Billingham 0-22 Preston Grasshoppers
As storm Malik blew its anger across the north of the country, Hoppers travelled to Billingham where the conditions were to be a major factor in the game against their rivals for promotion but, although the Premiership match at nearby Newcastle was delayed to the evening because of the weather, these lads played on.
With the bright sun low in the sky making things difficult for both spectators and players, the strong, gusting wind blew Hoppers’ kick-off dead behind the posts and it was immediately obvious that open, expansive play was not going to be the pattern for the afternoon.
The game quickly settled into an ‘old-fashioned rugby match’ as the forwards locked horns in close passing and tackling phases, making their way, metre by metre into their opponents’ half where the backs then made the breaks to attack the try line.
Attempts at clearances were almost futile as Billingham discovered when they tried to kick out of their 22 and the ball made touch almost behind the kicker!
Play centred around the Billingham 10m line for much of the early part of the game and first quarter of the match had elapsed before Hoppers scored their first points when a break by Olli Trippier into the Billingham half set up Sam Stott who then raced into the Red Zone before passing to the supporting Jacob Browne to score mid-way between the post and the corner.
Alex Ward’s conversion attempt was blown wide of the posts but Hoppers were on the scoreboard 0 – 5.
He made up for it straight away with the only 50 – 22 kick of the match which, with wind driving diagonally down the pitch, took the ball from deep inside his own half down towards the Billingham 5m line.
The second try came only minutes later with Will Clapham, returning for his first outing since being injured early in the season, on the end of another forwards-to-backs move.
From a line-out on the Billingham 22, Toby Harrison linked up with Matt Lamprey who made ground before passing to Oga Mbaaya. Hoppers were then awarded a penalty which took them to their hosts’ 5m line. The ball was secured and Jordan Dorrington threw a long pass to feed Browne inside the 5m line who then off-loaded to the winger to cross in the corner.
Ward put his previous disappointment aside and slotted the most difficult kick of the match with apparent ease to make the score 0 – 12 at half time.
With the conditions dictating the game, the forwards on both sides had had to battle for every metre, phase by phase and here, Hoppers had been better organised, with players supporting one another as the ball was moved back and forth.
Hoppers had been the stronger side throughout most of the half, and whilst the majority of the activity had been in the Billingham 10 – 22, towards the end of the half their hosts began to attack their 22 with breaks which took them into the Red Zone.
The second half saw the home side immediately set about trying to use the wind which was now behind them. Hoppers were subjected to constant attacks inside their final third but their solid defence held the Billingham pack at bay.
The game turned with the introduction of Pete Altham into his usual position at prop and the effect was obvious as the home side were then driven at every scrum and maul.
It was from such a drive that Lamprey collected the ball inside his own 22 and broke towards the 10m line. His pass to Browne got the full back to half way where Ward found touch on the Billingham 22.
Having got out of their own half, the third try was the result of yet another forwards’ press inside the Billingham 5m line when, after a series of pick-and-go moves, the ball came out to Stott who could not be caught from fifteen metres and he touched down left of the post. Again the wind foiled the conversion attempt but with less than twenty minutes remaining, Grasshoppers were in the driving seat 0 – 17.
Billingham spent most of the final quarter desperately defending deep in their own half but were eventually broken by the best passing phase of the match which took the visitors the length of the field.
Lamprey, who had had an outstanding game, peeled from his own scrum, made good metres into his own 10m line before passing to Harrison who then moved the ball on to Altham with full back Browne alongside.
He raced through the remaining defence before passing to Spence who outstripped the final defender to score in the corner. The conversion, unsurprisingly, missed as the wind hurled it aside of the flailing uprights and with ten minutes to go Billingham were looking down the throat of an ominous defeat to nil.
Things did look a little brighter for them when Hoppers’ Jordan Dorrington was yellow carded for a high tackle but the visitors saw out the final minutes with more solid defending of their own try line to run out winners, 0 – 22.
Arnie was quite emotional after the match:
‘That was probably the proudest I have been as a coach. I said to them at half time that this could make or break our season. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a match with a wind as strong as this. Normally on a match day I’m quite calm but today I was more nervous than I have ever been.
But I thought we controlled it really well today and, again, when they had their fifteen minutes on our line, the way the lads were fighting for each other and scrapping for every little bit of everything was excellent and to ‘nil’ them and get the bonus point was outstanding.
If you’d told me when I got here today that we’d get a bonus point, I’d have bitten your hand off there and then.
I see Blackburn have beaten Otley today and that’s our next game. We’ve got a week off to recuperate before what is a massive derby at home.
There were a lot of really big performances out there today but it was another great team effort so I’m made up.’
With no game next week, Hoppers have a welcome break before taking on Blackburn, now sitting one place below us at third in league, at Lightfoot Green on the twelfth of February so let’s get another good turnout to push them on.
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig and Rod Murray