Saturday saw Hoppers 4th XV welcome local rivals Fleetwood to Lightfoot Green. With 2 wins and 2 losses from the opening 4 games of the season, the game was an excellent opportunity to get the season back on track.
After last week’s loss away at De La Salle, captain Gray named a strong side for this local derby. With a strong pack and dynamic backline, it promised to be a tasty encounter with a Fleetwood side who were unbeaten going into the match.
The first half started with Hoppers uncharacteristically starting well, making good early inroads into the Fleetwood defence. Fly half Alex Johnson was pinning the Fleetwood side back into their 22 with some deft kicks and with a good kick chase the Hoppers defence stopped any quick Fleetwood counter attack. This tactic paid off when a loose ball wasn’t dealt with and good work from centre Brown and back row Gray secured ball. Quick ball from scrum half Walmsley was put through several sets of hands and allowed winger Burn to run in and beat 2 Fleetwood defenders to score in the corner. Lyth was successful with the conversion from the touchline. Fleetwood’s first foray into the hoppers half brought a penalty for offside in midfield, their fly half making no mistake from right in front.
Hoppers were showing good structure, especially when forwards had their hands on the ball, with the Hoppers front five of Howard, Holden, Wilkinson, Hickman and Howarth making the hard yards and asking lots of questions of Fleetwood’s defence. This allowed scrum half Dan Walmsley to sneak through a gap at the side of the ruck and run towards the try line, on this occasion the defence put him into touch 5 metres out. From the resulting line out, ball was scrappy and somehow Hoppers retained possession. Walmsley’s pass to Alex Johnson was suspect, however Johnson’s footballing and juggling skills found the ball somehow into centre Luis Dunne’s hands. Like he has done for many years, he exploited a huge gap in the centre channel. Dunne’s silky sidestep movement dazzled the full back and he dived in under the posts. With Lyth successful with the conversion, Hoppers found themselves 14-3 ahead.
From the kickoff, Hoppers maintained possession and played structured phases until Fleetwood defensive work forced a mistake. This allowed Fleetwood to counter attack and score under the posts through their scrum half. The conversion was good. Following the kickoff, Fleetwood infringed at the lineout, which resulted in a free kick. Captain Gray opted not to go for touch and Hoppers ran forward through James Meades. Meades weavy run (with his world famous fake kick motion used) through some sub standard Fleetwood tackling found himself with only the Full back to beat and he did so with ease to score again. Lyth made no mistake with the conversion.
Soon after Hoppers found themselves back with the ball in Fleetwood’s half yet again. Scrappy ball at ruck time allowed Fleetwood to counter attack and score under the posts through their scrum half. With the conversion charged down by Dunne due to the Fleetwood 10 dawdling with his kick, the referee awarded the kick to be taken again as a penalty due to Dunne being ‘too eager as the kickers movement hadn’t started’. Captain Gray uttered calming words and told the team to continue their structured play. Fleetwood kept the kickoff and started running through their hard hitting centres. They were met by Hoppers centre pairing Dunne and Brown, who kept them in check all day with strong, hard defence. Tough defence by Hoppers brought another penalty with Fleetwood infringing at the breakdown. Lyth slotted over the penalty from distance. The end of the half saw Fleetwood asking questions of the Hoppers defensive line but brave defence meant Fleetwood did not score.
Half time: Hoppers 24-11 Fleetwood
Words at half time from Gray and experienced players warned of complancency in the second half. The team were urged to continue the solid approach shown in the first half in attack and defence.
Fleetwood began the second half asking questions of Hoppers defence, with good tackling from Hoppers forwards keeping the fringes of the ruck solid and great first up tackles from Dunne, Brown, Leaver and Burn extinguishing attacks from the Fleetwood backs. Despite the titanic effort in defence, indiscipline was creeping in. A ruck penalty conceded by Hoppers led to a penalty sloted over from the Fleetwood 10. Fleetwood were back in the game and a great line from the Fleetwood outside centre finally split the hoppers defence, he went in under the posts. With the conversion somehow unsuccessful and the game leading towards full time, Hoppers knew what they had to do to win the game. The Hoppers 15 were putting in a huge shift in defence and in the last 5 minutes Fleetwood pressed for a winning score.
The Fleetwood full back was proving a nuisance for Hoppers in open play, with only a superb cover tackle from Gray extinguishing a counter attack by the opposition. Crucial tackles from Wilkinson, Howard, Brown, Dunne and Howarth were being made to keep Fleetwood out. Poor execution at vital times from Fleetwood kept the score the same. Brave, resolute and structured defence plus good decision making in attack won Hoppers their 3rd game of the season. Credit must go to Fleetwood who showed why they are near the top of the table in the 2nd half and, as always, asked Hoppers a lot of questions.
Full Time: Hoppers 24-19 Fleetwood
Encouraging signs from Hoppers 4th XV in this thriller of a local derby. Lots of positives to take forward. A great team spirit and rugged never say die attitude showed again today, proving any game is a winnable one!
Next up: Southport!