Gareth Dyer's rugby column

In last week's column I urged this Preston Grasshoppers team to put in the complete performance that they are capable of '“ but had not yet delivered '“ in their basement scrap at Harrogate.

Friday, 9th December 2016, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th December 2016, 1:33 pm
Preston Grasshoppers

To do this a good start to the match was imperative so as to take the initiative.

The challenge was then to sustain a level of performance with no gifts given to an opposition team low on confidence.

Unfortunately, the performance delivered in front of the travelling band of Hoppers supporters in West Yorkshire was yet another frustrating display with the very good balanced by the almost ridiculous.

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In the final reckoning it was also another example of this Lightfoot Green outfit grabbing a costly defeat from the jaws of a much needed victory.

Yet again a dismally slow start to the game was a large part of Hoppers undoing.

The difference in body language between the two sides as they took the field was stark.

Strangely the home side were first onto the field and they raced out of the dressing room, as Bill McLaren would have said, “like mad prairie dogs.”

In contrast Hoppers sauntered onto the field with the ferocity of a bunch of day-tripping pensioners on a visit to Harrogate’s famous Betty’s Tea Rooms.

A friend of mine at the game who is the most casual of casual rugby supporter – he probably watches two games a year at most – was quick to say, having observed this, that he thought the home side might soon be in front.

Now I don’t think he has a history in fortune telling but that prediction couldn’t have been more precise if it had come from Mystic Meg herself.

From the kick-off the home side swarmed forward and within 90 seconds had their first try on the board.

The festive season of giving might shortly be upon us but it appeared that the Hoppers defence were intent on starting their period of generosity somewhat early.

Unfortunately, this soft easy score did exactly what I had warned against in last week’s column.

It gave the home side belief and confidence and, for the next 20 minutes, it was all one-way traffic.

The Hoppers defence that I had talked up as being a strength was – to put it mildly – found wanting in both technique and physicality.

Players whose defence is normally a strength to their game fell off tackles with alarming ease.

The Hoppers back row’s inability to slow down the breakdown meant that the defensive line speed was slowed to almost walking pace.

In no time Hoppers were 18-0 down and staring down the barrel.

And then it happened.

Hoppers showed us what we know they are capable of and can deliver when they get the mental side to their game right.

Between the 30th and 70th minutes, Hoppers blew away the home side with a display of pace, intensity and skill that made you wonder why they had started so poorly.

Suddenly the ball carriers carried with some intent, runners started coming onto the ball with depth and pace and the ball handling skills returned with the visitors opening up the home defence almost at will.

They were led by the likes of Roddy and Forster who both looked hungry for work and led from the front while the half-backs directed their team around the field with authority that is too often in short supply.

After 65 minutes on the clock Hoppers led 26-18 having scored 26 unanswered points and three tries in the process – two of which were superb team tries finished off by Messrs Harrison and Browne.

The home supporters had given the game up and the only thing left was for Hoppers to score their fourth try of the afternoon to secure a try bonus point and return to Lancashire with a much needed five league points.

And then it happened.

I made it six minutes left on the clock when Harrogate kicked a penalty to get themselves back within a converted score and secure at least a losing bonus point.

Over the last couple of seasons Hoppers have seen a large number of games get away from them in the crucial final minutes.

Given that, you would think that every player in the Hoppers squad has it imprinted on them as to what is required in order to see a game out.

Essentially it is all about possession.

Get the ball, keep the ball and if you can do that in the opposition half so much the better.

If you can’t get control of the ball, then it becomes about territory.

It is essential to make the opposition then play from their own 22.

Keep your discipline and retain a good defensive structure and keep the opposition pinned down with nowhere to go.

That Hoppers could control neither possession or territory was again to prove their downfall.

Twice in the last three minutes Hoppers had possession of the ball.

Twice they gave it away.

When they had Harrogate pinned in their own half, soft penalties were conceded and the lack of authority in defence returned at the worst possible time.

There was an air of almost inevitability when the home fly-half blasted through two technically poor tackles to score the winning try.

A stark difference in the body language of the two teams had returned by the final whistle.

Prairie dogs and pensioners had given way to the victors and the vanquished.

It is time for Hoppers to become the former on both counts.