Wirral 14-17 Preston Grasshoppers
Grasshoppers travelled to the Memorial Ground to face a side that were unbeaten at home this season and had won their last three games out of four.
Conditions were Arctic as Hoppers kicked off with the strong wind behind them and were immediately under pressure as, despite driving their hosts’ scrum, the ensuing penalty took them back to their own 22.
A break by Wirral centre, Harvey, gave them the first try of the game. He then converted to give the home side a seven point lead after only three minutes.
The game settled into a fast, running battle with both sides continually gaining and losing ground between the 22s. Hoppers were unable to capitalize on their following wind advantage and just twenty minutes later, with the biting cold making secure handling difficult, they were facing a score of 14 – 0 when, after a period of concerted pressure, number 8, Pearl crossed and Harvey converted again.
Hoppers regrouped and made a series of breaks from extended passing moves involving forwards and backs in turn which took them to the Wirral Red Zone. Jacob Browne was the first to breach the home defence with a blistering run from half way into the 22. Then it was Matt Lamprey’s turn as he peeled from the base only to be repelled short of the line.
The ball was moved back and forth along the Wirral 5m line with Hoppers battling to break the defence. They were camped on their hosts’ try line for some time until a long series of attacking phases resulted in a string of four penalties from their hosts which over-taxed the referee’s patience and he awarded a penalty try.
Now boosted by the score, Hoppers pressed on. From the restart the backs gathered the ball and passed their way into the Wirral 22 where they were awarded a penalty. From the line-out on the 5m line and with half time approaching, Chris Taylor, who had only been on the pitch for a few minutes, was able to break out of the maul to score in the corner. Tom Walker’s kick from wide on the wing was foiled by the wind and the teams went to the sheds at 14 – 12.
Wirral had a strong pack and had been able to attack with pace from the outset defending solidly when Hoppers had the ball. Fast play from both sides had made for frequent exchanges of possession and ground gained and lost as a result.
Hoppers had shown their ability to make fast attacks into the Wirral half with decisive linking moves by both forwards and backs which resulted in them clawing back the early score deficit.
Penalties were already thick on the ground but for once they seemed to have given the visiting side a slight advantage as a good proportion had gone their way.
The second half saw Wirral waiting in the freezing wind for their visitors to come out and then kicking for territory at every opportunity. The penalty count for both sides, along with a procession of scrums made for a stop-start contest with neither side gaining advantage. Yellow cards and injuries to both sides resulted in un-contested scrums for some periods of the game as key players were off the field, all of which slowed the game down.
Hoppers then began to get the upper hand and having driven their hosts’ scrum for most of the game, they were able to keep play in the Wirral half. Constantly attacking inside the 22 rewarded them with a third try, this time by Sam Stott, who, having made several telling breaks, put them in the lead when he was on the end of another fast passing move started by Taylor with a long pass to Toby Harrison who then blazed through the opposition before giving him the ball to score just by the post. 14 – 17
Walker’s conversion attempt looked a certainty until the wind swirled it past the upright but Hoppers were now ahead albeit by a slim three-point margin.
Now into the final quarter of the match Hoppers applied relentless pressure on the Wirral 5m line. There was another long series of scrums and penalties interspersed by stoppages for injury to firstly, Ben Dorrington, and then Chris Taylor. Again, as in the first half, the home side racked up a high penalty count inside their own 5m line but the referee decided that even after six in a row there was no clear scoring opportunity so another penalty try was not forthcoming and the score remained unchanged at the final whistle.
Head Coach Paul Arnold was happy with the win:
‘The score line was closer than I’d have liked and I would have enjoyed the bonus point. It’s a bit like when we won the league four years ago when we came here and won 14 – 7 that day but this is a tough, tough place to come and play. They are a dogged side with some good players in that pack and they love to slow the game down so, with the weather conditions we had today, to come back from fourteen- nil in the first half to score three tries and win the match is a real achievement against a side who have beaten several teams above them in the table.
As I said, I would have liked the Bonus Point but don’t underestimate this team. Blackburn and Alnwick came here and were beaten so we know they are a good side and we’ll take the points and regroup for next week.
I also want to give a massive ‘thank you’ to the supporters who turned up here in Baltic conditions to back the team this afternoon, they are fantastic.’
We take on Alnwick at home next Saturday and as I will be away on Granddaughter-sitting duty, the report will be in the eminently capable hands of my mentor Mr Kenneth (‘now where did I put my pencil?’) Moore.
Report by John Le Page, picture by John Powell