Preston Grasshoppers 20-21 Hull Ionians
Hoppers took the field against third placed Ionians, refreshed after their break and they looked all the better for it. The team sheet presented the faithful with possibly the strongest side fielded this season and from the kick off it was obvious that this was a team intent on putting down a marker.
In overcast, cool conditions with a noticeable breeze, Hoppers kicked off and on receipt of the ball, Scott Richardson lead the attack with a break from his own half into the Ionians’ 22. With support all around him an early score looked to be sealed when the final pass was called by the referee for crossing, the first of several decisions that went against the home side.
Nevertheless, the pack got down to business and drove the Hull scrum to gain possession and start a series of phases across the Ionians’ 5m line. But the visitors’ defence held up and to their relief, they were awarded a penalty which took them up to the 22.
Hoppers came back and a break by number 7, Josh Longson, took the play from the 10m line down to the Red Zone and a penalty in front of the posts.
Ed Keohane, playing at outside half, stroked the ball over and Hoppers were on the scoreboard, 3 – 0, with a much better start than of late.
However, a side who have won eight matches form ten this season was never going to lie down and five minutes later the scoreboard reflected a fast passing move which took the visitors into their hosts’ 5m line and a try by Lewis Minikin under the posts. He then converted, 3 – 7.
As usual, the game then settled down and became an entertaining and hard-fought competition with good open play and energy-sapping phases of attack from both sides.
Hoppers defended a lineout on their own 10m line and gained a scrum. Once again, they drove the Ionians pack to secure a penalty and their own line-out on the Hull 22.
The ball was taken and cleared into the Preston half but the onrushing winger Thompson, fell foul of the referee when he tackled the receiver in the air. He was rewarded with a yellow card for his efforts and trudged off for a ten minute rest on the naughty step.
Now within their opposition 22, the forwards began a series of attacks along the 5m line, pressing the try line with phase after phase until the ball came to Keohane to dart over for their first try.
From the stand the kick didn’t look too tricky but the stiffening breeze may have played its part and the ball floated wide of the upright. 8 – 7.
Once again Ionians pressed the five minute reset button and with their miscreant back in the fold having served his time, they took advantage of a Hoppers’ high tackle to gain a lineout on the 5m line and another try this time by Hudson who battled his way through the defence to cross left of the posts. Minikin supplied the extras and once again the score swung in favour of the visitors, 8 – 14.
Hoppers were then under siege as the East Yorkshire side pressed their advantage, looking to add more points before the break.
A Hoppers’ lineout was deemed not straight giving the opposition a scrum which started a period of continual assaults into the home 22. They pressured the defence across the try line and, despite some outstanding defence, they crossed the whitewash but, to the relief of the home supporters, the grounding was short.
Then, as play resumed and Ionians attacked again, a pass was intercepted by Jacob Browne, as usual doing unsung work all over the field, who blazed upfield before passing to Tyler Spence, making his 101st appearance after achieving the milestone at Harrogate, to gain further ground before chipping the ball on. The move was stalled by a clearing kick from the full back but Hoppers were out of the danger area for a while.
Pressing the advantage, they then drove a Hull scrum to gain a penalty and a lineout on the Ionians’ 5m line.
Whilst the visitors were pondering which of their hosts’ forwards would take the ball, Chris Taylor fooled them all with a brilliant short throw to Harry Moulding who returned the ball for the Hooker to score in the corner.
The half ended when, with Ionians attacking from a lineout on the Hoppers’ 5m line, they were driven into touch and the teams went to the sheds with the score at 13 – 14.
The lads had shown real potential for the first time this season with a great performance to hold the experienced Ionians to just a one-point lead. They had started with real urgency and not a little innovation with good phases of passing and handling and, as usual, a stern defence.
In turn, Ionians had shown themselves a fast, well-drilled unit who were clinical in the Red Zone, testing the Hoppers’ defence for long periods.
In the Hoppers’ midfield, Riley, Longson and Keohane were proving to be a useful combination and with Murray, Naylor and Richardson breaking the opposition lines, supported by their backs, Hoppers had shown themselves a good match for the visitors.
The second half did not disappoint and resumed the tight tussle for territory and points.
Ionians struck the first blow when, after a Hoppers’ scrum on their own 10m line, they stole the ball and began the battle towards the try line where, after some dogged defence, their Flanker, Powell, dropped over the line for their third try. Minikin was accurate again and the score moved on to 13 – 21.
At this point he Preston faithful may have been thinking the ‘last quarter denouement’ was about to rear its ugly head once again but the lads had other ideas.
With their forwards confronting their visitors with crunching tackles, they battled their way into the Hull 22 where they had a long series of phases which was only curtailed by a desperate clearing kick. This was deftly taken by Richardson on his own 10m line who then broke through the stranded Hull defence and into their 22. Keohane was on hand to take his pass and secure the try. He then converted his effort and Hoppers were back to a one point score difference with just over five minutes to go.
With Ionians pressing into the Hoppers’22, the final act of the match was a lineout to Hull on the half way line from which the ball was hustled into touch. 20 – 21.
The performance had been thoroughly entertaining and a great boost to the faithful after a difficult start to the season.
Dan was eager to praise the efforts of his squad,
“The lads and the coaches are absolutely gutted, they are third in the league and we feel were the better team for much of the match. We more than competed with them and probably feel we deserved more out of the game as some decisions just didn’t go our way.
I’m really, really proud of the boys. We’ve shown we can put in an eighty minute performance but we’re frustrated because we thought we had enough to win.
We spent a lot of time this week looking at playing a higher tempo game with a greater sense of urgency and I definitely think you saw that today.”
Without getting in front of ourselves, if the team can repeat this performance against Blaydon next week, it could be the kick-start we’ve all been hoping for. There is a supporters’ coach booked for that match so sign up and let’s help the team go forward.
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig