Preston Grasshoppers ended the first half of the season – and hopefully their “exile” on the second-team pitch – with a familiar failure to make the most of their chances and spring an upset on second-placed Sale.
They spent a full 25 minutes, in a very strange second half, battering away at the visitors’ line without being able to add to the 11 points before the break which had raised hopes of a major upset by the club at the bottom of National League Two North.
Referee Alex Thomas will no doubt long remember his first visit to Lightfoot Green, having dished out four yellow cards, 16 penalties and a penalty try in the second 40 minutes. Hoppers will just be happy to be able to play on their new artificial grass pitch in the New Year and see if it suits their style of rugby rather better.
Head coach Garth Dew said: “It’s the same old messages – panicking and being impatient in their 22, coughing up ball, showing little bits of inexperience; we don’t seem to be learning the lessons.
“It was a very scrappy game and we managed the first half well. Our attitude and endeavour was not at fault, we put bodies on the line and went toe-to-toe with one of the biggest sides in this league. But we started poorly in the second half and then failing to make the most of all that pressure shows a lack of accuracy in our play.
“We needed the new pitch a month ago; it will suit our strengths more and bring a better buzz.”
Sale started strongly, despite the loss of ex-Fylde lock Gareth Rawlings to a shoulder injury after just seven minutes, and took the lead four minutes later when his brother Scott burst over in the corner. Liam McGovern converted, but Hoppers hit back and went close after a loose ball was hacked ahead by Sam Gale. In the end, though, they had to settle for a Lewis Allen penalty.
A five-metre scrum and forward drive brought Sale’s second try, by No 8 Tom Ailes, again converted by McGovern, but a beautiful switch of play by Preston fly-half Will Hunt put centre Tom Forster in at the corner for an unconverted try.
When the visitors’ Druw Fray was yellow-carded for illegally halting a drive to the line, Allen ended the half with a simple penalty to make it 11-14 at the break.
Despite their 14 men, Sale claimed the first score of the second period, hooker Ollie Longmore going over from another line-out drive. McGovern again converted, and things went from bad to worse for the hosts after 56 minutes, when replacement prop Oga Mabaya was sinbinned after a Sale forward charge.
Mr Thomas simultaneously awarded a penalty try, goaled by former Fylde fly-half Chris Johnson, and Hoppers looked up against it. Remarkably, they dominated much of the rest of the game, which disintegrated into near farce with three more yellow cards in the space of a minute – for Hunt and Sales’ Sam Stelmaszek and Matthew Simpson.
Despite a succession of penalties in the visitors’ 22, Hoppers could not force their way through a very experienced defence and the game remained scoreless for the last 30 minutes.
So, more anguish for Preston, who are now three points adrift at the bottom, albeit with a game in hand. The New Year – and new pitch – can hardly come soon enough.