After Preston Grasshoppers’ weekend game with Billingham we will have reached the halfway point in this season’s campaign.
We are expecting a tough game against one of the league’s form sides. Billingham are in a rich vein of form and with a game in hand, they will be thinking that a win at Lightfoot Green will open the door to a full assault on the league’s top two. It is up to us to slam that door shut.
Since last month’s column we have negotiated some difficult games. Away trips to the wrong side of the Pennines saw us take bonus-point wins at Ilkley, Harrogate and Morley whilst our only home game was a top-of-the-table clash against previously unbeaten Lymm.
In that game, we were probably more comfortable in victory than the scoreline suggested, or indeed felt on the day.
A six-point winning margin sounds like a tight contest but when I watched the game back, we probably had 70% possession and territory throughout the game. It was therefore a little disappointing that we didn’t get a try bonus point with the added frustration that we let the visitors take a losing bonus point with a last-kick-of-the-game penalty. But over the period we have taken 19 league points from an available 20 and if we can continue that sort of consistency then we will continue to put the pressure on those chasing.
After Billingham, we travel to Wirral for our last game before the Christmas break. After that we will have 12 games in the New Year of which seven will be at Lightfoot Green. It doesn’t take a statistical genius to figure out that our home form from now to the end of the season will be vitally important.
Away from our first-team campaign there is a lot of hard work going on to strengthen and develop our rugby infrastructure at the club. As has been said many times before, Preston Grasshoppers is a bit of an anomaly in rugby terms given the number of teams we run as a club.
After a bit of research, we are the only club outside of London and the South East that runs six senior men’s sides whilst our ladies’ section is now grown to the extent that we have started to field two senior ladies’ teams. Added to that is our mini and junior section that provides safe and enjoyable rugby for almost 400 boys and girls aged six to 18.
In effect, the people of Preston and Central Lancashire have a giant in their midst. As a club, we were recently invited to attend an evening at Sale Sharks where a presentation was made to highlight our success in developing players for the Sharks Academy. On this occasion, it was to highlight that two former Hoppers juniors, namely Arron Reed and Matt Sturgess had this season been involved with the Sharks’ first XV.
This recognition followed closely on a recent high-powered visit from the RFU Board to our club. The recently appointed RFU CEO Steve Brown has decided they need to get out and about to see their clubs and then host their regular board meetings at their host clubs.
We were invited to present to the full board about what we do at Hoppers and I think it is safe to say the Twickenham hierarchy were both impressed and surprised in equal measure.
In an area where the round ball dominates the sporting agenda, we have participation numbers that are beyond the dreams of many clubs, be they rugby or any other sport. But as ever, there is no time to sit and congratulate ourselves.
We face a continual challenge to run the six senior men’s sides each week, both in terms of the organisation required and the numbers required. This is one area that we are currently looking to strengthen so any budding or returning players in the area, there is a team for you.
There is equal pride for me that we see playing success at first XV level allied to participation success in putting teams out that cater for all players who want to enjoy the game each week.
Another area of the game we need to invest more time and resources in is the 16-to-23 age group. It is this area nationally that sees the greatest drop-off in playing numbers and as a club we are no different. As young people move into adulthood there are many competing interests that come to the fore.
It is vital that how we manage this age group is done right as it is the link between junior and senior rugby. It is an area I will be looking at with the rest of the rugby management as we move into the second half of the season.
So as 2017 ends, whilst we see our bid to right the wrong of relegation at first XV level in decent shape, as a club we still find ourselves with much to do.
Gareth Dyer is head of rugby operations at Preston Grasshoppers