Preston Grasshoppers 38 – 33 Sheffield Tigers
After their expedition to Leicester Lions last week, Hoppers continued their ‘Big Game Safari’ hosting Sheffield Tigers at Lightfoot Green.
Head Coach Paul Arnold commented after the last match, “We need to put this behind us and move on”. And they did.
Hoppers kicked off deep into the Sheffield half where a strong drive from a line out on the visitors’ 22m took them to within 10m of the Sheffield line. From a Sheffield scrum Hoppers won a penalty and some deft handling of the ball presented PJ Millea with a captain’s try under the post. Tom Davidson stepped up and the score was 7 – 0 with less than four minutes on the clock.
However, any elation from the Preston faithful was soon doused as the Tigers immediately bit back. From the restart, they claimed the ball and full back Swatkins raced down the wing to score in the corner. The conversion failed but Hoppers’ lead was cut to 2 points.
With both sides having settled into the match, the pace was fast and possession ebbed and flowed from one 10m line to the other as the forwards battled for superiority. From a penalty on his own 10m line, Davidson found touch on the Sheffield 22 where Hoppers were awarded a scrum.
The penalty count was going Preston’s way for once and from the scrum Davidson put the ball to touch on the Sheffield 5m line, Hoppers won the line out and Alex Hurst crossed the line in the corner for their second try. The conversion slid wide of the post but the hosts were leading 12 – 5 and only thirteen minutes of the game had elapsed.
Again the forwards moved back and forth in the centre of the pitch with some ferocious tackling from the Preston pack. Pressure was relieved when Davidson, on his own 10m line, found space deep in the Sheffield half and with Hoppers dominating in open play, the visitors were defending attacks right across the field.
Play once again returned to the middle of the pitch and the Tigers gained a penalty from a scrum on the half way line which, quickly taken, allowed them to break towards the Hoppers’ line where a vital rip tackle from Hoppers’ number 13 Sam Stott enabled Davidson to clear the ball to touch just inside the Preston half.
Sheffield came back, breaking through the defence for winger Packard to score near the posts and Duffy’s conversion levelled the score at 12 – 12.
With only a quarter of the game gone, the action was still a fast and furious contest as Hoppers worked their way down the field where a swift pass by Gough from the base of the ruck sent Sam Stott over the line for a third Preston try. The conversion was missed but the hosts were back in the lead.
Hoppers pressed on and from the restart a scything run by Conor Trueman had them attacking a scrum within 5m of the Sheffield line from which James Fitzpatrick scored the bonus point try and this time Davidson sent the ball between the posts.
With the score 24 – 12 and ten minutes to half time, Hoppers pushed on through several phases, driving and passing, pressurising the Sheffield defence to the point where Matt Lamprey was able to burst over the line only for the try to be held up.
The half drew to a close with a series of reset scrums on the Sheffield 5m line and the teams went in at 24 – 12 which reflected the greater possession, good handling and ground constantly gained by Hoppers throughout the play.
The second half started well with Hoppers dominating the ball and the centres making ground through a series of passing moves which lead to a break by Lamprey but his own pass was intercepted and from the Tigers’ 5m line, Sheffield’s Broadley raced away to the Preston 22. There then followed a series of Sheffield penalties and line outs in and around the hosts’ 5m line and it was almost inevitable that, after 52 minutes, they scored through captain Simmons and the conversion was good.
Now it was the Tigers who were pressing. A tackle by Ally Murray was deemed high so he was shown a yellow card and with Hoppers a man down the ball was lost through an interception giving Sheffield wing Packard a second try under the posts. The conversion was good and the visitors took the lead for the first time.
The home crowd may have been thinking, ‘here we go again’ but from the restart a blistering passage of passes from Lamprey to Howard and on to Hurst blazed through the opposition to put Conor Trueman in under the posts where Davidson’s conversion extended the regained lead to 31 – 26.
There was little let up in the pace of the game as the forwards continued to battle and when Hoppers Adam Howard was yellow carded, Sheffield were able to pressurise the Hoppers’ scrum from where Broadley was able to score and Duffy’s kick put them back in front once again.
Play then became scrappy from both sides with some sloppy handling and little progress made by either team. Then, from a Hoppers’ scrum on their own 10m line, another series of fast passes saw Trueman break through to score his second try and again, the conversion was good.
Hoppers were once again in a familiar position this season, five points to the good with only a few minutes remaining it was a tense time for the fans. This time however, the team held on to the ball with Arnold and Mabaya combining to make thirty metres only for play to stop with an injury to Conor Trueman but despite the game then continuing way past the eighty minutes, they held out for a deserved win.
It was a smiling Paul Arnold commenting after the match. “We finally saw it out. As a group we really needed that and it was good to come back from behind despite the two yellow cards. Sheffield are a good side, really dangerous. I enjoyed playing this afternoon and I’m very pleased to have assisted in capturing the full five points.
The last word came from club chairman, George Erdozain, “Never in doubt.”
Hoppers moved two places up the league with this win and have scored a total of eleven bonus points, three more than their nearest rivals. We travel to Tynedale next week to continue the contest so let’s hope that his words remain true.
Report by John Le Page, photograph by Mike Craig