Gareth Dyer is Hoppers’ head of rugby operations
It has been a mixed start to life on our return to National Two North.
After four games we have accumulated nine league points but feel we have let between three and seven further points slip through our fingers.
When the fixture list came out it was clear that the first six games were going to be challenging. Four of our first six are away from home with our only two home games being Lancashire derbies against Fylde and Sedgley Tigers, two teams who probably feel that they will be in the promotion mix come the end of the season.
Our opening game at Chester was a curate’s egg of a performance. Chester don’t lose many at home and was as tough an opening game as we could have faced.
On the day, we competed well in a high-scoring game.
We scored five tries and at one stage midway through the second half we were very much in the ascendancy after two quickfire tries taking us to within six points of our hosts.
The turning point was probably electing to take a penalty shot at goal to narrow the gap to three when on reflection we should have kicked for the corner to try and force a score to take us into the lead. That the kick was missed and then we allowed the hosts to quickly get three points of their own meant we effectively suffered a 10-point swing.
It also probably cost us a losing bonus point as in the end we lost by 11 points. Of course, no blame is attached to the kicker, but it was a big learning lesson.
In this league you must keep applying pressure. Fewer penalty kicks seem to be taken these days with teams preferring to look for five and seven-point opportunities.
The game with Fylde was always going to be a tense battle after such a long time since our last league meeting. With a large crowd in attendance we shaded a close game.
The main disappointments have come in our last two games, with a huge disappointment being the result at Huddersfield. Winning 27-16 with less than five minutes to play and with a try bonus point already secured, we should have closed out the game and taken five league points with us from our trip to Yorkshire.
I don’t know if we thought the game was won but we didn’t close the game out and let the hosts score 12 late points to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Again, it was a big lesson to be learnt.
Switch off for any period in the game at this level and you will be punished. Instead we had to settle with two bonus points and it must go down as three league points dropped.
It was a similar story in our last home game with Sedgley Tigers. Again, two bonus points from a game where we led going into the last 10 minutes having been well adrift of the visitors after a poor opening quarter.
Sedgley have finished second twice in recent years so they are a very good side and good benchmark for us. To have beaten them would have maintained our long unbeaten record at home which we had set a new club record of 14 consecutive league wins at Lightfoot Green. So it was double disappointment with a first defeat at home and dropping a further three league points.
If we had been offered nine league points from the opening four games before the season started, then we probably would have taken that. From that point of view there is no despondency at this stage.
It is more a nagging irritation that if we had taken even half of those dropped points we would be sitting in the top six in the table feeling we have made the step up from the Northern Premier Division in our stride.
That we have lost two games late on gives us the opportunity to implant some learning points into the squad early in the campaign that will hopefully put us in good stead for the rest of the season.
Physically we have handled the step up in level well and I had no doubts that we would. However, it is that mental fitness and discipline we need to sharpen up on collectively.
As mentioned earlier, switch off in this division and the teams are good enough to take advantage. That was not always the case last season. We could coast for periods and still score points or be untroubled by the opposition.
The players are quickly realising that we won’t get away with quiet periods in games this year. We now have back to back games away from home against Yorkshire opposition in the shape of Otley and Wharfedale.
It will be important that we continue to pick up points if we cannot win the game but winning games breeds confidence and we will be keen to take a victory over the next fortnight before our return to Lightfoot Green.