Preston Grasshoppers 7-46 Sedgley Park
With the postponement of the Fylde game and the Christmas and New Year festivities, it seems a long time since we saw any 1st XV rugby and what better a way to welcome it back than with the Past Players’ Lunch! The Clubhouse was thronged with former players from near and far, sharing their memories, rose-tinted or otherwise!
On the pitch, the first team started the second half of the season with a stiff test against unbeaten table toppers, Sedgley Park. Seasoned campaigners in the National League, the Tigers were an experienced, tough unit but with Hoppers’ recent and steadily improving performances, there was anticipation of an exciting and entertaining match.
Hoppers kicked off under the floodlights on a grey and chilly afternoon and when Sedgley knocked the ball forward on receipt of the kick, things started well for the home side. They then proceeded to drive the scrum with apparent ease until the referee decided they deserved a penalty for their efforts.
Sedgley then demonstrated why they are unbeaten when in just two plays, they had gained a lineout on the Hoppers’ 5m line and proceeded to drive to the line where number 8, Ailes crossed after just four minutes of play. Outside half, Collins, slotted the first of his four conversions for the afternoon and the league leaders were up and running. 0 – 7.
Hoppers rallied and with their opponents camped inside the Red Zone they put up their dogged defensive barrier, defying the wave of attacks across the face of the posts. This play prompted the first of several lectures from the referee, initially to the captains, followed only minutes later by a second to both front rows.
The upshot of the latter interruption was a penalty to Hoppers and a lineout on their 20m line. A kick-chase by Jacob Browne sent the home side deep into the Sedgley half where the on-rushing Josh Longson was frustratedly beaten by the high bounce resulting in an opposition scrum.
Hoppers then mounted a series of forays into their visitors’ 22 with breaks by Chris Taylor and Ben Pearson and though both were thwarted by an unlucky bounce and a missed pass, the team were making good progress against a strong Sedgley side.
The Tigers regrouped and started a series of phases across the Preston 22. Hoppers defended well but when a long pass floated out to the wing, 14, Henderson, ran the open diagonal channel to score just right of the posts.The conversion sailed wide but Hoppers found themselves 0 -12 down after the first quarter of the game.
They restarted and were soon applying their own pressure inside the Sedgley 22 with a series of phases from the forwards attacking the line which was only halted when a particularly rapid pass bounced of Oga Mabaya’s face just under the posts!
The scrum was set and before anyone could respond, Harry Moulding collected the ball from the base, darted through a gap, and crossed to the left of the posts. Pearson made sure of the extras and Hoppers were back in the game, 7 – 12 with ten minutes of the half remaining.
Play resumed with a session of kick-tennis, ending with a skewed effort from Sedgley which gifted Hoppers a lineout on their visitors’ 22. The ball was passed infield and Taylor broke through a series of tackles towards the Sedgley 5m line but his overhead pass was lost in the scramble to stop him.
Sedgley then had a penalty which took them to the Hoppers’ 5m line. The lineout was driven and Ailes scored his second of the match. With Collins’ boot on target, the conversion was the last act of the half and the teams went to the sheds 7 – 19.
As was expected, Sedgley were a very strong side, powerful in attack with some big players who took a lot of stopping. However, Hoppers, as usual, defended well and had made some good, telling breaks into the opposition territory which had only been foiled by the bounce of the ball or a missed pass.
It was a reflection of the Hoppers’ performance that play had been, for the most part, in the middle third of the pitch and whilst Sedgley had probed their hosts’ 22 on several occasions, they had not dominated in the way they might have been expected to.
The second half resolved this. Just four minutes had lapsed when Collins struck an easy penalty from 10m out, in front of the posts which launched the visitors into a raft of tries and points.
Heavy rain didn’t help the cause and play became scrappy at times with the referee inflicting another lecture on the captains. As the penalty count against Hoppers rose it was inevitable that Sedgley would score and the Bonus Point try came from replacement Maher on the 58th minute.
Hoppers were not fazed and jinking runs from Tyler Spence foiled several attacks by Sedgley only to end in penalties to the visitors.
With both benches emptied and ten minutes to play, Sedgley turned the screw scoring three tries in quick succession and at the whistle they ran out the victors with the score at 7 – 46.
Dan was fairly pragmatic after the game:
“I think the scoreline flattered Sedgley a little. In the first half we had them rattled, they definitely weren’t happy with themselves or with the refereeing decisions and the chat at half time was about doing more of the same.
We didn’t get much of the ball in the first half but when we did we were really dangerous and made long line breaks out of our half showing we could attack from anywhere which certainly rattled them. With a bit more accuracy we could have done more to build phases in their Red Zone and at half time we were really happy with the work rate, the endeavour and the score.
The lads, and myself are frustrated. Looking at the final score, they weren’t 39 points better than us, league leaders or not. I think you could see that the depth they had on their bench was the difference and they scored three tries in the last ten minutes which was disappointing.
Overall we feel that we are on the right track and that this was just a blip in the road. Training is going well and the lads are working hard. We go to Huddersfield next week with confidence.”
The neutrals might say that this result was to be expected, based on the relative league positions of the teams but despite the score, it was an entertaining and hard-fought match in which Hoppers did not show themselves lacking.
The 1869 coach is going to Huddersfield so make sure to sign up and support the lads as we go on in 2023.
Happy New Year to one and all!
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig