Gareth Dyer’s exclusive rugby union column

Peter Altham on the attack Preston Grasshoppers

Peter Altham on the attack Preston Grasshoppers

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Hoppers must stop their continual costly mistakes

If this Preston Grasshoppers side is looking to learn lessons, then it is certainly determined to learn them the hard way.

Some might say, after last Saturday’s last second, self-inflicted defeat to fellow strugglers Scunthorpe, they now appear prepared to learn them only via the hardest way possible.

For this was a desperately disappointing defeat.

That it was sealed with the last play in the softest of ways was gut wrenching for all involved; and it was all so avoidable.

In a season where Hoppers have been slow to start matches, they were quickly out of the blocks – clearly trying to buy into the idea of a new pitch bringing a new start.

They were quickly into their stride with plentiful possession and territory. They played the game in the opposition third, built phases and were patient enough with the ball to secure two kickable penalties to give themselves an early six-point lead.

They also had chances to extend that lead but the earlier patience in possession was not as evident and golden opportunities to extend their lead went begging.

From there is where Hoppers began to lose the thread in a way that has been all too evident this season.

They started to overplay in the wrong areas, inviting pressure and turning the ball over in poor parts of the field.

Suddenly rather than play for territory they were back to bashing away on their own 10 metre line. It has been clear all season that Hoppers lack the power runners to play a gain line style of rugby; as a result, they too often drift from one side of the field to the other, probing for openings where none exist.

The energy they must waste playing to go nowhere means it is inevitable that there will be a drop off in pace somewhere during the half.

To learn lessons it is imperative that the players start picking up on the clearest of signals.

After one such multi-phase episode of running up one’s own posterior, a mistake gave the opposition a penalty a couple of metres inside the Hoppers half.

The new pitch obviously guarantees kickers a sureness of footing and the Scunthorpe kicker had no problems with both distance and accuracy.

Watching that sail over the sticks should have brought about an immediate recognition from all 15 home players that giving any penalties away in their own half would clearly be in the Scunthorpe kickers range.

Alas, it took all of 90 seconds for Hoppers to provide a second kicking opportunity and, having done very little, the opposition were level on the scoreboard.

Hoppers were to regain the lead but that all too familiar drop off in intensity struck in the 10 minutes before half-time and it gave the visitors two short range tries and a yellow card for a home defender.

In rugby there are times when it is smart to give away a penalty. Given that so many grey areas of interpretation exist, battling for those 50-50 decisions can bring subtle rewards and harsh sanctions in equal measure.

But too often there was nothing subtle about the Hoppers’ infringements; three times in the Scunthorpe 22, penalties were given away at scrums.

What is evident is that the players giving away the penalties are incapable – or worse unwilling – to learn from their indiscipline.

They appear quite oblivious to the fact that these needless penalties are killing their side week in week out.

It is to Hoppers’ credit that they responded after half time with some excellent rugby to score two well worked tries and regain the lead.

As the clock ticked on things got nervous but Hoppers unearthed a simple tactic that they should have employed to its maximum.

It was clear that the visiting full-back wouldn’t have caught a high ball all afternoon; in fact, he wouldn’t have caught a cold in a room full of teething toddlers.

Three times he was tested, three times he got nowhere near it, and on two of these occasions, Hoppers almost created the killer score.

That they didn’t harvest this clear source of territory and possession at every available opportunity again flags up the inability to learn as the game goes along.

The final, game-losing try had almost an air of inevitability; with Hoppers only six points to the good you just sensed that there was to be a sting in the tail.

At the final whistle the home players looked deflated and you feared for what may now happen.

However, the sad demise of London Welsh this week has thrown clubs down the pyramid an unlikely lifeline whereby only two clubs may be relegated in National 2 North.

If the darkest hour of night is just before the dawn breaks, then let’s hope that the light has been switched on for this Hoppers side in more ways than one.