Hoppers have relegation worries

Sam Kendall

Sam Kendall

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Preston Grasshoppers learned another harsh lesson on Saturday – that you need to get the basics right to compete with bigger and stronger teams in National League Two North.

Unfortunately, as head coach Garth Dew admitted: “We made too many fundamental errors, especially dropped passes and missed tackles.”

The result was another damaging home defeat as the season rolls towards a very tight climax over the last three rounds of fixtures.

There were valiant attempts to remain upbeat, but the simple fact is that, after the latest set of results, Hoppers are now just four points above the drop zone.

Stourbridge, only a couple of places above them, asked too many questions, despite a heavy penalty count against them and two sinbinnings.

“They are a big and physical side,” said Dew, “and their backs were a bit too clinical for us, whereas we failed in their 22.

“The breakdown was the key; we have got to win the gain line and that didn’t happen in the first half. Confidence is the key and our heads seemed to go down a bit. But our setpiece was strong again.”

Referee Michael Harris punished Stourbridge with a 12-3 penalty count in Preston’s favour, as well as the two second-half yellow cards.

But even that wasn’t enough for Dew, who felt some of the visitors’ play at the breakdown was “borderline” and could have led to even more penalties while “the yellow cards came too late”.

Hoppers paid an early penalty for not making the most of their opportunities in the opening exchanges. Lewis Allen missed a 30-metre penalty and a big scrum on the Stourbridge line also proved fruitless.

Instead, Stourbridge ran in two tries in 10 minutes – by centre Ben Barcley after a line-out in the corner and winger Nathan Bressington with a sprint from halfway after Hoppers had coughed up possession.

Fly-half Caolan Ryan converted both and, despite a successful penalty by Allen, Stourbridge controlled a big chunk of the first half.

They went even further ahead with a try by lock Ciaran Moore after a scrum close to the line, again converted by Ryan. Hoppers finally breached the visitors’ defence in the final minutes of the half, winger Sam Kendall breaking a couple of tackles after Allen’s long pass. The fly-half converted to cut the gap to 11 points at the break. Ryan missed a simple penalty and a speculative drop goal, but it was Preston who dominated the second half for long spells without being able to cash in.

In fact, it was Stourbridge who scored next, flanker Nigel Mukarati crashing over from close range for Ryan to convert.

Allen quickly pulled back a penalty, but his side were unable to make any headway in the next half-hour, despite their pressure on the line bringing yellow cards for Stourbridge in the 62nd and 73rd minutes.

It took a fine break by Hoppers star performer, Sam Russell, to unlock the visitors’ defence.

Allen up in support of the strong-running centre to bag his 14th try of the campaign and take him past 250 points.

But he couldn’t convert with the last kick off a defeat which left Dew pondering how his team were “outmuscled” by an experienced side containing “a lot of men who have played in the league above”.