Preston Grasshoppers gave promotion contenders Hull Ionians an almighty fright before succumbing to a narrow defeat which could take nothing away from a magnificent defensive effort.
All four of the visitors’ touchdowns came from close range, thanks to their powerful pack, while it was left to Hoppers to thrill the fans with a trio of classy tries from their backs.
Despite the obvious disappointment of another home defeat, Hoppers were able to take plenty of pluses – and a bonus point – from another gutsy performance against a top side, just as they did at Ampthill last month.
“We had chances to win and that’s satisfying,” said head coach Garth Dew. “We were really disappointing in the second half last week, but, apart from that, our levels have gone up massively recently. Our intensity was excellent.
“Ionians dominated territorially in the second half and deserved to win on balance, but this was a strong defensive performance and our three tries were probably the best of the season.”
One area where Hoppers struggled was at the line-out, where they hardly ever threatened Hull’s throw, and they crucially lost a scrum on their own put-in to concede a try. But they had manfully coped with three successive scrums on their own line in the opening stages and eventually escaped upfield, where Lewis Allen missed a touchline penalty attempt.
It was 19 minutes before the scoreboard sprang to life – and what a score it was. Preston turned over Hull ball in their own 22 and a kick through was beautifully gathered by full-back Mark Murray who sent Scott Jordan away on a touchline sprint. The winger’s perfectly-timed inside pass gave scrum-half Sam Kindred a clear run to the line, with Allen converting.
A Kindred break set up the position from which Allen landed a penalty for a stunning 10-0 lead, but Ionians hit back with a close-range try from lock Joe Makin, with home No 8 Chris Taylor being sinbinned for an offence in the build-up.
Isaac Green converted and brought the sides level with a penalty, but the last word of the first half went to Hoppers when a burst by centre Sam Russell sent Allen away on a mazy run for a solo try, which he also converted.
Hull were back level five minutes into the second half when No 8 Danny Hague swept over from a scrum, with Green adding the extra two points.
Things got worse for the hosts with Ionians bagging the next two touchdowns (and the bonus point), with flanker Joe Sanders and Makin both crashing over from a few metres out, although there was a distinct suggestion of a knock-on before Makin’s.
Chris Reakes converted but again the hosts fashioned a superb back-line try, with the excellent Russell charging out of his own half and having the vision to put in a crossfield kick to which Jordan easily outpaced the bedraggled defence.
Allen’s conversion put his side back in sight of a losing bonus point, but there were still nerve-jangling moments to get through in the six minutes of stoppage time. Reakes missed a simple penalty and Ionians camped upfield as the clock ticked down, but were unable to find another way through Preston’s resolute defence.
They may have slipped back to 12th place but there is an encouraging return of form – and a crucial 11-point gap above the National League Two North relegation zone.