Hoppers 2nd XV 34 Sedgley Park 2nd XV 15
The second team ensured a clean sweep over the once mighty Tigers with a hard fought but ultimately deserved victory in front of a healthy Friday night crowd at Lightfoot Green.
Hoppers have now won the last five league meetings between the sides but a reflection of the progress made by the defending champions is the sense of disappointment which circulated the dressing room after the final whistle.
Sedgley, who were once the dominant force in the Bateman Premier League have struggled of late but they put they put in a spirited and dogged performance and their work at the breakdown prevented Hoppers from maintaining the fluency and poise which has been a feature of their play in recent months.
Young’s men made the better start, playing with pace and power but unforced errors began to creep into their game and after 13 minutes it was the visitors who scored first with some fine back play that resulted in a try in the right corner.
Hoppers’ early pressure suggested a convincing victory but they stuttered and spluttered at times. However they struck back quickly after going behind with some great back play putting the ever dangerous Antony Elliott scoring in the left corner.
The visitors hit straight back with a penalty in front of the posts as Hoppers ill discipline was punished. The lead would only last a couple of minutes as Preston came charging back and Purnell’s penalty punished tied the scores at 8 points apiece.
Young’s men took the lead for the first time as Elliott showed great upper body strength, swatting off his opposite number and scoring his second of the night. Purnell’s fine conversion put Hoppers15-8 to the good. Whilst the home side lacked the fluidity of recent weeks Elliott, Murray and Birchall looked dangerous every time they countered and the Hoppers backline was showing the greater ambition.
Some typical wizardry by Josh Purnell then put Harry Reddick in under the posts and at 22-8 it looked as though Hoppers were heading for clear blue (and white) water.
The half time break probably disrupted Preston’s rhythm and the second period was a staccato and at times ill-tempered affair. This probably suited the visitors as any sustained momentum from Hoppers would have seen them score the tries needed to boost their points difference disadvantage.
Preston enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and territory and they seemed certain to score after blistering counter attack involving Murray, Birchall and Yates. It was only the illegal intervention of the Sedgley full back which prevented the score although his indiscretion cost him ten minutes in the cooler.
From the resultant penalty Zimbabwean prop Oga Mabaya barged his way over for a score which Purnell duly converted. What followed was a period of scrappy play and as Hoppers’s frustration intensified they began to concede costly penalties. One such lapse allowed the Morris to drive over near the posts although here was a suspicion that the centre had driven into his own player before squirming through the ruck.
The home side would have the last word though as some fine handling by Mabaya, Doney and Jones put the evergreen Wayne Steel through a big gap to gallop over from twenty metres. Purnell just missed with the conversion but Hoppers’s victory was secured.
The result sees them top the table with one game remaining. Preston conclude their Bateman Premier League campaign with another Friday night fixture against old friends Fylde on the 26th April. By then Hoppers will know what they have to do in order to retain the title as Macclesfield conclude their campaign in the next week by playing their final three fixtures in just seven days. Given the Easter try feast enjoyed by Macclesfield the men from Cheshire are probably favourites to take the crown on points difference but they face tricky looking matches against Caldy and Fylde so the destination of the championship is by no means a foregone conclusion. Whatever the outcome Hoppers’ record over the season will be better than last years and with the Raging Bull Cup Final still to come it has been another outstanding campaign for the squad.