Champions Hoppers suffered their second defeat of the season against a determined Billingham side who capitalised on some lapses in defence and at times indifferent handling.
Words by Ken Moore, photo by Mike Craig
Head Coach, Paul Arnold, not included in the matchday squad reflected: “We made a few changes today which did not work out in some cases and all credit to Billingham who took full advantage. We had our chances to win but came up short and lessons need to be learned for next year. But at the beginning of this campaign, I would have taken two losses and guaranteed promotion at this stage!”
Hoppers started well enough and scored the first time they got hands on the ball as James Fitzpatrick’s break was finished by Connor Trueman but Jobe Roxby’s kick was wide.
Poor receipt of the kick off gave the home side possession and the lively home backs put the away defence to the test and, on 10 minutes, Fitzpatrick was despatched to the sin bin. Billingham took immediate advantage and wing Tom Briggs was in at the corner to level the scores.
Hoppers responded and a half break from Mark Murray put Trueman in for his second and Roxby’s kick was good.
For a change, Hoppers were failing to dominate in the tight, conceding two strikes against the head and gifting possession and territory before more pressure and a tap penalty caught out the defence and home No.8 Dan Dixon powered over and the kick levelled the scores.
Hoppers’ pack started to get their act together opting for a scrum from a penalty in the opposing 22 and after a strong drive, scrum half Scott Jordan forced his way over to retake the lead. As half time loomed, Billingham mounted more attacks which were well defended but again at the expense of a yellow card, this time for Sam Gale but Hoppers led 17-12 at the break.
However, the lead was short-lived as some indifferent tackling let in replacement Liam King to equal things up and, after Hoppers had missed a gilt-edged try opportunity with a knock-on after a run from Niall Crosley, Dixon again broke tackles to score and kicker Finney put his side ahead for the first time at 24-17.
Hoppers rang the changes from the bench in the front row and a run from Oga Mabaya and a dropped ball allowed Fitzpatrick to touch down in the corner to reduce the deficit only for a pinpoint kick from home stand-off, Peter Evans, to put in wing Matt Kirby and the kick stretched the lead to 31-22.
With 15 minutes left, Hoppers at last gained dominance in the tight and Gale was in for an unconverted try and the comeback looked on the cards as a series of 5-metre scrums and a yellow card for the home tighthead prop seemed to set up the win only for Hoppers to inexplicably lose control of the ball in an attempted pushover and Billingham wound the clock down to secure the win
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