Hoppers undone by favourites

Try time: Hoppers Matt Hughes was a try scorer for Hoppers on Saturday
Try time: Hoppers Matt Hughes was a try scorer for Hoppers on Saturday
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Preston Grasshoppers 23 Stourbridge 35

Stourbridge showed why they are firm favourites for promotion from National League Two North when they held off a second-half rally by Preston Grasshoppers to pick up the four-try bonus point six minutes into stoppage time.

In the process, they denied Hoppers a losing bonus point, although the home side had already secured their own four-try bonus.

There were two schools of thought in the Lightfoot Green clubhouse about the visitors’ performance – “cynical” or the more forgiving “streetwise”. Certainly, many home fans felt that Stourbridge took beyond the limit their offending at the tackle and in the set scrum.

Stourbridge’s huge pack were always going to pose problems for Hoppers and Preston were often shunted backwards. But the league leaders offered very little of a constructive nature away from the forward exchanges – Hoppers coach Michael Lough diplomatically described them as a side “very good at doing just a few things”.

He added: “We were under huge pressure in our own 22, but we stuck at it 100 per cent – every man from 1 to 20. I’m proud of them and I’ve got a lot of faith in those guys.

“Two defeats in a row is not good enough, but we are not throwing out a game plan which has got a lot of mileage in it.”

Stourbridge took just five minutes to record their first points – an unconverted try by winger Sam Baker from a neat chip-through – but it was well into the second quarter before they got going again, first from a simple penalty by Jamie Hearn and then a try by centre Ben Barkley, well converted by Hearn.

Hoppers had had their moments, but Sean Taylor missed a mid-range penalty and it was five minutes from half-time when he opened their account with his second attempt. Stourbridge had survived a succession of offences as Hoppers pressed hard, but referee Andrew Vertigan kept his yellow card in his pocket, despite issuing a warning to the visitors.

That was a decision which became even more contentious midway through the second half when Hoppers’ first real offence in the “red zone” resulted in a penalty try as Stourbridge went for the pushover.

In the meantime, though, Hoppers had battled back into the game, despite Hearn putting them 3-18 down with another penalty right after the break.

Sleight of hand by fly-half Karl Fitzpatrick – helped from the field in a very wobbly state later in the game after a blow to the head – opened up the defence for him to dive over the line; and two minutes later, as Stourbridge started to look rattled for the first time, Sam Kindred’s deep kick was fumbled by a defender and Matt Hughes pounced to race over.

Sadly, the usually reliable Taylor missed both conversions in appalling conditions – in all, 11 points with the boot went begging for Hoppers, while Hearn landed six out of seven kicks.

But having fought back to 13-18, Hoppers conceded that penalty try with 20 minutes left.

Still, man of the match Jack Ward hit back with another unconverted try, but Hearn’s third penalty gave Stourbridge breathing space again. Skipper Dominic Moon charged over for Hoppers’ vital fourth try and they were within sight of the losing bonus point too.

But one final cruel twist saw yet another Stourbridge forward surge take them 12 points clear through Nigel Mukarati’s try, converted by the inevitable Hearn.