Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post
For this Preston Grasshoppers side, Saturday’s match at Harrogate represents their most important game for the club to date.
A trip to the division’s bottom side – albeit with the Yorkshire side level on points with Hoppers, having played a game more – is the perfect time for this group of players to put in the complete performance that they are capable of but have not yet delivered.
Make no mistake, Hoppers need to start picking up league points on a consistent basis.
Only by doing that will they be able to put pressure the other sides in the bottom half of the table, many of whom still have to come to Lightfoot Green later in the season.
Hence this weekend’s match is a real “eight-pointer”.
Last weekend’s postponed fixture with Leicester Lions should have allowed everyone at the club to take a brief collective pause for thought and assess where they stand in National 2 North – and more importantly what needs to be done.
Hoppers are now one of three teams with 17 league points at the bottom of the table.
However, the bottom five clubs in the division are now separated by just four league points and Hoppers have a game in hand on all of them.
Hoppers have the seventh-best defensive record in the division. This would suggest that they remain a difficult team to break down and can shut down teams.
It would be interesting to know what Hoppers’ defensive record would look like if games started only in minute 21. If they did then Hoppers would probably be in the top three meanest defences in the division.
For starting games slowly is really hurting this Hoppers side at present.
Last time out at Stourbridge they gave the home side a 12-point start, the week before that at home to Sheffield Tigers they gave the visitors 14 early points.
It has been a recurring theme throughout the season and one that has to stop – starting this Saturday.
I have no doubt that it is something that will have been spoken about in training and addressed in team meetings.
I’ve experienced something similar with Hoppers sides before.
We had an issue several seasons ago where we would start the second half of games slowly and quickly relinquish any momentum we had built before half-time.
It got to a stage where we almost had to stop talking about it in an effort to try and break free from the mental stranglehold it was starting to create.
Being slow out of the blocks comes from a mixture of poor concentration – both individually and collectively – and a lack of mental toughness.
Some players can get overly hyped before kick-off leading them to lose control, resulting in conceding penalties or making soft mistakes.
Getting the adrenaline flowing might help some players get into the physical battle but it has to be properly channelled.
Other players are reactive rather than aggressors. They require a big hit by a team-mate or a strong carry of their own to get them mentally attuned to the match.
Hoppers cannot afford to carry anyone with this mind-set on Saturday.
Starting slowly and giving early gifts of possession and territory hands over the initiative and provides an early boost to opposition confidence.
Harrogate have the worst attacking record in the division and are coming off a pretty heavy defeat last time out.
They will be desperate to get off to a positive start to settle themselves down in front of their own supporters.
Hence the 15 starters wearing the Hoppers badge this weekend must come out fired up but focused. Hoppers must look to take control early and put pressure on their hosts.
It is a time for the leaders in the Hoppers dressing room to step up and take responsibility for the overall team performance this weekend. Those players must make sure that from No.1 to No.15 the Hoppers side are ready to start “big”.
They then have to keep that collective focus for a full 80 minutes. No drop-offs, no quiet periods and no gifts that give the home side easy territory, possession or points.
Yes, the home side will have their spells in possession but Hoppers should take confidence from their defensive record – and the attacking record of the home side.
Trust their defensive structure, don’t chase lost causes and up their vocals. Noisy teams are focused teams.
There are some quiet players in the Lightfoot Green dressing room – particularly in the back row and midfield – and they need to realise that communication goes with the territory of being a National League rugby player.
At the other end of the field the mind-set should be that whenever the opportunity presents itself to take points in any form that is what they will do.
A former coach I worked with used to talk about the 1, 4, 8 principle in these types of games. Teams needing wins do not react well to being behind on the scoreboard, particularly as the game moves towards the final quarter.
If you can get one point in front you can start to apply scoreboard pressure.
Get four points in front and suddenly the losing side know they need a try to regain the lead and that pressure affects decision making.
Get eight points clear – and a two-score lead – and some heads in the losing team will start to go.
Saturday will not be about winning with a try bonus point.
Saturday for Hoppers is all about winning.