Gareth Dyer is head of rugby operations at Preston Grasshoppers
Last weekend’s bonus-point victory over Hull was a richly deserved one.
Before kick-off this was seen by some as a crucial game in the battle for the only automatic promotion place from this season’s Northern Premier League.
Whilst before kick-off we sat top with a 12-point lead over our second-placed East Yorkshire visitors, we had played a game more, meaning that if Hull won at Lightfoot Green and then won their game in hand, the lead could have been reduced to as little as two points with still plenty of games left to play.
So, it was all to play for and the visitors had made it known that they expected to come to Lightfoot Green and win. There were certainly some interesting comments put out by the Hull players and club in the build-up to the game.
If there is one thing you don’t want to do before a key game it is to write the opposition team’s pre-match team-talk for them.
That extra motivation can go a long way and it is fair to say we were aware of what was being said.
However, we did put those comments to one side and treated the fixture as Game 15 of the 26 cup finals we talked about before the season began. We put in a controlled performance, took a further five league points and extended our lead over the Yorkshire side to 16 points in the process.
Overall our lead at the top is now 13 points, as Lymm leapfrogged Hull last Saturday to take over in second although they do both have a game in hand.
With both Lymm and Hull facing difficult games this coming Saturday before facing each other next weekend, we have an opportunity to further extend our lead if results go away and we take care of our own business.
It is essential we keep our focus over the coming weeks.
To highlight this, I had put a link to the story of Devon Loch in the players’ domain this week just to make the point about what can happen if you take your eye off what you are doing.
Vice-captain Ally Murray quickly rebuffed my attempts at group psychology by making it clear that he and the rest of the group certainly wouldn’t be taking anything for granted.
In his words, there will be no room for complacency and any dropping off in intensity or concentration will not be allowed. On the vice-skipper, I think he is having a strong season this year both on and off the pitch. I challenged him in the off-season to become a leader and set the bar high both individually and collectively and I am delighted with the way he has responded. Together with the other experienced guys in the group, they have led the way.
Whether Ally achieves the try-scoring target I set him we will have to wait and see but he’s on track! The most difficult game of the season is always the next one. Birkenhead Park had a big win in their relegation battle last weekend and will see our fixture this weekend as a real opportunity to build on last week’s victory.
We won’t be taking them lightly. As head coach Paul Arnold has said previously, it is games against teams where you are expected to win that make you the most nervous. Park will be more motivated than perhaps a team safely established in the security of mid-table and that will give them an edge.
Park are one of the North West’s great clubs with a rich history. It is also a ground where a certain Wade Dooley made his debut for The North back in 1984 and from which he was quickly propelled into the full England set-up. The rest as they say is history.
The clubs have also recently shared a bond by coming together to support a young man who played for both clubs.
Billy Woof played for Hoppers before moving to Park to be closer to his family. Unfortunately, back in April of last year, whilst playing in a play-off game for Park, Billy suffered a freak injury that led to him having a life-altering injury.
After the initial shock and acclimatising to his situation, it is fair to say that Billy has been nothing short of inspirational to everyone with his positive, can do attitude. He won’t be held back and when I saw him earlier in the season he was in good spirits and very much focused on the future.
I am always amazed at how people who suffer such setbacks can be so mentally strong and Billy is certainly that. Both clubs have rallied to support Billy and he will be an interested spectator at the game this weekend. Given the respective battles both clubs face, I am sure Billy the player will have relished both club’s current predicaments.
n Gareth Dyer is head of rugby operations at Preston Grasshoppers.