The 3rd XV were up against it on Saturday when they travelled to Sandbach to play Leigh 2nd XV in the BEST Trophy Final. Hoppers and Leigh had both competed in the same league during the season with Leigh finishing top with only one defeat. That defeat had come at the hands of Hoppers who had finished right behind Leigh and also secured promotion. The game couldn’t have been set up better.
Knowing the size of the task in hand, Hoppers skipper Tom Peterson called upon inspirational former club president Malcolm Alden to speak to the lads in the dressing room prior to the game. Only Malcolm and the players will know what was said but it clearly had an effect right from the start of the game.
Hoppers, backed by a large travelling contingent from Lightfoot Green, took to the pitch to a huge roar which was somewhat subdued when the huge Leigh pack followed closely behind.
The first ten minutes were dominated by Leigh with their tactics clear to everyone present. Wave after wave of Leigh attackers took short pop balls from the scrum-half only to be met by the ferocious Hoppers defence who repeatedly drove them backwards in the tackle.
After 10 minutes of this strategy Leigh decided to change tact and shipped the ball wide but the organised Hoppers defence forced an error. The crowd knew that Hoppers had set their stall out and the lads efforts were roared in appreciation.
Having weathered the early storm it was time for the Hoppers pack to have their turn. A 5 metre scrum appeared to be driving over only for the ref to blow up and award a scrum to Leigh deciding that it had rotated through 90 degrees.
This didn’t deject the Hoppers forwards and from midfield flanker Marcus Mollinga set off on a run across the pitch and found a gap in midfield which he managed to get his hands through to feed his back row colleague Craig Procter who accelerated away from 40 metres to open the scoring under the posts. Peterson added the extras and Hoppers led 7-0.
The travelling band of supporters didn’t have long to wait until the next Hoppers score when a chip to the corner seemed to evade both the defence and the onrushing attacker Alan Jones, whose arms were not quite long enough, only for Jake Shepherd to gather the ball and touch down for an unconverted try. The remainder of the first half was a scrappy affair with only a Leigh penalty altering the score to make it 12-3 to Hoppers at half time despite playing uphill.
The second half started well for Hoppers with the team making good use of the slope to secure field position. The pack began to exert their dominance in the tight and a clean lineout take was followed by a powerful driving maul which saw veteran number 8 Heath George emerge from the pile with a toothy grin. Peterson converted and Hoppers led 19-3 with half an hour to play.
Hoppers knew that concentration was going to be key if they were to close the game out but a defensive lapse made for squeaky bum time as Leigh managed to get over the line for a converted try meaning Hoppers had a 9 point lead with 20 minutes left on the clock.
The restart from the Leigh try could not have gone any better for Hoppers. Leigh failed to secure the ball from the lofted kick and the Hoppers pack pounced on it. Mollinga was to the fore again and took the ball on from the ruck to then feed skipper Peterson who cut a fine line and rounded the full back with a waggle of the hips to sprint clear from the 22. He converted his own try to give his team a 26-10 lead going into the closing stages.
Leigh restarted the game and after securing possession the ball was spun wide to Hoppers winger Jason Brisbane. Brisbane had spent a season with NFL side the San Diego Chargers earlier in his career and he showed all his pace and power to go a full 60 metres and score under the posts. He had looked a threat all game in both defence and in attack. The Leigh player who was on the end of one of his horizontal specials will remember it for a long time. Peterson converted and the 3rd XV had an imposing 33-10 lead with not long to go.
Tight head Alan Jones appeared to suffer a nasty finger injury but it said much about his character that he refused to leave the pitch as he wanted to finish the job. Jones’ steely attitude epitomised the performance by the Hoppers pack who to a man delivered a performance that will last long in the memory.
The last ten minutes were badly affected by the conditions as the heavens opened with much dropped ball and plenty of scrums. This didn’t seem to bother the diminutive front row of Shepherd, Sands and Jones who repeatedly drove their sizeable opposition backwards, taking great delight in doing so.
The final whistle blew to an enormous cheer both on and off the field. The 3rd XV were BEST Trophy winners and had set the tone for the 2nd XV to follow.
Well done lads on a splendid performance and a fantastic season. A special mention must go to two players already mentioned in this report who were playing their last game for Hoppers. Veteran back rower Heath George was playing his last game of rugby at the age of 46 and the boy from the Welsh Valleys will retire a very happy man after another typically abrasive performance. The other man playing his last game for Hoppers was Alan Jones. Alan very much lived up to his nickname of ‘Rhino’ with a bruising display in both attack, defence and at the set piece. Alan leaves Hoppers to work in London but we hope he may return at some stage in the future. Thank you both for your lengthy service to the club, you have represented it with pride for many years and you will be sorely missed.
The 3rd XV have secured promotion and a Cup win whilst also managing to transition from an ageing squad to a younger one with fresh faces like Mollinga, Procter and Holmes to name a few. The future certainly looks bright for the thirds.