Rough justice for Preston Grasshoppers? Certainly, many knowledgeable rugby-watchers thought so after this fourth successive home defeat in National League Two North.
Unlike their soccer counterparts, most rugby coaches are generally wary of publicly criticising officials and Hoppers’ Michael Lough diplomatically confined himself to a restrained.
He said: “We feel genuinely hard done by. We are a little confused as to how we were on the receiving end of two yellow cards when there were none for the opposition. We have really concentrated on our discipline, but some days the interpretation goes against you.”
However, many spectators in the clubhouse afterwards were baffled by referee Chris Bennett’s handling of a game fought out in mostly difficult playing conditions and in which Luctonians, with the majority of possession, adopted a predominantly one-dimensional strategy, even when they had a two-man advantage.
A game of many contentious talking points ended in the most unsatisfactory way. After losing a 7-0 halftime lead, Hoppers had battled their way right up to the visitors’ line, where two successive scrums ended in penalties against the Luctonians pack as Hoppers went for a match-clinching stoppage-time pushover try.
The scrum was set for the third time, with Hoppers’ dominance looking likely to bring at least a score for the pack, at worst a penalty try.
Instead, replacement scrum-half Craig Aikman was penalised for a crooked feed and the referee instantly blew for full time.
It all left a very bitter taste, especially when fans reflected on Preston’s two sinbinnings – Mo Mustafa’s in a relatively harmless midfield position and, two minutes later, Sam Wallbank’s in the shadow of his own posts for a debatable offside. That signalled an enormous siege of the home line and, despite many minutes of defensive heroics, Hoppers finally succumbed to a try by No 8 Brad Talbot, converted by Tom Jones.
Added to Jones’s penalty early in the second half, that put Luctonians ahead for the first time with 15 minutes left.But it was a reflection of the visitors’ unambitious approach that they had kept battering away through their forwards when spinning the ball along the backs would surely have found the gaps in the 13-man defence.
Hoppers had taken the lead after 25 minutes when their own series of forward drives led to Killian Wallace barging over, with new fly-half Lloyd Davies adding the conversion. The recruit from Wharfedale had earlier hit the post twice with penalty attempts from 35 metres.
On the match in general, Lough said: “We defended particularly well throughout and came in 7-0 up at half-time despite having not touched the ball a lot.”
Once again forced into a number of changes, Lough had praise for the new half-back pairing of Lloyd – not a natural No 10 – and Tom Smith, as well as the non-stop efforts of prop Dan Madden and flanker Wallace in a battling display by the whole pack.
l There was no better luck for Hoppers full-back Sean Taylor, who came on as a replacement for England Counties in their 15-16 defeat by a France Federale XV in Nevers. Fylde’s Chris Johnson scored a try, penalty and conversion and clubmate Chris Briers was also in the starting line-up.
Nevertheless, the defeat allowed Luctonians to leapfrog them into 10th place as Preston face leaders Darlington Mowden Park next Saturday.