Preston Grasshoppers 40 – 34 Stourbridge
It was Ladies’ Day at Lightfoot Green and the sun shone down on a glorious assembly of colourful and stylish outfits fit to equal anything at Aintree and with their visitors sitting several places below them in the league, largely due to a run of erratic performances, the home faithful were hoping the odds would be in their favour.
Hoppers were dealt a major blow just before the kick off when James Gough ruptured an Achilles tendon during the warm-up which will also put him out of action for the rest of the season and beyond. He was replaced by Will Davidson who came into the side to give a solid performance at scrum half.
Stourbridge kicked off and before they had time to settle Hoppers quickly moved the ball up the field where Tyler Spence, playing at full back today, raced through to score a trademark try under the posts. Tom Davidson converted and with less than two minutes of the match gone, Hoppers were 7-0 up.
The restart went straight into touch and from the scrum the Preston forwards moved swiftly through the gears with a series of phases which took them into the opposition’s 22.
Stourbridge managed to steal the ball but the clearing kick sailed straight into touch and they were under pressure again. Then Hoppers had a lineout on the Stourbridge ten metre line where Adam Howard collected the ball and surged through the defence. He passed to Matt Lamprey who then made twenty-five metres before the ball moved on to Tom Davidson to score the second try in the space of six minutes. Once again the upright was unfriendly and the ball bounced away but Hoppers were in a twelve point lead and dominating the play.
The home spectators could have been forgiven for expecting a try-fest at this point as Stourbridge players looked somewhat shell shocked by this initial onslaught. However, the visitors regrouped and two penalty kicks quickly put them inside their hosts’ 22 where they had a lineout and drove the defence back towards their own try line. Their number 8, Mukarati, broke away and crossed the line. The conversion also struck the upright but in a cruel twist for Hoppers it was deflected between the posts and the score moved on to 12-7.
This time it was Hoppers under attack and defending their line. Pressure was only relieved when Sam Stott stole the ball and managed to clear the ball downfield.
Stourbridge responded and a hack-and-chase by winger Rundle saw him scoring their second try under the posts. The conversion was good and they were in the lead.
Hoppers’ response was swift and once again the forwards fought through the Stourbridge defence. Luke Proctor gathered the ball and passed to James Fitzpatrick who battled over the line but the ball was deemed to have been held up.
The forwards continued their pressure and three minutes later, Matt Lamprey burst through a melee of players to score just wide of the posts, Davidson’s conversion was good and the lead was reversed at 19-14.
Play was fast and furious with huge tackles made by both sides. Changes of possession switched the action back and forth the length of the field and only a great tackle from Spence saved what looked like a certain breakaway try for Stourbridge.
The spectators were being entertained by an exciting display of running rugby with five tries scored in less than twenty minutes. Things then settled down and Hoppers found themselves playing much of the remaining time in their own half of the field. Play was held up for some minutes when Ryan Carlson went down and needed treatment after a fairly brutal collision. Happily, he was soon fit to resume and the game continued with Stourbridge pressing the Hoppers’ 22.
Their efforts were rewarded when a drop goal from number ten, Scott was accurate and closed the score to 19-17.
In a tactical replacement Dan Madden made way for Noah Miller who was immediately into a scrum on his own 22. Hoppers secured the ball and again swarmed up the field where they were awarded a penalty in front of the posts.
With screams of ‘take the points’ from the dugout, Davidson calmly found touch at the 5m line from which Ollie Trippier crossed the line for the bonus-point try. At this point an all-inclusive bout of ‘handbags’ broke out when the Stourbridge prop, George decided to throw a punch after the try was scored. Play was held up whilst the officials conferred and he was shown a yellow card but Davidson was not distracted and the conversion was good.
The restart went straight into touch again and from the scrum Stourbridge were driven back into their half where they conceded a penalty on the 22. With the clock in the red, Davidson stroked the ball between the uprights and the teams went in with the score at 29-17.
Whilst Hoppers had spent a greater part of the game in their own half, they had been able to keep the upper hand and score when the chances came. Stourbridge had showed they were capable of fast, running rugby and were dangerous on the break with only the strong defensive play by the Preston forwards denying them further points. With only seven penalties given the play had been a feast of flowing entertainment. How matches can change!
Hoppers came out to start the half and were immediately awarded a penalty on the Stourbridge 10m line. Davidson confidently tee’d up the ball and with only a minute gone, he extended the lead by a further three points.
Then, what had been an entertaining and competitive contest between two sides intent on scoring points, the game descended into a dull bout of scrappy play, poor handling and a flood of penalties with neither side making any real headway.
Stourbridge managed to ease the boredom with a successful penalty kick for goal but the interest was short-lived as the game then became bogged down by penalties culminating in a succession of five re-set scrums on the Hoppers’ 5m line which tried the referee’s patience and resulted in a penalty try for the visitors.
Things got no better for the home side when Stourbridge replacement, former Hopper, Chris Roddy scored towards the corner. The conversion was good and now only one point separated the two teams.
A chance of extending the slim lead was lost when Davidson’s penalty kick for goal from fifteen metres inside the Stourbridge half floated wide of the post and with less than five minutes of the match remaining Hoppers had to keep possession and see the game out.
Relief for the home crowd came in the penultimate minute as Conor Trueman who had hardly touched the ball thus far, was on the end of series of swift passing moves and he left the opposition in his wake as he scored wide of the posts. The conversion missed but was the final play of the afternoon and Hoppers left the field having taken the full five points, extending their league total to eighty-four and a moving into a safe position at seventh with Otley moving below them having been docked four points.
The post-match interview with Head Coach Paul Arnold was one of slightly mixed emotions as he had decided it was time to hang up his boots having played his last league game.
‘Before the match I told the team to keep it nice and tight and not try to play’7s’ rugby. They went out and did just that – played 7s rugby! Stourbridge played well and had some very quick runners.
James rupturing his Achilles was a serious blow just before the start but Will stepped in and did a really good job at scrum half. With Tyler dangerous as ever and playing at fifteen and Lamps, Tripps, TD and Conor adding to the tries we got five points from a game we would certainly have lost at the beginning of the season. With PJ off injured I thought I needed to come on and try to calm things down.
Whilst my first contribution to the match was to miss a tackle, it wasn’t the first one I have missed but it will be the last!
I think I managed the thirty-six minutes I needed for my 27000 playing minutes didn’t I?
We now have 84 points with two matches left and I had set a target of 85 points for the season with the reward being £1000 behind the bar. I’ve just spoken to Bill Bailey who has promised to double that if we get to 90 so the last home game could see the season out with a classic celebration.’
Next week we go to Welford Rd to play our last away game against South Leicester looking to achieve another ‘double’ after the victory to nil at Lightfoot Green.
A spectators’ coach is booked so sign up on the list in the club and let’s get as many supporters there as possible.
Report by John Le Page, picture by Mike Craig