Gareth Dyer's rugby column
Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening PostThis weekend brings down the curtain on another league season at Lightfoot Green.
There have been frustrations but overall I feel it has been a season of progress as the club seeks to return to competing at the top of the National Two North table.
There have been a number of superb victories but these have been undone by frustrating avoidable defeats.
Three drawn games came at stages of the season where a consistent run of victories would have placed the team securely in the top half.
The weather has been a factor, with a lot of wet-weather rugby being played, whilst the depth of the squad has been tested with more than 50 players having appeared in the league campaign.
I don’t think it is a secret that the squad was thin in a couple of key positions as the season started and this probably contributed to the sticky start over the opening two months.
But the return of a couple of players who departed during the summer – proving that the lure and promises of higher ranked rugby isn’t necessarily all it seems – gave the squad the balance it needed and put the season back on an even keel.
So here is my best and worst from what I’ve seen from the Lightfoot Green outfit over the last eight months.
Doing the double over bogey team Stourbridge – the first wins over the Midlands outfit since the sides were reunited in National Two North – were excellent results, whilst the rearguard win over Harrogate with 14 men for an hour also deserves mention.
But for me the pre-Christmas victory over Lancashire neighbours Sedgley Park was as good a performance as we have seen at the Green for several seasons.
Played in a torrential downpour against a side in the top two, the control and game management hinted that some of the younger players are starting to come of age.
Contriving to throw away dominant positions in both the home and away games against Caldy would have irritated the coaching staff, whilst a similar story in defeat at Tynedale would have no doubt had them reaching for bottle.
But perhaps the most disappointing reverse came in the 26-8 defeat at then bottom-of-the-table Broadstreet.
A week after a great win at Stourbridge, the team never got going and let slip a great opportunity to build early season momentum.
I don’t know if the players were complacent after their previous week’s heroics but a valuable lesson was hopefully learnt.
Player of the Season
Sean Taylor’s class has again been evident, whilst skipper Andy Napier has put his body on the line week in week out.
The durability of Ally Murray, Tomlinson, Woof and Altham has provided a reliable core but the weekly excellence of openside Will Lees has shone.
Lees has evolved from a tackling machine – his tackle stats remain through the roof – but crucially his work on the floor at the breakdown has improved.
He is now slowing down opposition ball and forcing crucial turnovers. Lees’ work-rate is immense and if he can improve his handling and link play then he will become a complete player.
Young Player of the Season
Hoppers have again continued to give a number of youngsters their opportunity to play National League rugby.
Hooker Christian Taylor has produced a number of big performances, whilst John McKenzie has stepped into the boiler room of the second row and shown a big appetite for work.
But for me the standout young player has been scrum half Harry Moulding.
He has a strong skill set with a physical presence that keeps opposition defences honest. He has scored some crucial tries – the winner at Stourbridge being a superb solo effort.
If he can avoid niggling injuries and continue to develop his game management then his battle with Sam Whyte for the No.9 shirt will only benefit both and the club.
Over the course of the season it is probably fair to say that the side threw away 15 to 20 league points – be it from relinquishing winning positions or missing out on bonus points.
If even half of these had been taken then the side would have been in the top six and it shows how fine the margins are in what has been a very competitive division.
The defensive record has again been tidy but there is much improvement to be made in attack.
Finding the balance between defensive solidity and attacking intensity is tricky but more creativity needs to be found to make the next step.
A stable off-season is now paramount to ensure the progress made can be built on and the noises I am hearing point to the club having learnt some lessons in this respect.
Retention of the existing squad, allied to two or three quality additions, and the top six next season will be realistic.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my column this season.
I’m off to enjoy my other wet-weather sport – cricket! Enjoy your summer.