Preston Grasshoppers 27- 12 Otley
The weather was just about perfect for rugby. A bright, cool afternoon with a little breeze set the scene for the eagerly-awaited, top-of-the-table clash with Otley.
The visitors had put together an impressive season, occupying the top spot for most of it since our visit to Cross Green in September when, on the back of a comfortable season-opening win at home against Northwich the week before, Hoppers suffered a disappointing loss.
The cancellation of the return match just before Christmas had been a big let-down for all at the club making this re-scheduled fixture all the more tasty.
The teams were led out by Club Captain, Ally Murray who made his 229th appearance for Hoppers, equalling the Club record for league games and there was another milestone this afternoon as Oga Mbaya clocked up 150 first XV matches.
Hoppers kicked off deep into the Otley 22 where their intent was shown straight away as Will Clapham intercepted a pass just short of the Otley 5m line only to be foiled by a knock-on.
The home pack made their mark on the first scrum and a powerful drive had their visitors desperately clearing with a kick which only just reached the 22.
Hoppers won their lineout and then, with the referee playing advantage, a break by Sam Gale had Chris Taylor heading for the line where he was brought up a metre short. Play went back for the penalty and from the scrum Matt Lamprey performed his trademark peel to add to his already impressive collection of tries for the season by crossing the line in the corner.
With Alex Ward unfortunate sidelined by an injury in training, kicking duties were passed to Ben Pearson who was making his first start since returning from a break travelling the world. He calmly stroked the conversion through the uprights and Hoppers were off to the best of starts after just five minutes. 7 – 0.
Otley were given no chance to regroup from that score when a break by the Preston backs looked like doubling the tally straight away.
From a scrum just inside the Otley half the ball came out to Tyler Spence who darted through the defence before passing to Clapham. Taking the ball at speed, he raced into the 22 before moving it on to Sam Stott who offloaded to the supporting Jordan Dorrington. He dived for the line but was deemed to have strayed into touch, much to the relief of the visitors.
Hoppers maintained their pressure inside the Otley half and it was only a matter of minutes before they were awarded a penalty on the 10m line. Pearson tee’d the ball up in front of the posts and slotted his kick with confidence. 10 – 0.
‘It never rains….. etc’ and with Hoppers attacking their visitors’ 22, a yellow card was shown to winger Dewar for obstruction in the chase of Dorrington as he looked to break to the line.
Shortly after that Hoppers were awarded a scrum on the Otley 5m line. They drove the opposition over the try line and last up was, ……. Lamprey, with his second try of the match. Pearson provided the extras and the home crowd were very pleased with a lead of 17 – 0 after less than half an hour.
Otley were now under real pressure and whilst they had some forays into their hosts’ 22, the defensive wall had sent them back each time.
From one of these attempts, the ball was stolen by Stott who glided through the opposition players and into their half. Once again, his partner in crime Dorrington was there to take his pass and headed onwards towards the Otley 22 only to be stopped by a high tackle.
Hoppers pounced on the advantage of having the extra man and the forwards battled their way to the line but Oga Mbaya was held up as he aimed to add to the tally of tries.
The attack continued and Spence broke again only to be tackled high as he crossed the 22 in front of the posts. Pearson faced the easiest kick he had had so far but strangely, he could only watch the ball slide past the upright.
Undeterred, the attacks kept on going and another fast move by Clapham to Jacob Browne and on to Spence was only stopped when the ball was lost in the tackle. Then it was the forwards’ turn.
Camped on the Otley line, they were held up three times despite some incredible work by Pete Altham, who drove his opposite number to gain valuable yards, and then a powerful push to the line by Ollie Trippier, before the ball came out to Pearson who stepped through the scattered defenders to give Stott his try. Pearson’s conversion stroked the inside of the upright in the freshening breeze and after the Otley restart ran out dead behind the goal, the teams went in for the break with the scoreboard brightly displaying 24 – 0.
Hoppers had dominated form the off with powerful linking play by both divisions repeatedly moving them deep into the Otley half. They had used the Yellow Card period well, scoring two tries as their visitors were reduced to fourteen men.
Otley had only been able to get into their hosts’ 22 by kicking down the field and had been repulsed on each occasion.
However, whilst the Hoppers’ dominant lead to nil had been something of a welcome surprise, no-one expected the league leaders to roll over.
Hoppers carried on where they had left off and immediately were in a scoring move when the kick-pass from Browne towards Spence on the wing just outran him in the in-goal area.
Then Otley had their ‘purple patch’. They had a lineout on the Hoppers’ 5m line and Hooker, Cole, dropped over for the first of his two tries. The conversion by Rowntree failed but the visitors had saved the embarrassment of a nil score.
For the first time in the match, Otley now had some possession and whilst there were individual breaks into the Hoppers’ third, they were unceremoniously scragged and sent back. But they persisted and after twenty-five minutes of the half, they managed to add seven points with another try by Cole and a successful conversion by Rowntree.
Hoppers continued to make their own attacks and were rewarded with a penalty on the Otley 10m line. With his tee in front of the posts Pearson confidently floated the ball between the uprights to widen the margin to 27 – 12.
With less than fifteen minutes remaining, Otley were facing a serious defeat and things didn’t improve when a penalty kick which would have taken them into the Hoppers’ Red Zone, shot straight past the posts and out behind the dead ball line.
Hoppers might have seen the score improve yet again when Browne was fed by Pearson on his own 15m line and left the defence floundering as he raced forward. He was only stopped by a desperate tackle deep inside the Otley half.
The last play of the match saw Browne involved once more when he intercepted a pass on his own 10m line and tore through towards the Otley 22 before he was again tackled and the whistle then indicated the end of the game.
Arnie was obviously pleased:
‘Four points, I definitely would have taken that before the game. As I have said all season, we have some heart in our team and they never really let Otley get going.
I was really made up with the scoreline at half time and even more with our discipline as we only gave away one penalty.
In the past, teams I have coached here have tended to fold when the opposition has scored tries but in the second half, after they had gained a couple, we controlled the game.
They are a really good side who are well coached but we fronted up and matched them.
It was a bit of a different pre-match warm up. The lads took the session and then I said to them again that the discipline, the defence and the desire would be the key today but also that making memories is important. With Ally equalling the most appearances and Oga achieving one hundred and fifty matches, I told them that these are the games you remember when you are in your fifties and it won’t be the same if you lose!
I’m really proud of them today and whilst it was a really good, stand out display by all the lads, I was really pleased with the way that Ben Pearson stepped in when Alex was unable to play and his control of the game and kicking was, apart from one, exceptional.’
We are at home again next week to struggling Kirkby Lonsdale who were put to the sword once again today, this time by Rossendale, losing 68 – 5.
With just six fixtures remaining, it’s important we garner as many points as we can to maintain our chase for promotion so come down and add your support for the team.
Report by John Le Page, pictures by Mike Craig and John Shirras