Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post:
It has been a good few weeks for the men from Lightfoot Green with four wins and a draw coming from their last six games.
The pre-Christmas win over Sedgely Park made for particularly satisfying viewing, given the monsoon like conditions and that the visitors were second in the table.
The performance had the large crowd in raptures and the buzz in the clubhouse afterwards was tangible.
The positive run of results has seen the team play some smart rugby, particularly so given the poor weather conditions experienced during November and December.
Noticeable improvements have come in the form of a reduced error count, whilst the team is now showing a collective patience during games.
This was particularly the case against Sedgely, where the home side found themselves two tries down early on.
Instead of chasing the game and putting themselves under more pressure – as has been an unwanted feature over the last 18 months – they built their way back into the game by taking territory and then retaining possession for long spells in the opposition half.
This, in turn, brought penalties and scoring opportunities which allowed the Lightfoot Green men to build their own score and turn pressure onto the opposition.
They were certainly more comfortable in victory than the three-point margin suggests.
At Sale last Saturday, there was further evidence that the team continues to improve in attack.
That they scored three tries overall was pleasing whilst in the first 40 minutes at Heywood Road, Hoppers created a number of promising moves.
Led by the strong ball-carrying of their indomitable skipper Andy Napier, they opened up the home defence on a number of occasions and had the hosts on the back foot for most of the opening half.
The only criticism would be that they weren’t as clinical as they had been in the games against Huddersfield and Sedgely.
A smart opening score for Scott Jordan – who is looking a regular try-scoring threat with four in his last two games – was all the visitors had to show for their enterprise in attack.
By my reckoning they could have secured the four-try bonus point by half-time and perhaps put the game to bed.
They will also feel they should have closed the game out in the second half, particularly when they were eight points ahead with less than 10 minutes to play.
However, that would have been harsh on the home side, who themselves put a lot into the game in what was good entertainment for the spectator.
What is reassuring is that Hoppers are creating chances in games.
Nine tries in their last three games is testament to that and it is something that they have to continue to improve on if they are going to further climb the table during the second half of the season.
Hoppers have been defensively solid for the last two seasons with their defensive stats showing them to be hard to break down.
Last season their defensive record was the sixth best in the division – despite their lowly league placing – and it is currently the fifth best this time around.
If they can continue to be defensively tight and hard to break down then it will only require a modest improvement in their scoring record to achieve a top-half finish.
As the saying goes “defence wins matches…attack decides by how many.”
A top-half finish this season would represent solid progress and build belief in what we must remember is a young squad at Lightfoot Green.
Momentum is a big thing in sport and 2016 represents an opportunity for Hoppers to start to re-establish themselves as contenders in National Two.
For that to happen there has to be stability in both the coaching ranks and the playing squad.
Over the last few seasons there has been too high a turnover of players and this has stalled progress.
Too much time has been spent in the last few off seasons having to replace departed players, rather than adding the missing ingredients to the mix.
Whilst the coaching team of Alan Holmes, Garth Dew and Olly Viney are secure in their positions, I would like to see the club come out and publicly back the trio with, say, three-year deals, making it clear where the club wants to go on the field. The trio are growing in experience and it is the club that will benefit from this in the coming seasons.
Tie them down now and allow them to build on the progress being made.
This should then also follow through to the playing squad.
I understand that a number of key players are with the club for the foreseeable future but I would be further encouraged if the club signed up its promising youngsters on longer-term deals also.
As a supporter, I want to see how far this group of players can go.
The signs are bright and I sense that the supporters are beginning to believe once more.