With the likes of Hemel Stags, Gloucestershire All Golds and Oxford all having briefly competed in Betfred League One in recent years, midlands outfit Coventry Bears are the last of the ‘expansion’ clubs added into the third tier recently who are left standing in the competition. Under the stewardship of Yorkshireman Tom Tsang, the Bears have never finished bottom of the third tier since joining the league in 2015 – unlike Hemel – and have claimed notable scalps along the way.
Now, with preparations well underway for their 2019 campaign, head coach Tsang is confident of improving on the club’s 11th placed finish last time out and surprising a few people. “We come back this week and I’m really happy with how things have gone this year,” the Huddersfield native told Get ’em Onside. “It’s probably the best year we have had in terms of keeping players on from the previous season. Seventeen lads from 2018 are staying with us and I think the most we’ve ever carried over is ten or eleven. We had quite a good year on and off the field last season and the guys have chosen to stick with us which is great.”
For a team like Coventry who are keen to develop as a club and progress in the league, continuity is, without doubt, vital, something Tsang agrees with. Despite losing key men Jason Bass (York City Knights) and Ben Stead (North Wales) from last season’s squad, the fact that the majority of the group remains gives Tsang confidence ahead of the campaign. “We’ve always found it tough at the start of the season due to that,” he admitted, suggesting that starting from scratch each season is, understandably, a challenge. However, Tsang also explained that he sees the team improve in the second half of the year and, bearing in mind the continuity expected for 2019, he will be hoping that Coventry can edge their way up the table. “The aims have sort of shifted a bit over the last few weeks due to a teams pulling out and such but, being realistic, we want to be in the top six of the league,” Tsang shared, further explaining that “towards the back end of last year we beat Hunslet, sixty seconds away from beating Whitehaven away, we beat Keighley and pushed Workington close.” Having kept together the majority of the squad from 2018, Tsang is clearly being ambitious and setting high targets for the Bears but, looking at who they triumphed over and competed with at the back end of the season, his goals are definitely understandable.
Based at the city’s Butts Park Arena – a stadium they share with the city’s original rugby union club – the Bears have a base in what is a fervent sporting city. While the Bears are labelled as an expansion club, the team were, for many years in the noughties, one of the best outside of the three professional leagues and had developed strong foundations for their entry to League One in 2015. “It’s sometime hard for us getting thrown in the same boat as the likes of Hemel, Gloucestershire and Oxford fall by the wayside,” Tsang admitted, the club’s long-serving coach adding that “we try to do everything in the right way, a progressive way,” clear in his desire to see the club continue to grow and develop. “To continue growing the game in the area we need teams more local to us,” he added and, given that their closest game in 2019 would be either London Skolars or either of the Welsh clubs, he definitely has a point. “We need rugby league to be thriving around us in order to be able to drive the interest. Sport needs those rivalries and derbies to draw the fans in and that’s something we’d love to have,” Tsang further outlined.
“Growth is a slow burner in the area if I’m honest,” he confessed. “We are competing with the football team, that’s massive in the area, they used to be successful but they’re still very well supported,” he explained and, given that rugby union’s Coventry RFC and, recently, Wasps are in the same territory, there is clear competition there to attract the city’s young sporting talent to rugby league. “There’s a lot of competing markets here and we are going up against a lot of different things but the positive is that people from Coventry absolutely love the city, anything that is for or from the city and they also love their sport. If you put the two together, they will get behind you,” he said. “If we keep progressing and establishing ourselves and the sport in the coming years, we will attract new fans. We’ve got a very solid, loyal fanbase of around 400 people which we are proud of and hope to add to,” Tsang imparted.
A passionate rugby league man, it could be that Tsang would get frustrated at seeing his team dismantle after every season – especially if they are to continue their development. “In previous years we’ve had guys that get picked up by clubs higher up which, I guess, being a newish club means that’s possibly our place in the game. When we give these guys the opportunities, they catch the eye and impress other coaches who are able to offer deals that we can’t match,” he admitted. However, in recent years the club has produced or developed talented players, one of whom next year will be the first player in Super League to have also played for the Bears. Joe Batchelor left Coventry after the 2016 season before joining York City Knights in League One, a team who competed in 2017 before winning the title in 2018, second-rower Batchelor starring. It was announced in May that the 23-year-old would join Super League’s League Leaders’ Shield winners St Helens and he is currently in his maiden pre-season campaign with the club. Threequarter Bass has also now departed Coventry for the Championship’s Knights and, coupled with Batchelor’s success, they indicate to Tsang that the club are, indeed, doing things the right way. “We’re very proud of it and it’s probably where we are at the moment,” he explained. “There’s definitely the potential there for similar things to happen to some more of our players. We have put together a tried-and-tested method for developing players,” he explained and the progress of former Bears players at other clubs is perhaps an indication that that method is working. Indeed, Peter Ryan – a player who initially signed his first professional deal with the Bears after an October 2017 trial while studying at the city’s university – went on to represent Ireland this post-season, showing another player the Coventry club have helped discover.
“At some point we want to be able to keep hold of these guys for a bit to help us get further up the ladder ourselves. We have a few in our squad for 2019 who could make quite a big splash,” Tsang noted, emphasising his ambition and desire for the club to continue developing. With his aims clear for next year and with his squad assembled, the Bears seem to be well-set for a best-ever league finish.