Hoppers hold on to trophy

Hoppers' Neil Ashton turned back the clock
Hoppers' Neil Ashton turned back the clock
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Fylde 17 Preston Grasshoppers 17

Preston Grasshoppers retained the Brendan Hanavan Trophy in a game which could hardly have been more different from last year’s inaugural staging of this charity challenge match.

Perfect conditions a year ago produced a feast of running rugby and a hatful of tries as Hoppers ran out winners of the cup named in memory of former Fylde winger Hanavan, who died of oral cancer in 2013.

This Easter, miserable weather restricted free-flowing play, but produced a closer game – Hoppers dominating the first half for a 17-5 lead, but Fylde piling on the pressure after the break to drag the scores level in the closing minutes.

Both clubs fielded mixed squads, including some who hung up their boots a while ago, current first-team players and potential stars of the future from their more junior sides.

After 16 minutes, Fylde’s experienced backs Richard Kenyon and Mark Evans combined to mount a dangerous attack into the visitors’ 22.

But the ball was lost and Hoppers full-back Mark Murray launched a counter-attack which ended with young winger Jacob Brown racing clear for an unconverted try.

In the build-up, Fylde lock Carlos Davies was adjudged to have put in a late tackle and was sin-binned by referee Andy Taylorson.

Twenty minutes later, Fylde levelled matters when a penalty to the corner and driving maul from the line-out ended with Evans finding space on the narrow side for a try which was unconverted.

Centre Niall Crossley was creating constant problems in the Fylde defence and it was his burst which set up the situation from which former Hoppers first-team hooker Richie Sands went close, before Cameron Berry found space on the blindside to crash over for another unconverted touchdown.

On the stroke of half-time, Crossley got his own reward for his efforts, charging clear for a try converted by Tom Peterson.

On the resumption, Fylde dominated for long periods, but took 17 minutes to set the scoreboard moving again. Sustained pressure and a succession of penalties and scrums eventually paid off when front-row forward Alex Loney was driven over.

Again the try went unconverted.

Hoppers continued to have to defend as coaches Ian Cosh, for Fylde, and Preston’s Michael Lough rang the changes with a stream of benchmen given their moment of glory.

Time was fast running out when the hosts made the vital breakthrough, full-back Warren Spragg dotting down between the posts and Sevens expert Zag Yabia converting with a drop goal to get the game restarted as quickly as possible.

Fylde first-team prop Danny Birchall may have wished he had not done so, as he was sent off for an alleged stamp.

Hoppers poured forward against the 14 men, but a penalty attempt failed and a last-minute line-out in the corner also proved fruitless. Nevertheless, they keep the trophy for another year, as holders in a drawn game.

Hoppers’ Neil Ashton put in a 50-minute stint that evoked memories of his massive contribution in years past.