Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post
“How are you lot near the bottom? You’re a much better team than the table suggests…”
If I had a pound for every time I have heard that said about Preston Grasshoppers over the last few weeks, I would have the princely sum of...£14.
Not a king’s ransom but you get my drift.
The thing is – without stating the obvious – Hoppers are bottom of the table.
And the fourteen who would be adding £1 to my Christmas Drinks collection are all supporters of clubs who currently sit in the top half of the table.
For again on Saturday against second-placed Sale FC, the Hoppers side showed that they can mix it with the best in the table.
The home side were physical, committed and played with continued intensity that had been sadly lacking in the previous week’s bottom-of-the-table encounter at Harrogate.
If there had been possession and territory statistics available for last Saturday’s game then I reckon, bar an opening quarter onslaught from the highly-fancied visitors, the Lightfoot Green outfit would have dominated both over the course of the 80 minutes.
The tenacity of the Hoppers defence in that opening 20 minutes was in contrast to what went a long way to costing them the previous week’s game.
The passive almost non-existent defence in the opening quarter at Harrogate was replaced with aggression, technique and physicality that was high on energy and organisation.
The day-tripping pensioners in West Yorkshire last week really had been replaced by the prairie dogs. To be blunt, they brought the right attitude and their body language looked a whole lot better.
In the second quarter the hosts took the game to the high-flying Sale offshoot and showed that they have what it takes to be a competitive outfit.
They scored a nice try through the again impressive Tom Forster and the forwards carried with an intent that took too long to surface the previous week.
I felt they deserved more from the officials who I thought gave no 50:50 decisions to the home side all afternoon.
Three times Hoppers had catch-and-drives for the home line in that period before half time. On two occasions they were in control and moving steadily to the line when the visitors cynically pulled the maul down.
On one occasion that was done a couple of metres short of the try line. To me it was a clear penalty try and yellow card offence, given it was a clear professional foul.
That it wasn’t given only added to the frustration when the official did precisely that and awarded the visitors a penalty try whilst sin-binning a home forward shortly after the re-start.
Small margins, tight decisions perhaps, but a bit of consistency wouldn’t have gone amiss.
At half time with the score 14-11 to the visitors, there was a palpable sense that this was a game that could be won.
However, a slow 10 minutes after half-time allowed the promotion chasing opposition to get far enough ahead to make things comfortable on the scoreboard.
But that was the only place it was comfortable.
For the final half-an-hour, Hoppers battered away at the visitors and almost set up camp in the Sale FC 22.
Time and again they got close to the line, time and again the away side infringed.
Yellow cards were issued and at one point the visitors were down to 13 men and still with just less than 20 minutes left to play.
Hoppers really needed to score at that point. That they created only half-chances to do so would have been a frustration.
In some respects, when you have a team down to 13 and you are battering away at their line, taking the easy three3-point option of a penalty kick can strangely be the right option.
Get a quick three points on the board and you will get the ball back from the re-start. But more importantly you draw the defending team out of their lair.
Goal-line defence is almost easier for a team short on numbers than it is in the wider field. When you on your own line the short-handed defence does not commit numbers to the tackle area and can fill the field with the numbers it has.
They can also operate a blitz defence to pressure the ball which on a wet day can be enough to cause handling mistakes. That is what transpired on Saturday where Hoppers tried to force the ball in deteriorating conditions.
If they had taken a kick option, the visiting defence would have found their decision making harder having to then return to half way to restart the game.
You cannot operate a blitz defence as easily on the halfway line when you are short of numbers as it leaves plenty of space in behind to be exploited.
It might be perverse but it is often easier to open up a short-numbered defence from distance than it is closer to the line.
Unfortunately, Hoppers didn’t have the heavy carriers or subtlety to open the Sale FC defence when they were camped in their 22 in those final 20 minutes.
But they should still take one important positive lesson out of last weekend’s game.
If Hoppers can bring the same mentality, intensity and mental approach to those games to come against sides in mid and lower table then they will get their rewards in the second half of the season.
The league table might make for uncomfortable viewing at present, but I came away from Saturday’s match with the opinion that Hoppers fortunes this season are very much within their control if they can maintain the desire that was evident last Saturday.