Preston Grasshoppers 34-17 Harrogate
There was a comment amongst the Media Group that this week’s game was a ‘6-pointer’ in football terms. It certainly had some serious implications in for both teams’ positions in the table come the end of April.
Harrogate travelled to Lightfoot Green confident after their recent string of wins which included Sheffield Tigers and Chester. Hoppers too were on something of a roll, having put Otley and Tyndale to the sword. The key thing for them was to bag five points and, perhaps more importantly, prevent Harrogate getting even a losing Bonus Point.
Once again the conditions were good for rugby, cold, with little breeze and although it was overcast, Harrogate started the match in the dry.
Their kick off was cleared to the visitors’ 15m line by Will Hunt and from the Harrogate lineout, Hoppers were awarded a penalty which took them to their own lineout on the Harrogate 5m line. The throw was lost and cleared but only as far as the 22 where the Preston pack had a second chance.
They collected the ball, and it was fed out to Hunt who dodged through the defence before off-loading to Jake Maher, meeting it at speed. He advanced towards the line where it was taken on by Jacob Browne, as usual supporting his centre-field buddy, to cross the whitewash to the left of the uprights. Hunt made short work of the conversion and after just six minutes, the score was 7 – 0.
Harrogate then put together a short series of phases which took them into their hosts’ half and a penalty thirty metres out. Full back, Macnab backed himself and the ball split the posts, 7 – 3.
Then it was Hoppers’ turn to put the pressure on. A break by Ben Pearson at full back made good ground towards the Harrogate 10m line and a well-timed pass to Tyler Spence coming in off his wing. He darted through the defenders before releasing a chip pass for Hunt who was only just beaten as the ball found touch in goal.
Play switched to the opposite end of the field as Harrogate put together an extended series of attacks along the home 22. The defence was strong and eventually they were given a penalty from where they were able to clear downfield.
Harrogate’s return clearance went out on the full and they were instantly under attack from the Hoppers’ lineout. Once again, it was Hunt calling the plays and he took the ball from the lineout inside the Red Zone and quickly fed Maher who crossed towards the posts. The conversion was good, and the lads were 14 – 3 up before the end of the first quarter.
The misery now grew for the visitors as a mis-handled pass was stolen and chipped on again to set up the forwards attacking across the Harrogate 22.
They made the line but the ball was deemed to be short and play continued. The pack battled on and when the mob piled over the line, Ally Murray was the last up with ball in hand. Hunt was accurate once more and Hoppers were three quarters of the way to a Try Bonus Point before half time. 21 – 3.
They kept up the pressure, spending the last ten minutes inside the Harrogate half and when they were awarded a penalty, thirty five metres out, in front of goal, Hunt was equal to the challenge and calmly stroked the ball between the uprights. The score at the end of the half was 24 – 3.
Hoppers had played with much more confidence after their recent performances. This was side who felt they could now best those teams around them and they were playing at a fast pace, moving the ball well and showing not a little invention in their plays.
Their opponents, typical of sides who have spent time in this league, were strong and quick to break. However, they had been denied possession for much of the half in which Hoppers had been the more dominant team.
Elated as the faithful might have been, there may have been some concern about the recent lapses in focus shown in the last few games and when the second half started with a try for the visitors after a dozen minutes, the tension could be felt in the stand. 24 – 10.
Things then got worse as Murray was sent to the naughty step for what was decided to be a high tackle and Harrogate quickly took advantage keeping possession of the ball for the ensuing ten minutes.
Once again, the defence proved solid and when Murray returned to the field, the attack was swept back into the opposition half and a penalty kick thirty metres out. Hunt chose to extend the lead and the ball sailed home in the slight breeze. 27 – 10.
The lead was now significant but still lacking the vital Bonus Point and with the rain now heavy at times, that task seemed even more arduous. With a quarter of an hour to go, there was still time for Harrogate to even up the score, which they managed just as the game entered the final ten minutes.
Attacking the Hoppers’ line, they drove over but were awarded a penalty. This time the drive was good and the score moved on to 27 – 17.
Hoppers attacked again with Murray battling through the ten metre line and then Harry Swarbrick, who had come on for the injured Maher just after the start of the half, made his own break towards the Harrogate 5m line before being tackled.
Play became frenetic as both sides fought for possession until Hoppers gained a lineout, something that, it has to be said, had not been a thing of beauty throughout the game, and this one resulted in a Harrogate scrum inside their 22.
They managed to move the play up the field and a lineout on their 22. This time it was their play that failed as the throw was not straight and Hoppers had the scrum.
The ball was secured by Jake Squirrell, on for Harry Moulding, and swiftly moved across the 22 from Harry Thompson to Browne to make the final metres before passing to Pearson who scored the Bonus Point Try in the corner.
Hunt’s most difficult kick of the afternoon was the last act of the game. He slotted it to make his tally six from six for the match and Hoppers secured the outcome they needed, five points for the win and no points to the opposition. The final score, 34 – 17.
Alex Keay was pleased with the performance and the outcome ;
“The second half was strange, they were dead in terms of the game but we let our standards drop and we’re disappointed with that. We let them get away with things around the breakdown but we know what we have to do and we have to learn to deal with that.
I’m really pleased. We got a Bonus Point Try again, that’s the third on the run and our aspiration now has to be chasing tenth position in the league.
Today’s result puts us eighteen points clear with five games left and whilst the season is nowhere near over, we’re not looking over our shoulder and why should we when we are playing as well as we are?
I just want them to keep growing, playing the rugby we saw in the first half today and allowing the individual players the chance to improve themselves, to be the best they can be.”
Another good performance today and maybe a certain former Hoppers player would do well to look at what is being achieved here as the Six Nations draws to a conclusion…………..!
We have a week off now before the trip to Hull Ionians who were beaten by Chester today. With the spectre of promotion staring at the top teams, now might be the time to steal some points in the run in to the end of the season. Look out for the sheet to sign up for the 1869 coach and spur the team on to more points.
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig