Gareth Dyer's rugby column

Great sporting comebacks provide drama, excitement and usually a real sense of theatre.

Thursday, 9th March 2017, 10:13 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:59 am
Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green Gareth Dyer

On Wednesday night Barcelona completed probably one of the most memorable with their miraculous comeback win over Paris St Germain.

As the game built to its finale, the momentum behind the eventual winners was so total it was as if the losing side had almost stepped off the field and just allowed Barca to walk the ball into the net.

For whilst comebacks empower the winners with an overwhelming belief that they will prevail, for the vanquished the complete sense of powerlessness can be almost frightening.

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At Lightfoot Green last Saturday, I witnessed another comeback win whereby the two sides of the comeback rollercoaster were clearly evident.

As one team grew in belief and stature so the opposition started to shrink. Suddenly everything which had been going right, started to go wrong for one side, whilst the team which had been hopeless in the opening half of the game found a collective certainty of judgement that quickly built into an unstoppable march to the victory post.

Unfortunately for Hoppers, it was they who wilted under the pressure having promised in the opening 50 minutes of their game against Luctonians to take control in their battle for National Two North league survival.

Luctonians arrived in Lancashire in miserable form with just one win in 12.

Beforehand the talk was that a decent Hoppers win – ideally with a four-try bonus point – could deliver a huge psychological blow to the visitors.

In the first 40 minutes, it appeared to be going with what many had predicted before kick-off.

Hoppers’ recent signing at scrum-half Ryan Glynn was orchestrating play from an armchair ride provided by a pack of forwards that had the bit between their teeth.

At scrum time, the home side had the visitors on toast with a stream of impressive drives resulting in several penalties and a penalty try.

At 17-0 up at half-time, the omens were good.

It appeared not to matter that Hoppers had wasted one golden try scoring opportunity with a forward pass, nor that the referee had been overly lenient to the visitors.

No, at half-time it was about Hoppers retaining their mental focus.

It is a mystery of sport that a team can play so well in one half and then be so poor in another. For that was what Hoppers were.

Only the players themselves will know what changed in their own mentalities that meant they surrendered the second half so meekly. If they thought the game was won, then they have learned nothing from the crushing last-play defeats at the hands of Harrogate and Scunthorpe earlier in the season.

Whether the visitors turned up in the second half or not – and they most certainly did – the home side’s hunger to finish the job should have ensured total focus.

Instead the initiative was surrendered with a slow – in some cases sloppy – start to the second half and with it the visitors’ comeback was on.

The sense of panic in the home ranks was almost palpable. An increasing penalty count – some Hoppers players clearly do not know the tackle/breakdown laws or refereeing interpretations – just fed the visitors’ limited but very effective tactics of securing territory and applying a strong driving game.

To this end the loss to injury of Matt Frings in the first half was a bigger blow than was realised at the time. Frings is an intelligent reader of the breakdown and knows when and most crucially when not to commit to the battle. Some players visibly wilted in the physical battle, perhaps showing the scars of a tough season and many close defeats.

The final winning try, whilst controversial – I was next to the touch judge and how he could see the ball was grounded was at best guesswork, at worst incompetence – had almost an air of inevitability about it, such was the close-quarter control the visiting side had wrestled from the now almost compliant home team.

That the visitors also headed back down the M6 with a try bonus point was a hammer blow in the survival battle.

Whether it will be the knockout blow remains to be seen. Yes, survival is still achievable but it will largely depend on how mentally strong the Hoppers squad are.

On the evidence of last Saturday’s second half, many of the players will have some big psychological demons to overcome if they are to 
deliver a great escape.