppose. We were that far into a season, we weren’t going to change the way we were going to play, it was more about how you make the environment and how you make people feel.

“At the same time, being interim head coach, you had the responsibility of letting lads know that they may not have a job, and things like that. At the time it was tough, and some of them bits were bits I hadn’t had to do before because there had always been a Director of Rugby or a head coach above me.

“You’re learning them new skills, and if anyone ever says it is easy telling someone they have not got a job, they are a liar because it is not a nice thing to do.

“At the time, we went on a really good cup run. The players found some belief in the way we wanted to play, and we went on a really good run. Hopefully we take some of that momentum into this pre-season and into this upcoming season.”

Citing the clubs 17-15 win over Bedford at Goldington Road in March as a turning point for the group – who hadn’t won a game on the road across the season up to that point – that victory was very much the first domino leading towards their Championship Cup run.

Putting an emphasis on the players enjoying themselves, Rae has taken that ethos into this pre-season. It has been a summer of change at Butts Park Arena, where there have been several comings and goings.

Three of the club’s most experienced players have all retired - Ryan Burrows, Phil Boulton and Tony Fenner, all calling time on their careers. The latter, who has served Coventry since their National One days, has jumped straight into coaching and will be the backs coach this season.

To contend with these losses, Rae has recruited astutely. Amongst the numerous young players to have arrived in the West Midlands, Jordan Poole was a priority. On loan from Exeter Chiefs last year, the hooker has now been brought in permanently. He’s also the club’s captain.

Some players have arrived from National League clubs, whilst Shea Cornish and Danny Southworth are loanees from Chiefs. Will Rigg, Ollie Andrews and Marjin Huis all played their rugby in BUCS Super Rugby last season, and Harry Seward, Will Biggs and Will Lane all have prior Championship experience.

Will Talbot-Davies also joins from Dragons and Australian fly-half Patrick Pellegrini is something of an oddity having come from Sevenoaks RFC after the club gained promotion to National Two East.

“We managed to keep the lads we wanted to keep,” Rae said. “Jordan Poole, who has been named as captain, he was on a season-long loan from Exeter last year, and he has committed to us.

“We lost a lot of experience with people like Ryan Burrows, Will Owen and Phil Boulton [retiring or departing]. They have been around the block, and they have played a lot of Championship games.

“We have replaced them with a lot of younger lads and that is not by accident. We want to have a lot of young players who either grow with Coventry over the next few years or they get picked up by a Premiership club.

“I am well aware where we are in the food chain. If someone is doing well in the Championship and pulling up trees, a Premiership club will come calling and it is really hard for a young player to turn that down especially if they are ambitious.

Coventry's coaching staff (L to R): Tony Fenner (Backs coach), Chris Hart (Head of Performance), Alex Rae (Head coach) and James Scaysbrook (Defence coach)
©Coventry Rugby

“That is the model we are going to go down, and I am hoping to grow players who grow alongside the club, and hopefully in a couple of years, we are in a really good place where those players will have played 40 or 50 games if they stay with us.”

As we all know, the Championship has had a fairly topsy-turvy past two-and-a-half years. It was all kicked off by funding cuts to the competition, the clubs having to contend with significantly reduced budgets as a result, while in the weeks that followed, Covid-19 flipped the whole world on its head.

With no avenues to make money combined with a lack of funding, numerous sides reverted to a semi-professional model. Coventry are not amongst that group, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have challenges.

In 2021, Jon Sharp described the Championship as “crippled” and as being “sold down the river”. Upon their promotion back to the second tier of English club rugby, Cov were a hugely ambitious side, but in the years that have followed, their motivations have changed.

“You only have to look at the attendances,” Rae said. "They were really starting to grow the year before Covid. I think they had an average of around 2,700 so they were building really nicely.

“Then Covid came, the funding cuts, so you have to run the business appropriately. That doesn’t mean the ambition is not there because I think it most certainly is but at the same time, the most important thing is that the club will always be there.

“There is no point spending willy nilly, and that reflects a little bit. You can’t go out and get a Premiership player who had played 100 games because that money is not in our league. There are maybe one or two teams spending like that, but not many so it is doing it a different way and as a coach that is quite exciting.

“You are having to develop these players, improving them and helping people grow. That does reflect a little bit on the funding that the Championship receives, and we are still recovering after Covid.”

Playing Birmingham Moseley this weekend in a pre-season game, Coventry’s preparations for their Championship opener against Bedford in September are well underway.

There is plenty of pride in Rae’s voice whenever he talks about his role, the new challenge it gives him and writing a “new chapter” in the club’s history.

It is going to be a journey that is for sure. With a young group – the oldest backline player will be 24 – and a smattering of local lads, Rae says that above all else, he is hopeful that his players will represent the city they call home with pride.

“The main thing is seeing a team who is really proud to play for Coventry,” he said. “Especially being a young group who the supporters can have an attachment with, and they know every time they run out, they will be really proud of what they are seeing.

“That is really the only thing I can guarantee at the minute, and a style of rugby which is going to be easy on the eye. At the same time, traditionally, Coventry packs have always been physical and unwelcoming. They are the kind of things we want to see.

“The biggest thing is seeing a group that is really proud to represent Coventry Rugby Club. That is the biggest thing I could promise.”