Preston Grasshoppers saved the worst for last in an anti-climactic end to their latest National League Two North campaign.
Having looked well in control, 15-0 up against relegated Sheffield Tigers after just 17 minutes, they blew the chance to give a fitting send-off to head coach Michael Lough, who is stepping down, and full-back Sean Taylor, who is leaving the area.
“That was probably our worst performance of the season,” said Lough. “We looked good for the first 10 minutes or so, but then we lost our way.
“We were struggling to get good ball, didn’t make good use of what we did get and got into a rut. We weren’t at the races at all and certainly didn’t deserve to win.” One word summed it up for him: “Dross”.
Hoppers were, in many ways, the architects of their own demise – an eighth home defeat in 15 this season and a 17th out of 30 in all.
Four times, they lost their own line-out in good attacking positions; too often they turned the ball over or handled poorly in promising situations; and even when they had a chance to rescue the game going into stoppage time, Lloyd Davies pulled a 35-metre penalty wide.
Things had started so well, with winger Conor Trueman rounding off some slick handling for a second-minute try which Davies converted. The afternoon got even better when Davies landed a simple penalty (although he missed a long-range effort soon afterwards) and hooker Phil Mills found a huge gap down the touchline for a 35-metre solo score, which went unconverted.
Lough conceded that Hoppers haven’t been able to defend against driving mauls all season and that was the effective tactic that Sheffield used to grind their way back into the game.
They opened their account with a try by skipper David Bradford after cross-field play following a line-out. Ben Parker converted and it remained 15-7 at half-time after Davies had hit the post with an angled penalty attempt.
By this stage, Hoppers’ line-out had turned into a shambles, while the Tigers were showing how it should be done with accurate throw-ins and well-drilled forward drives. They were getting plenty of practice as referee Brendan McGaffney was regularly penalising Preston’s indiscipline at the breakdown, giving Sheffield a wealth of penalties to kick to the corner.
One such line-out brought a try for hooker David Price, inevitably driven over from close range.
Parker could not convert and Hoppers revived hopes with a try by flanker Will Lees after good work out wide by Ally Murray and Chris Taylor. Davies’ conversion gave them a 10-point cushion, but the last 35 minutes were to prove pointless for the hosts.
Tigers scrum-half Alex Drage bagged a pushover try, and the visitors claimed a four-try bonus point when No 8 Nick Pearson crashed over from a five-metre scrum. Parker converted the first, but not the second, so it all came down to Davies’s late penalty attempt – which never looked like snatching victory for the off-key hosts as a disappointing season ended with Hoppers slipping to an 11th-place finish.