Tough test awaits as Ionians roll up

Lewis Allen has racked up 200-plus points for the season
Lewis Allen has racked up 200-plus points for the season
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After two Saturdays on the road which have brought them seven valuable points, Preston Grasshoppers return home tomorrow to face another major challenge – the visit of high-flying Hull Ionians.

The Humbersiders have been jostling with Ampthill and District to be top dogs in National League Two North all season.

The Bedfordshire side have generally held top spot, but Ionians briefly took over after beating their closest promotion rivals last month.

However, a heavy defeat at Sedgley Park the following week dropped them back to second and they are now two points behind Ampthill with a game in hand.

Ionians have won 18 out of 21 since being relegated last season, all three defeats coming in their nine away fixtures.

They beat Hoppers 43-15 at home in November and have one more bonus point, with 17.

Despite picking up two bonus points at Leicester Lions last weekend, Preston were bitterly disappointed with their second-half performance, when they fell foul of the referee and squandered a 14-point lead to lose 30-27.

That 14th defeat in 22 games dropped them back to 11th in the table and they know they will have their work cut out tomorrow to improve on their home record of five victories in 11 games and make it three in a row at Lightfoot Green.

On a happier note, Lewis Allen has passed 200 points for the season, keeping him in third place in the table of leading scorers, and his 11 touchdowns put him sixth in the list of top try scorers.

Hoppers’ team selection has been disrupted by illness (hooker Brad Tuff), unavailability (skipper Phil Baines) and late fitness checks, so the team-sheet is a provisional one at the moment.

But John O’Donnell – a dual-registration loan signing from Sale – is scheduled to make his first start on the wing after coming on as a replacement last week.

Reece Tomlinson and Jack Banks are injured, so Rich Morton is listed to start in the second row, although he is subject to a late check. Jack Walker comes into the back row.

It’s a weekend off for Vale of Lune in North One West but Kendal have a rearranged home date with sixth-placed Wilmslow, where victory would move the Cumbrians up to second place.

Fylde’s four successive defeats in National League One is their worst run for several years.

They have also lost their last six away games as they prepare for the trip to Blaydon, where they went down 15-14 last season and, in fact, have never won a league game.

Blaydon – the second of three successive North East opponents, sandwiched between last weekend’s visit by Darlington Mowden Park and next Saturday’s home date with Tynedale – are in 10th place, having won eight and lost 14. At home they have won five out of 10.

Fifth-placed Fylde have won just twice on the road, with one draw and seven defeats.

Overall, they have won 12, drawn one and lost nine and have 18 bonus points to Blaydon’s 15.

Fylde beat Blaydon 42-24 at Ansdell earlier in the campaign, having also won 9-5 at home last season.

Chris Johnson is fourth in the National One table of points scorers, with 186, and Fylde also have four players in the top 20 try scorers – Ollie Brennand is joint second with 17 and Warren Spragg is fifth with 16, while Scott Rawlings has 11 and Jordan Dorrington 10.

Fylde make wholesale changes, mostly in the pack. There is a completely different starting front row, with props Dan Birchall and Adam Lewis returning to flank hooker Tom Burtonwood.

Simon Griffiths switches to the second row and Mark Goodman and Ben Vernon join Sam Beaumont in the back row.

Ralph Dowds comes in at centre, with Chris Briers moving to full-back.

Hoppers (probable): M Murray; Jordan, Reddick, Woof, O’Donnell; Allen, Kindred; Madden, Mills, Altham, Morton, A Murray, Napier, Walker, Taylor. Replacements: Wilkinson, McGuinness, Lees, Moon, Russell.

Fylde: Briers; Spragg, Dowds, S Rawlings, Brennand; Johnson, Dorrington; Birchall, Burtonwood, Lewis, Griffiths, Gore, Goodman, Vernon, Beaumont. Replacements: Lavelle. Maher, Fairbrother, G Rawlings, Nicholls.