Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post
Hoppers’ superb rearguard victory last Saturday against Harrogate should have removed any lingering doubt that the Lightfoot Green men could become embroiled in this season’s relegation battle.
The hosts played for over an hour with 14 men – after prop Pete Altham was sent off – yet would not yield and showed immense character proving that the team spirit is as strong as ever at Lightfoot Green.
It was a timely win as this season’s battle for survival at the bottom of National Two North is shaping up to be the most intense in years.
Before Saturday and with five games remaining – or for some teams six, because of postponements – any three from the bottom half of the table could still have been relegated.
That included Hoppers who, although sat in a respectable eighth place in the table, went into the weekend only eight points above the third and final relegation place.
Since the league moved to a 30-game season format seven years ago, accumulating 60 league points – via at least 11 league wins – has always been sufficient to ensure survival.
Therefore Saturday’s victory over Harrogate was vital as it saw Hoppers move to 61 league points for the season with 11 wins.
With the weekend’s other results, this has put the Lightfoot Green men 12 points clear of the bottom three with those three teams having only four games – and a maximum of 20 league points available – left to play for.
So whilst one further win will make it mathematically certain that Hoppers are in National Two North next term, a defeat last weekend would have kept them looking over their shoulders.
The most important thing when battling against relegation is to have your destiny in your own hands.
This is something Hoppers had last season when winning their battle against the drop. When the side needed to win to keep things in their control, they did so.
But when there was the opportunity to put things to bed before the final round of games, a number of opportunities were missed.
So when Harrogate took a six-point lead after 15 minutes and the subsequent red card was issued, the Hoppers faithful could be forgiven for thinking that this was not going to be a day when their status for next season would be secured.
It is to the players’ credit that they had other ideas.
Firstly they discovered some belief after a flat opening quarter to the game.
The visitors could – and perhaps should – have been further clear by the time Altham was dismissed.
However they butchered some decent chances , a theme of their afternoon.
Instead the red card seemed to galvanise the home side into a reaction and the ten-minute spell before half-time proved to be crucial.
During that period they forced two kickable penalties for Sean Taylor.
On a wet slippy pitch and with a blustery wind to contend with, Taylor stuck both kicks sweetly from distance to tie the scores at the interval.
If body language can sometimes be used as a gauge of where the initiative lies, then seeing the two teams leave the field at half-time was a clear indicator.
Whilst Hoppers left with a spring in their step to a rapturous reaction from the home supporters, the visitors sloped from the field with their heads down and their captain having a difference of opinion with the officials.
Former Hoppers coach Karl Fitzpatrick would have loved seeing that.
Fitzy was always on at the Hoppers players to think about their body language and the effect it can have on the opposition.
He used to go mad at players who would crouch over when tired, hands on their knees indicating they were blowing with exertion.
He would implore the players to suck in the oxygen and stand tall in an almost defiant message to the opposition that they would not be broken.
And the second-half display was very much in that mould.
Time and again the Hoppers defensive line absorbed what the visitors threw at them.
Like a boxer on the ropes, they took a number of blows but they were never knocked out. Three times the opposition were held up over the try line, whilst on several other occasions they hauled an attacker down inches from the line with a try looking destined to be scored.
Two rare forays into the attacking half allowed the supreme Taylor to kick two further penalties and take the hosts into a six-point lead of their own.
Again body language continued to tell the story.
Whilst Hoppers were organised and quick to regain their feet and get back in the defensive line, the visitors seemed to be taking longer and longer to get themselves back into play.
In the end, Harrogate simply ran out of ideas as to how to unlock the watertight Hoppers defence.
Hoppers defensive organisation has, for the most part, been their strength this season.
A top-half finish now seems achievable and that will be a clear sign of progress and a base for the team to push on again next term.