Blaydon 22-22 Preston Grasshoppers
On the back of last week’s much-improved performance against Hull Ionians, Hoppers made the trip to the North East with some confidence. Blaydon, languishing at the foot of the table, had been deducted points, and with just one win from eleven matches, they needed the victory just as much as Hoppers.
With three key players unavailable, Hoppers still fielded a strong side, bolstered by the selection of Izaak Gosling who had put in some impressive games for the 2nd XV.
December was with us and it was a cold, damp afternoon that greeted the sides as they made the significant trek from the clubhouse to the pitch. Grey and overcast, the floodlights were on from the start, bathing the ATP in an almost eerie light.
Blaydon kicked off deep into the Hoppers’ 22 where the return kick was then sent into touch. The lineout was secured and passed to Will Hunt who started one of the moves of the match.
Passing to the on-rushing Jacob Browne, the ball was taken into the Blaydon half where Harry Swarbrick then moved it on into the 22. Hunt was up with the play and having received the pass from Swarbrick, executed a delightful chip towards the posts which was collected by Will Clapham un-opposed, to score the first points. Despite the now heavy rain, Ben Pearson slotted the conversion and Hoppers were off and running, 0 – 7.
Blaydon responded and their big pack quickly had the defence working hard and although their initial attacks were repulsed, the home side drove over, hooker, Gray scoring and inside half, Clarkson adding the extras. After ten minutes of whizz-bang action, the score was even, 7 – 7.
The fun didn’t stop and within a further ten minutes Hoppers had taken the lead again when a series of phases took the visitors to their hosts’ 22 and a lineout. The ball was thrown long and lost but as Blaydon made to clear, it was miss-kicked and Ben Dorrington pounced, made a break, passed to Tyler Spence who jinked through the defence before moving the ball to Chris Taylor to score wide of the uprights. Pearson’s attempt was low and swung wide of the post, 7 – 12.
Hoppers pushed on but were reduced to 14 when Ali Murray was shown a yellow card for his over-enthusiasm.
Blaydon’s penalty gave them a lineout inside the Preston 22 and after some toil, lock Barry dropped over the line. The easy conversion from directly in front moved the home team into the lead, 14 – 12.
Back came Hoppers and with half an hour gone, a break by Dorrington from his own 22 left the opposition standing as he blazed through to the Blaydon 22 and the supporting Jacob Browne who took the ball, outstripping the defence to score his try under the posts. Pearson was back on the target and the lead switched again, 14 – 19.
With half time approaching, Hoppers looked to add to their lead with a chip and chase into the Blaydon Red Zone only to be foiled by the defence and a break and clearing kick which relieved the pressure for the home side and then presented them with a penalty on their visitors’ 22. With two minutes to go, they opted to go for goal, the kick was good and at the whistle, the score stood at 17 – 19.
The teams stayed out on the pitch after what had been an entertaining and evenly–matched first session.
Blaydon had a big, physical pack and had broken several tackles in their assaults towards the Hoppers’ line.
For their part, the Preston lads were well organised and had shown good supporting play which had created the three tries they had scored as the backs were unleashed. However, the spectre of a high penalty count and a poorly functioning lineout were a concern in the face of the powerful Blaydon forwards.
The second half started with the return of heavy rain and Hoppers gained a lineout on their hosts’ 10m line. The throw was not straight but from the scrum they were awarded a penalty. Pearson tee’d up for the goal only to see the ball stay low and miss the target.
Then Hoppers stole a Blaydon lineout and having moved forward beyond the home side’s 10m line, were awarded a penalty. This time Pearson made it look easy as he sent the ball curling through the uprights. 17 – 22.
With the sky now darkening, fireworks appeared over the city to the north which was in stark contrast to the action on the pitch as play was reduced to a tedious series of re-set scrums and was littered with penalties with little real progress from either side.
Blaydon then started to take the upper hand and the last quarter of the game saw them mounting continual attacks inside the Hoppers’ 22, pinning their opposition down and denying them possession of the ball.
There were breaks out but they were curtailed by knocks-on or penalties which by now were starting to rack up against the men in white.
Despite the relentless attacks, with just under six minutes remaining, Hoppers managed to keep out their hosts but as the heavy rain resumed, the struggle threw up yet another penalty to Blaydon.
They kicked to the corner, secured the lineout and replacement Smith crossed towards the corner. Clarkson sent the ball goalwards but was gutted to see it bounce off the upright and out of play. 22 – 22.
Now the pressure was on for the travelling team. Their hosts had been on top for much of the final quarter and now set about sealing their potential win. But the Hoppers’ defence is not easily broken and the lads held out to the final whistle.
With the honours even, the neutral spectator would say this was a fair result as the sides had been evenly matched throughout but it was a frustrated assistant coach who summed up the match:
“Yes, it was a frustrating afternoon but then, we didn’t help ourselves by getting a penalty against us and then having it moved on twice for backchat. We have to recognise that if we are showing an approach that the referee doesn’t like, if we stick with that approach we are going to be penalised. We mounted attacks that took us up the field only for penalties to send us back defending on our own line.
We saw two totally different styles of play with the Blaydon pack pushing for the corners and our backs playing chip and run which broke through, created things and enabled tries. With a two point lead at half time, we talked about maintaining our discipline but we just weren’t able to do that and with the pressure they brought in the final 15 minutes any side would do well to hold on for so long”.
Frustrated they may have been and, yes, they maybe should have closed the win out but in the light of the season so far today’s game is another small step in improving their performance in this difficult league.
Rotherham come to Lightfoot Green next Saturday in the last home fixture before the Christmas break so get down and support the lads, it does make a difference!
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Eden Valley Media