Preston Grasshoppers struggled for half-an-hour to impose themselves on a feisty Billingham side, but proceeded to run in six tries for another emphatic bonus-point victory at the halfway point in the North Premier League.
Head coach Paul Arnold said: “It’s another job done. For the first 20 minutes, we were getting used to the conditions but, when we did the simple things right, we looked good.
“With a 12-point cushion at half-time, the target was to push on and we put in a really good performance. That was the best focus I have seen from the players before the game and we set down a marker at the set-piece early doors. The strength of our bench was really pleasing. Ryan Purcell did really well when he came on at the back of the scrum and Matt Frings had an amazing impact.”
Hoppers threatened strongly in the opening quarter but a slight lack of patience and composure cost them scoring chances. Eventually, though, a turnover in midfield and some skilful handling brought a try for Sam Stott – on as a replacement for winger Connor Trueman, who suffered a knee injury.
Jake Squirrell missed the conversion but added the extras on the stroke of half-time when prop Peter Altham crashed over from close range after a penalty to the corner.
Two minutes into the second half, No 8 Matt Lamprey made amends for a couple of uncharacteristic knock-ons when he burst clean through from 25 metres for his 15th try of the season, converted by Squirrell. Arnold has set the powerhouse a target of 30 tries for the season and Lamprey soon edged closer with his second unstoppable charge for the line from 15 metres out, this time unconverted.
In between Lamprey’s tries, two players had been given their marching orders by referee Dave Charlton, who didn’t have the best of afternoons in what was often quite a niggly encounter.
He yellow-carded Hoppers centre James Fitzpatrick for a deliberate knock-on, but before Billingham could take the penalty, a mass brawl broke out and their No 8 Dan Dixon was shown a red card for a head butt.
As the game went through a scrappy phase (in every sense), Billingham scored an unconverted try through winger Tom Briggs, despite most of the fans detecting a clear forward pass.
But with Fitzpatrick’s return and the impact of replacements Frings and Purcell, Hoppers closed the game out comfortably against 14 men.
Frings was mysteriously denied a try – Hoppers were awarded a penalty instead – but late scores from Purcell and Ally Murray, both converted by Squirrell, gave Preston the emphatic scoreline that their efforts deserved.