HARROGATE 16 PRESTON GRASSHOPPERS 32
By Ken Moore
This was a typical cross-Pennine battle, involving first and third in the table, a physical contest with some big hits which unfortunately ended on a sour note with a flurry of cards. But, once again, a strong second half performance saw Hoppers home and they retain top spot in the North Premier.
Early play involved some mid-pitch probing, both sides sounding each other out, until in the 17th minute, poor defence let in home No.8 Jon Coser. Luke White converted and, minutes later, added a huge 45-metre penalty.
Jake Squirrel then replied in kind to reduce the deficit but again White responded with another kick from the halfway line but, as the half drew to a close, put an easier attempt wide and it proved a costly miss as Hoppers retained possession from the 22 drop-out and a sweeping move and excellent support play saw skipper Paul Millea crash over and Squirrell’s conversion made it 13-10 at the break rather than 16-3.
Whatever was said in the changing room had an immediate effect on Hoppers play at the restart. Connor Trueman’s athletic catch of a kick ahead and resulting run was continued by a storming mid-field break from Ally Murray to put replacement Sam Stott in under the posts and the kick put Hoppers ahead for the first time at 17-13.
White recovered his kicking form to land another penalty but Hoppers’ backs were now testing a tiring defence and wing Tyler Spence’s scything break was finished off by Niall Crosley and the kick made it 24-16.
The visitors kept the pressure on and another run from Trueman, shrugging off several tackles, led to the 4th bonus-point try from Alex Hurst.
Hoppers were well on top but frustration set in and a fracas in mid-field resulted in a yellow card for both sides before Squirrell was again on target to increase the lead to 32-16.
Hoppers were further reduced to 13 for a high tackle and Harrogate used the advantage to mount some desperate attacks. Frustration again boiled over and another skirmish saw red cards for home prop Connor Ward and Hoppers’ Paul Arnold but, despite further pressure, Hoppers’ goal-line defence held, typified by taking a last play strike against the head with a seven-man scrum.
Coach Arnold was pleased with the result and said all 18 players did well. “The pack was again on top and the backs ‘turned up this week’ and produced some of their best rugby so far this season. Harrogate deserved their lead at half time but we changed our game plan and defended well in the closing stages” As far as the red card was concerned, Arnold said that he ‘did react to severe provocation’ but Hoppers will anxiously await any further disciplinary action.