Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post
Last Saturday saw Hoppers play on a dry pitch with the sun on their backs at last.
And with a bumper crowd packed into Lightfoot Green as part of the club’s family fun day, it certainly seemed to put a spring in the step of the home side.
Eight tries and plenty of running rugby were on show as Hoppers made mathematically sure of their status for next season and hinted at what they are capable of in attack, when playing conditions are supportive.
For most of this season the weather has had a major influence on the playing style.
Wet weather rugby on mudd,y sticky pitches has generally meant sides have adopted a pragmatic approach and had to grind out wins.
Whilst this isn’t perhaps the way the Hoppers coaching staff would want their team to play, it is to their credit that they have been able to adapt to the poor weather and wet pitches that have dominated the season.
As a result, Hoppers have certainly improved their game-management and tight game.
But one glance at the ‘points for’ column – especially before the weekend thumping of Huddersfield – showed the Lightfoot Green side to have one of the weakest point-scoring records in the division.
Hoppers are not a physically imposing team but are built for speed and sustained intensity.
The pack is mobile and has a high work rate, with the metronomic Will Lees the epitome of this approach.
Behind the scrum the attacking skills and pace of the likes of Sean Taylor, Scott Jordan, Ollie Viney, Lewis Allen, Charlie Hough – and last weekend’s exciting debutant Jacob Browne – are as good as anybody in the division.
But when the rain is torrential and the pitches soft, running out of defence or trying to execute attacking moves is not always easy – or sensible.
But put those players on a “fast track” and they will burn those bulkier sides who try to play their weight and outmuscle the Hoppers side.
It is therefore interesting that the Lightfoot Green club have been earmarked as one of six initial sites that would benefit from an RFU initiative to install 100 artificial pitches up and down the country.
In essence, Hoppers are seen as the perfect “pilot” club to start the project – given the vast numbers of men, women and children that use the Lightfoot Green facilities each week.
When announcing the project the RFU stated that the major driver for installing artificial pitches was, ‘to sustain and grow participation in the game against a backdrop of increasing pressure on natural turf pitches, changing player expectations, competition from other sports investing in artificial pitches and changing weather conditions’.
And in terms of those weather conditions the RFU’s own data showed that over the past four years the wetter winters were having a serious impact on the rugby season, with more games and training sessions being cancelled than ever before.
For example in February 2014, 1,766 adult games were lost over two weekends due to bad weather, whilst more than 600 natural turf pitches remained unplayable for three weeks afterwards.
So whilst the opportunity to have an artificial pitch will come with various conditions for the club’s officers to digest and evaluate, it is clear that the potential benefits to Hoppers 1st XV could be more than just a nice new pitch.
For it is that idea of “changing player expectations” that is key.
Playing at National League level is a huge commitment.
The training and travelling demands are high.
The players who take to the pitch for Hoppers are extremely fit and work very hard at their conditioning.
The monetary rewards on offer are not life changing, so it is important that players feel they are able to contribute come matchday and get the most amount of enjoyment out of their playing careers.
Teams that want to play a pragmatic style of rugby whatever the conditions are not going to appeal to all players.
Teams that use their back three players just to chase kicks and play aerial ping-pong would waste the talents of players like Scott Jordan or Charlie Hough for example.
But the mind-set of playing on a fast pitch each week where ball-in-play time is likely to be higher will lend itself to recruiting and retaining skilful players who can be creative in attack.
This will hopefully lead to an attractive style of play which appeals to supporters and ensure that the Lightfoot Green crowds continue to increase.
Thus, consistent underfoot conditions – as we saw last Saturday – will allow the Hoppers coaches and players to play in the style to which they aspire.
So whilst these decisions are never straightforward, I hope the figures and control issues involved in the initiative do add up for the Hoppers club.
If they do, then that will hopefully put the Hoppers side on the fast track to greater playing riches.