Former Preston Grasshoppers star and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post
Ah…the opening day. The anticipation, the excitement, the nervousness.
Prior to kick-off there are the unknowns but hopefully, come full-time, there are some answers too.
Has player recruitment been strong? Are the lads looking sharp or undercooked? Was the balance in selection correct? Have the problems of last season been addressed?
But perhaps most importantly, are we in for a good season…or a long one?
Hoppers’ opening day was a difficult assignment away at Chester. The home side has a strong home record stretching back over a number of seasons.
In fact, Chester have proved a difficult opposition for the men from Lightfoot Green with no wins from any of the last four meetings.
So beforehand, the travelling support were no doubt wary of what to expect from their trip to Cheshire.
Every team want to get off to a positive start. With drawn games in rugby union a rarity, a definitive result was probable.
But, with bonus points available for losing by seven points or fewer (the ‘Losing Bonus Point’) and for scoring four tries (the ‘Try Bonus Point’), the visitors’ mentality would have included the mind-set that taking something from a tough away fixture would have been quietly acceptable before kick-off.
Hoppers suffered a narrow 19-15 loss but were rewarded for a tenacious display with a losing bonus point to open their account for the season.
Bonus points accumulated over a season can make a huge difference to the final league position.
Last season Hoppers accumulated 20 bonus points from their 30 league games, with 10 being of the ‘LBP’ variety. These were crucial in keeping the side out of trouble.
Knowing the coaches as I do, given that their side was in contention right up to the final whistle, I am sure they would have been disappointed not to take the win.
If we look at the result in the context of whether problems from last season have been addressed, then the closeness of the defeat would suggest that the inability to win close games remains an issue.
It is something that needs to be resolved quickly. Too often last year, Hoppers threw away winning positions or lacked the nous to steal a win in finely balanced games.
On the positive side, the coaches will have been thrilled that the back line carried an attacking threat and scored two tries and “created mayhem” throughout the game.
They would have been pleased at the defensive effort – a strength from last season – with the team again hard to break down, and that the sprinkling of new young players in the side have stood up to one of the strongest teams in the league in their own back yard.
But a number of questions remain unanswered. The side was starved of possession for long periods and inaccuracy at the set-piece was a disappointment given how well the pack went last year.
There is a question mark about the overall strength of the squad – particularly up front – with the depth in certain positions an issue that has to be addressed by the powers at the club.
The turnover of players at Lightfoot Green is troubling.
Last season was a battle for a generally inexperienced side but having come through a tough season with credit it was felt that momentum and a growing belief had been instilled ahead of the 2015/16 season.
To the coaches and supporters disappointment, just as the belief that a challenge for a top-four finish was a realistic proposition, the loss of five players who played a big part last season disrupted the coaching staff’s preparations for the new campaign.
Yet again it has been another off-season spent trying to replace the departed rather than adding the finishing touches to an already decent squad.
Against that backdrop, Saturday’s display must be seen as a positive start.
It is important that the team builds on last weekend’s endeavor with a win in the first home game against Sale FC this weekend.
Being a World Cup season heightens the importance of the coming campaign for Preston Grasshoppers.
For Hoppers, the World Cup provides the opportunity to engage further with the local sporting public and welcome potential new rugby fans into the club.
I have my reservations about the organisation of the tournament, particularly the massive hike in ticket prices for the key games.
With prices increased by as much as 300% – when compared to Six Nations ticket prices – for the high profile games, I know a lot of fans have been left angry at what appears to be gross profiteering.
Due to this exploitation of the normal fan and as a point of principle, I have decided not to apply for tickets to any of the games.
Turning to matters on the pitch at Lightfoot Green, there is pressure to deliver a successful campaign. After third and fourth finishes in 2011/12 and 2012/13, the last two seasons the team has finished in lower mid-table.
It was a frustration whilst I was director of rugby that we couldn’t build on those two high placed finishes.
On the positive side, the signings of Ollie Viney and Sean Taylor are two high quality additions. Viney is a top level performer and his involvement at the end of last season as a coach stamped his mark on the back play.
His dual player-coach role will see him become a big influence.
The return of Sean Taylor is equally important. In more than 30 years watching Hoppers, Sean is one of the best players I have seen at the club.