Preston Grasshoppers 13-29 Chester
Chester came to Lightfoot Green with four wins from their last five games and a record of three defeats by less than a single score so Hoppers knew they had a challenging match ahead.
Conditions were good for running rugby, the air was still and cool and, whilst overcast, the sky was bright as the teams came out.
For the neutrals this was an entertaining and evenly fought match which provided some good play and moments of individual flair. For the Hoppers’ faithful however, it proved to be an afternoon of frustration as, time and again, the home side played their way into a good position only to squander their advantage by poor handling and, far too often, ill-disciplined penalties.
Indeed, things looked good for the home side when, after Chester had scored the first points with an unconverted try by their full-back, Long, Ben Pearson backed himself from the half way line with a penalty kick for goal. Sending the ball low and with some force, it cleared the cross bar to reduce the Chester lead to two points, 3 – 5.
Hoppers then built on this momentum when a Chester line-out was thrown long and stolen. Passed out to full-back, Josh Rourke, he jinked his way through five tacklers to break from his own 22 to the opposition 10m line where the play was halted by a knock-on and a scrum awarded to the visitors.
With the Hoppers’ pack driving hard, the ball came out and Captain Harry Moulding seized on it juggling it like a hot potato but managing somehow to pop it into the hands of centre Jacob Browne as he blazed through the traffic to collect it and show a clean pair of heels on his way to score under the posts. Pearson had no trouble with the easiest of conversions and the lads were now in front. 10 – 5.
The lead was maintained for just five minutes as the visitors regrouped and from a scrum 10m out from the Hoppers’ line their prop Woods, barged over to score their second try. This time the conversion from fly-half Reeve was good and the score turned again. 10 – 12.
Chester were then awarded a penalty from an incident of foul play which resulted in Sam Gayle adding to his unimpressive tally of yellow cards for this season as he was sent to the naughty step once again.
Reduced to fourteen players, a situation that can be ill-afforded at this level, it was encouraging to see the lads battle their way to the Chester 10m line. They were repulsed but shortly after that, Pearson had another attempt at goal from the half way line only to see his kick drift just wide of the upright.
Chester then had a chance to extend their lead with a penalty of similar distance but Reeve’s effort fell woefully short.
It seemed the game was hinging on the number of penalties but sadly, Hoppers had several opportunities which failed to make touch, denying them of precious territory in their opponents’ half.
Then they were the victims of their own sloppy play as the ball came loose when they had possession and was intercepted by the Chester centre, Green. He hacked on and found himself in a foot race with Browne, which, with a few more metres to the line, the Hoppers’ centre might have won but for the ball giving a kindly bounce enabling the Chester man to score. With the conversion slotted by Reeve, the score as the teams headed for the sheds was 10 – 19.
The sides had played a fairly evenly-matched half, the difference being the clinical work of the visitors in the Red Zone. They were well-organised and disciplined, conceding fewer penalties than their hosts and pouncing on any mistakes by the home side.
As usual, Hoppers’ defence was strong and had kept points at bay but loose handling and errors had counted against the side as a whole throughout the half.
Chester made Hoppers wait on the field before the restart but the home faithful were perked up when Moulding gathered the ball from a scrum and broke through the defence to the Chester 22. Hoppers were awarded a scrum but the ball was secured and cleared by the visitors with a kick into the home 22 and another footrace involving Browne and this time, the Chester scrum half. Luckily the diving 9 missed the ball in goal and Hoppers were let off.
Play settled into a series of exchanges in the middle third, interspersed with, firstly an interception and break to the Chester 15m line by Ben Dorrington who had come on at the start of the half, and then a bout of handbags which resulted in a yellow card for Chester’s prop, Furnival.
Hoppers gained a penalty and from the Chester 10m line, Pearson stroked the ball over, reducing the Chester lead to just six points. 13 – 19.
At this stage, with a quarter of the match remaining, there was a feeling in the stand that there may be some points to be taken after all.
But, as has been the sad pattern over games so far, the last ten minutes proved the undoing of the Preston men.
A loose pass was stolen and collected by the Chester 13 and the ball was passed to their number 4, Wilkinson, who broke several tackles on his way to the home 22 and a pass to his buddy, Holloway, who scored the Bonus Point Try. The conversion from full-back Long was good and the score then looked bleak for the home side.
The match was sealed when Long scored a penalty from the Preston 10m line and at the final whistle Chester ran out winners, 13 – 29.
After the match Joel praised the effort made by the team:
“I think we did really well. We did the hard yards and even in the second half, a lot of the play was in their third of the field but we didn’t manage to put our pressure into points unfortunately. Either the ball spilled out of the ruck or whatever and I feel for the lads because they put a good shift in there today and played some very good rugby. But the top and bottom of it was that they were a little more clinical. When they got into the 22, they scored, it was similar to last week’s game at Otley. We did eighty percent of the work but just couldn’t seem to execute that last bit. I’m really disappointed for the lads, Chester are a team playing with confidence and I thought the brand of our rugby was good. Our set piece was good, ball movement was good and the driving was strong, we have to have more clarity. It’s frustrating for us all when we know there’s a big peformance in there and at some point a team will get a big shock. We just need to iron out the little mistakes that cost us.”
A look at the table shows Hoppers remain eleventh with 9 points with games against Blaydon and Harrogate, both below, still to come.
The lads take to the road next week to face Tyndale in a match which, whilst winnable, will be another tough encounter. Then, the weekend after, it’s another away fixture at Rudding Lane where they face struggling Harrogate. With the half-way point of the season in view, support for the team is vital to lift them up the table so let’s get out and get behind them.
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig