Preston Grasshoppers 18-24 Sheffield
After a frustrating game last Saturday when it seemed that there had been little they could do to influence the outcome of the match, Hoppers hosted Sheffield and were keen to put that weekend behind them.
Their visitors came to Lightfoot Green with a run of eight consecutive defeats stretching back to October after their early season form deserted them. With just one more win under their belt, Sheffield were sitting one place and five points above the lads making this a key game in Hoppers’ bid to move up the table.
With all the other games on the grass pitches off, this was the main event at the club. The weather was bright, with no breeze worth mentioning but it was bitterly cold. However, the Preston faithful, suitably wrapped up against the conditions, welcomed Hoppers onto the pitch as Olli Trippier made his hundredth league appearance.
Sheffield kicked off and immediately attacked their hosts, pressing waves of attacks inside the 22. Hoppers defended resolutely as ever but as the play became fast and furious across final third of the pitch they were under extreme pressure. To their relief they were awarded a penalty but relief turned to angst as Will Hunt’s kick swerved in the air and stayed in play.
It was collected by the Sheffield number eight, Burrows who then showed an impressive turn of speed breaking through the defence to the Hoppers’ 22. Sheffield then had a lineout inside the 22. The ball was secured and fed to flanker, Fawdry who made the line at the foot of the right hand post.
The conversion from inside half, Hodgson, was good and after nine minutes, Sheffield were leading, 0 – 7.
Hoppers responded and were soon attacking into the Sheffield 22. Hunt’s kick pass to the on-rushing Will Clapham bounced unkindly and was knocked-on. Then Hoppers made a fast break from the scrum and Jake Squirrell was bundled against the post before he could get the ball down. The forwards then took up the attack driving Chris Taylor over the line under the posts. Hunt’s conversion was a formality and the sides were even again, 7 – 7.
Hoppers were now on the front foot and applying pressure to the scrums and mauls where they were driving their opponents at will. It was from such a drive that Hoppers made the 5m line and moved the ball out to the wing but a fast, missed pass went to touch but, having touched an opposition player, gave them the lineout.
The throw was deemed ‘not straight’ and the visitors had the scrum. Once again it was number 8, Burrows showing his speed as the big man broke to the home 22. A quick series of phases moved the visitors into the Red Zone and with eight minutes of the half remaining, centre Hooper scored under the posts to put Sheffield back in front, 7 – 14.
A minute later the lead had been reduced to four points as a searing Hoppers’ break, started by Hunt who passed to Josh Jones, supported by Ewan Naylor then feeding Taylor, was only halted after the tackle by a penalty. Hunt lined up the ball and took the three. 10 – 14.
With five minutes to play Sheffield came again and, battling their way into the Hoppers’ 22 they pressed the line back and forth across the pitch until, having been herded towards the touchline, Burrows dropped over just in the corner. From the widest angle on the wing the conversion was always going to be difficult and it dropped short and wide. The teams went in for the break with the scoreboard showing 10 – 19.
The half had been entertaining for the spectators and with the teams fairly evenly matched, a good result for the home side was not out of sight.
Sheffield were a big, powerful unit who had been able to break at speed, putting phases together and denying Hoppers possession.
Hoppers had also shown good play when they had the ball. Breaks from around the field had given them good opportunities inside their opposition’s 22 and their ability to drive the Sheffield pack had been obvious.
They restarted the match and on receipt of the return ball put on a fast break, moving the ball through several hands across the field and on to Taylor who made a telling run into the visitors’ 22.
They were awarded a penalty in front of goal and Hunt wasted no time in sending the ball over. 13 – 19.
The home cause was then aided by a yellow card shown to Sheffield’s number 13 for a dangerous tackle that took Ed Keohane beyond the horizontal and needing some treatment on field before he could resume.
The extra man advantage was seized upon and just a minute later, with the forwards putting waves of attacks onto the line, it was Club Captain, Alastair Murray who was last up from the pile in the corner with ball in hand. By now there was a barely noticeable breeze which didn’t help Hunt’s effort from wide on the wing and the conversion failed but with fifteen minutes to go and a player to the good, the win was still possible. 18 – 19.
Alas, the nemesis of ill-discipline quashed those thoughts and, despite breaks by Hunt and Jacob Browne, it was Sheffield who had the last score. The gained a penalty which took them to the 5m line, the ball was taken in and loose head Whitney claimed the last points as Hodgson’s conversion attempt failed. The final score at the whistle, 18 – 24.
Speaking to Ally Murray and Dan Orwin after the match, both were bitterly disappointed:
“Disappointing, same as last week, got a point, should have won. We train all week to create patterns and a plan but it seems that when we’re under pressure we can’t stick to those patterns. We’ve defended well for large parts of the game and then just little things have cost us.”
Dan had a similar view of the game:
“Lots and lots of effort, which is never in question but in the first half we must have spent twenty or thirty minutes defending and whilst some of those periods were really well disciplined and effective, we then give away a penalty and we are under pressure again. Some of the kick choices were questionable especially when we had ball in hand. We do feel we are making progress but these areas do need addressing. We still don’t seem able to close out these tight games.”
Next week we go away to this week’s neighbours on the dizzy, wind-blown heights at Sheffield Tigers and another chance to add points to our tally. The 1869 club is taking a coach and whilst the booking date was the 22nd of Jan it could still be possible to contact Les Harrison and join the travelling supporters.
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig