Preston Grasshoppers 21-16 Rotherham
It was a landmark day in more ways than one as Hoppers welcomed fifth-placed Rotherham Titans to Lightfoot Green. Ollie Trippier made his 100th appearance for the first XV whilst Tyler Spence ran out in his 100th League game.
The weather made its mark too as all other games except for the one at Chester had been called off because of snow and freezing conditions. Indeed, there was some doubt as to the Hoppers’ game as an inspection took place at 10am but the pitch was declared fit to play and the game was on.
The start had been brought forward to two o’clock because of a problem with one of the floodlight arrays but thankfully that was rectified late on Friday evening and so it was a cold, damp and overcast afternoon for the last home fixture before the break.
Rotherham kicked off and were immediately assailed by a Hoppers’ side that clearly meant business. Within five minutes the home side had three points on the board after an ambitious chip from Oga Mabaya, charging to the line as the referee played advantage, was gathered by the defence but play then went back for the penalty which Will Hunt deftly stroked over the bar.
He then had a second chance a few minutes later but from just inside the half way line his attempt fell short and was cleared to the Titans’ 10m line.
Hoppers secured the ball and Hunt spotted Tyler Spence loitering un-marked on his wing, sending him the most delightfully judged kick-pass straight into his arms. Spence set off as only he can and, dodging the attempts to stop him, scored in the corner.
Hunt’s conversion was pushed slightly wide but after only eight minutes Hoppers had a useful lead, 8 – 0.
The Hoppers’ faithful must have been excited by this start and things then got better when, two minutes later Hunt took the ball on his own 10m line and broke through the Rotherham lines to pass to Jacob Browne in support. He raced on to the 22 and gave the ball to Hunt to feed Spence who crossed the whitewash to the left of the uprights. The conversion was simple and Hunt slotted it with ease, 15 – 0.
Rotherham were not down though. Their pack was big and powerful and they mounted several attacks which took them into the Hoppers’ 22 only to be repulsed and the ball cleared up field. But when they gained a penalty, outside half, Ollivent, collected the three points to save any embarrassment scorewise. 15 – 3.
Hoppers pressed on with another kick pass from Hunt this time to the other wing and Will Clapham who made good ground into the Rotherham 22 before passing inside. The ball was moved along the line to Hunt who surprised everyone with a cheeky drop-goal to return the lead to fifteen points and at the half-time whistle the scoreboard showed Hoppers 18, Titans, 3.
Hoppers had been improving their performance over the last two or three matches and had started as if they were on fire! They had utterly dominated the first twenty minutes against a side who, on paper, should have stamped their mark on the game early on.
The lads had played with confidence and whilst the forwards had matched the opposition in the battles across the field, the backs had run amok with little to stop them in the visitors’ 22.
The second half started with snow falling quite heavily as Hoppers kicked off. In a repeat of the first half, a game of ‘kick-tennis’ ensued which only ended with a Hoppers’ lineout on the Rotherham 22.
The ball was thrown long and lost and play moved down towards the Preston line. Titans were awarded a penalty in front of the posts and Ollivent lost no time in adding the three. 18 – 6.
Titans seemed to be boosted by this and their pack began to drive their hosts in scrums and mauls resulting in a try for flanker, Payne. The conversion failed but the score was now showing just a seven point gap, 18 – 11.
Play became scrappy with cold hands fumbling the ball at times as the game moved up and down in the middle third.
Hoppers then had a scrum from which they were given a penalty kick. Hunt had been substituted so it was Ed Keohane who stepped up to send the ball through the uprights and stretch the tenuous lead to a double score.
With their pack in the ascendency, Rotherham pressed the Hoppers’ defence to gain a lineout on the 5m line. They drove the Preston pack to score their second try through number 6, Bustin, but with the conversion going astray the score only moved on to 21 – 16.
The highlight of the remaining fifteen minutes was a ’50 – 22’ kick from Harry Moulding which took his side deep into the Rotherham half and although Hoppers had another penalty chance in the final minutes, the score remained 21 – 16 at the final whistle.
The cheers from the stand reflected how much this meant to the home fans who had been noticeably vocal throughout the match and it was a very satisfied coach who summed up the game:
“I’m really happy for the lads, I think that was well-deserved and it’s been a few weeks coming. As I’ve said before, sometimes you don’t get the breaks and we talked about making our own luck and imposing ourselves on Rotherham today and as you saw, we came at them in the first half and I don’t think that they knew what had hit them, our intensity, decision-making and playing in the right parts of the pitch just blew them away.
We kept the score ticking over and took the chances to score when they came, as you saw with the drop goal from Will. Our aim was to come away with points when we got into the Red Zone and we did really well to hold on and see the game out.
We are looking forward to next week at Fylde and go there with confidence from a win against a very good side who have a history of playing at the higher levels.”
Next week is the last game before the Christmas and New Year break and it should be a good one against our local rivals so get down and support the team to a good win.
(Apologies to Ali Murray, last week’s GMS matchcard showed him receiving a yellow card. He did not, owing to a shirt change he was listed as an offender but in fact it was Ewan Naylor who suffered the wrath of the referee!)
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig