A second successive victory put Preston Grasshoppers fans in better heart – but not before they were made to suffer the odd palpitation along the way.
Sitting comfortably two minutes into the second half, Hoppers contrived to squander a 15-point lead, before clinching the points with a late try followed by a decisive defensive effort as Sandal threw everything at them to try to force a draw.
The game was a classic illustration of the importance of cool and experienced heads as coach Garth Dew and director of rugby Alan Holmes both came off the bench to steer their young charges to a vital victory.
Dew said: “We played really well in the first half, but let Sandal back in after half-time. We gave away too many penalties, but the lads really dug in. They will have learned a valuable lesson in closing out games and have taken a lot of confidence from this result.
“Scoring 25 points was a real positive and we can take a lot of pride in our performance. We have some good players but they need a bit of direction.”
That was provided firstly by flanker Dew himself, forced by injury into playing an hour for the second game in a row after receiving medical clearance to return to action some three years after a serious knee problem. In addition to organising the defensive line, he took over calling the line-out and had a direct hand in two tries for hooker Christian Taylor through short throw-ins and bursts down the narrow side.
Holmes’s arrival on the hour helped bolster the pack’s defensive effort.
Hoppers had almost all the play in the first 20 minutes and could have had an early try with faster support for a great break by scrum-half Harry Moulding. But Sean Taylor got the scoreboard moving with two quick penalties, before Sandal skipper Greg Wood landed one out of four at the other end.
Christian Taylor’s first try needed a 40-metre dash down the touchline but his second, straight after the break, was from 35 metres nearer the visitors’ line. Sean Taylor missed the second conversion but Preston were sitting pretty at 18-3.
Hoppers supporters know to take nothing for granted and, sure enough, Sandal battled back into the game. Wood kicked a simple penalty before hooker Jamie Heron was driven over from a line-out. Wood missed the extra points but made no mistake after replacement forward Luke Norbury crashed over to end a long siege of the home line. Oddly, that had all started with an enormous Hoppers scrum in the Sandal half at which there seemed more than a hint of knock-on; but play went on and the Yorkshiremen took full advantage.
So it was all square with 10 minutes left. Hoppers were held up over the Sandal line, but from the five-metre scrum, lock John McKenzie battled over after good work by No 8 Luke Proctor, and Sean Taylor converted from the touchline.
The full-back’s day was marred by a last-minute yellow card for not retreating 10 metres at a tap penalty as Sandal mounted one last desperate bid to share the spoils. But Hoppers bravely held on for the win which moved them back up a place in the National League Two North table.
Of his younger colleagues, Dew singled out Christian Taylor as “one of the stand-out players” and said Proctor “has been a revelation” after working hard in the gym to become “a real quality player”.