Preston Grasshoppers 42 Ilkley 26
Despite a determined effort by Ilkley to spoil the promotion party, Preston Grasshoppers clinched the North Premier League title – and an immediate return to National League Two North – with three matches to spare.
As celebrations rang out round Lightfoot Green, head coach Paul Arnold gave the credit to “everyone at the club”, from players to coaches, from back-room staff to supporters.
“I’m really proud,” he said. “It’s been a great nine months. It was a big call for me to leave Fylde, but it’s the best decision I could have made.
“I said I’d get us promoted, but I have had very little to do with it. I have played a small part in galvanising them but I have a great back-up team. I’m just a little cog in a very big wheel.
“The win in the last minute at Sandal (in the first game of the campaign) put us on track. But there has been a lot of pressure on us and all credit to Ilkley for making us work so hard today.”
It looked as if the title celebrations would be a mere formality as Hoppers took the lead inside 45 seconds. Matt Lamprey and Ally Murray carried strongly from the kick-off and fly-half Alex Ward found acres of space for a 35-metre try, although Jake Squirrell’s conversion was charged down.
In a sign of sterner resistance to come – especially in the second half – Ilkley quickly responded with a try by prop Dan Lawrence, converted by Ben Magee, but the visitors’ scrum was already buckling ominously and it was no surprise when they were pushed off their own ball for Lamprey to touch down.
Squirrell converted and added a penalty but Ilkley again hit back with a lovely try from their own 22, scrum-half Jack Maplesden rounding things off, with Magee adding the conversion.
The next 20 minutes were all Hoppers, with three tries, including the important bonus-point fourth which guaranteed the championship – so long as they could hold out for the victory.
Sam Stott got the first of them after Ilkley spilled the restart, then skipper Paul Millea went over from a line-out drive and the inevitable Lamprey made his tally 32 for the season following another huge scrum surge.
Squirrell converted two for a seemingly secure half-time lead at 34-14.
Hoppers’ dominance faded for the next 25 minutes – not helped by a yellow card for full-back Scott Jordan – as Ilkley’s lively backs put the home defence through a serious test.
Eventually, Squirrell settled the nerves with a second penalty, and centre Jack Akrigg claimed the sixth touchdown after Niall Crossley robbed an Ilkley attacker and started an 80-metre move also involving Jordan, Murray and Arnold.
With referee Jack Le Feuvre adding nine minutes of stoppage time, Ilkley’s never-say-die efforts enabled them to bag a four-try bonus point of their own, with late touchdowns by Tom Milner and Pat Power, one of them converted.
But there was no denying Hoppers their afternoon of glory, with Arnold particularly singling out the front row of Millea, Oga Mabaya and Peter Altham for their season-long dominance.
He added: “We know next year will be twice as hard, and we will be looking to recruit, but I’ve going to give a lot of these lads their chance in National Two North.”