Preston Grasshoppers 21 – 22 Chester
The last match of the season and fireworks were promised but sadly, failed to set the ground alight. The pyrotechnics arranged for an explosive start to the match were doused by the weather with strong winds putting paid to any chance of a display.
With the home supporters looking to see a sparkling match, they too were presented with a bit of a damp squid in the first half.
Hoppers had something of a point to prove after losing to their visitors in the first game of the season, a match they should have won with effort to spare. The team may have had revenge on their minds but the first half was almost a replay of that opening game.
Chester kicked off and immediately gained a penalty which took them to the Hoppers’ 5m line and a lineout. They drove to the line and, after a discussion between the referee and the touch judge, were awarded the try scored by their number 2, Croft. Robins’ conversion missed but the visitors were in the lead with just five minutes on the clock.
The restart was collected and cleared to the Hoppers’ 10m line. From the lineout Hoppers gained a scrum only to lose momentum as Chester were given a penalty. This was followed by an outbreak of ‘handbags’ which appeared to be sparked off by the Chester forwards taking exception to the forceful play of Teddy Leatherbarrow who had been a thorn in their side from the start. Order was restored and play resumed.
Hoppers battled their way into the opposition half and were awarded a penalty thirty metres out. Tom Davidson strode up to the ball and sent it on its way only to see it hang in the wind and then veer to the right, striking the upright and bouncing clear. Once again this season the kicking gods were laughing.
The match resumed but descended into a scrappy display of mishandling and spilled passes from both sides. Play was paused twice when Hoppers had Matt Lamprey down injured for several minutes followed shortly by Alex Hurst. Both recovered and continued with Hurst well enough to make the first telling break from his own 22 to the half way line.
Play carried on as before with neither team settling into a rhythm but on twenty minutes Chester were awarded two penalties in quick succession which took them to the hoppers’ 5m line and a second try scored by number 7, Craven. This time the conversion was good and the score stood at 0 – 12.
The penalty count continued to rise and despite Hoppers’ ability to drive their opposition almost at will they had to play in their own half for most of the time.
Things did not improve when Leatherbarrow was shown a yellow card for a tackle which was deemed to be high and Hoppers had to play the rest of the half with fourteen men. Despite this they did not concede any further points and although the wind was playing havoc with Davidson’s clearing kicks, they finished the half pressing the Chester line.
In a flashback to the earlier games this season Hoppers had had little possession and what they did manage to gain was too often lost by sloppy handling or a knock-on. In contrast, Chester had retained the ball and had been able to mount several series of phases enabling them to move forward.
Arnie’s half time talk centred on reminding his team of their focus and the obvious fact that points had gone begging and thus they came out with a different approach.
Within two minutes of the restart Hoppers were awarded a penalty on the Chester 22. This time Davidson had no problems. With the wind behind him the ball cut the uprights and Hoppers were on the scoreboard at last.
James Fitzpatrick had suffered a suspected broken cheekbone and been sent to hospital so Connor Truman was on and his first contribution was a clearing kick from his own 22 which was charged down but fortunately it went into touch. Chester built up the phases and worked their way to the Hoppers’ 22 where they were awarded a penalty for a high tackle which took them to the Preston 5m line.
At this point Adam Howard and Ally Murray made way for Rouban Birch and Luke Proctor. Chester won the lineout and Ford crossed the line for their third try of the afternoon. Again the conversion failed but the visitors eased further away with a fourteen point lead.
Dan Madden then came on for Ryan Purcell and Hoppers restarted the game. As a learning experience the afternoon was not wasted on one of the ball boys who did not have his eye on the ball when a Chester penalty kick it hit him square on the head! Fortunately no damage was done and he stoutly carried on.
Hoppers’ forwards then started to put some phases together and moved up the field with a purpose. A series of scrums and penalties got them to a lineout on the Chester five metre line. They drove the visitors back and Luke Proctor crossed the line. Again Davidson was accurate and now the home side were just a converted try away from squaring the game.
The Chester restart did not make ten metres. Hoppers won the scrum and were given a penalty. Davidson drilled the ball to the Chester 5m line and although the lineout was long and lost, a knock-on gave the hosts a scrum. In typical Lamprey style he peeled off the base and as he made a charge the referee awarded a penalty. Before anyone had the chance to act he tapped and burst forward to score the second Hoppers’ try. This time Davidson was unsuccessful but the home side was pulling back the lead.
However, within two minutes he had made amends as he stroked yet another penalty kick goalwards and now Hoppers were in the lead.
Chester sent the restart deep into the Hoppers’ half but a towering clearance from Davidson sent the ball to touch on the Chester 18m line.
With Ally Murray restored to the field Hoppers pressed on and a break from Sam Stott took them to the Chester 5m line and a penalty in front of the posts.
Despite the dominance they had shown in driving the Chester pack, the decision to kick the points was taken and Davidson moved the score on to 21 – 17 with just three minutes of the match to play.
But Chester fought back and pinned the Preston forwards in their own 22 putting phase after phase of pick-and-go together and despite being reduced to fourteen when centre King was shown a yellow card, in the final seconds of the game they broke over the line to score the winning try and gain the bonus point. The conversion missed but for the home supporters this, the last match of the season, ended in almost the same way as the first with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Arnie was vocal as ever,
“The performance in the first half was not what I nor the lads wanted, it was reminiscent of the opening games of the season. We were out-muscled and at half time I reminded them of their focus and that points had been left out there. In the second half they put up a real fight and it was almost a fairy tale finish. Chester never looked like scoring from open play all through the game.
BUT we finish seventh with ninety points which is not only a great end to the season but puts us in a very good position for the start of the next one. There are lessons to be learned, composure being one, especially when decisions are going against you. With the whole squad signed up for next year and three new players coming in I am excited by the prospect of the coming season. Again, I cannot over-state the work rate and honest attitude of these players.
We have had a good season and now the league fixtures are complete we have significant representation in the Lancashire senior side with Murray, Howard, Stott, Jordan, Altham, Hurst and Spence. What a belting season! Now I aim to have my first summer off for about fifteen years!
See you in the autumn.”
It has been a fantastic season and the supporters have been entertained both home and away. With five teams leaving the league and five coming in we can look forward to new challenges and venues in the coming season.
And finally, a big thankyou to Mike Craig who has turned out in all weathers and given us such great action photos.
On a personal note I would like to thank all of you who have made such supportive comments about my first year’s efforts to recount the matches.
Have a great summer and we’ll see you all in September.
Report by John Le Page, picture by Mike Craig