[Photo courtesy of Mike Craig & Preston Grasshoppers]
Preston Grasshoppers edged home in a tight contest against Fylde at Lightfoot Green. With the resurrection of this classic fixture between these friends and fierce rivals, a big crowd turned out to enjoy a tense and close game. The morning’s very heavy rain ceased as the teams came on the pitch, as if by divine instruction, and the artificial pitch provided a good surface for the contest.
The pattern of the game became clear from the opening moments. The heavy ‘Hoppers pack drove into the visitors and forced them on the back foot. In the first five minutes Fylde offended, conceded a penalty and the Preston forwards had the ideal position metres out from the visitors’ line. Another penalty followed and the subsequent driving maul from the lineout was unstoppable. Former Fylde backrower Matt Lamprey continued his try scoring sequence as he was last man up. Fly-half Tom Davidson added the extras for a 7-0 lead.
Fylde got into the match slowly and started to test the ‘Hoppers defence. The Fylde lineout was pretty much a banker for possession as the much shorter home forwards didn’t compete in the air. Lock Nick Ashcroft was cleaning up as long as the throwing was accurate. But the sturdy Preston defence prevented Fylde’s driving maul forcing its way over the line. It was becoming an arm wrestle and Fylde’s strengths are, on the whole, in open, attacking play rather than ‘grunt’ exchanges
Some 20 minutes in, ‘Hoppers started to concede a string of penalties as the Fylde forwards warmed to their task. Referee James O’Brien was rather tolerant, keeping the yellow card in his pocket, as a number of the offences were in the so called ‘red zone’ near the ‘Hoppers line.
Fylde rather struggled to get their dangerous back line moving but in the 25th minute they broke through. Fly-half Greg Smith put a clever grubber behind the ‘Hoppers defensive line, centre Chris Briers was first to react, hacked the ball over the try line and won the race to the touchdown. Smith kicked the straightforward conversion to level the scores.
The visitors lost some of this advantage by conceding a penalty in their own half within a couple of minutes. Davidson needed no further invitation and kicked the goal to give his side a 10-7 lead.
Play fluctuated from end to end with each team defending strongly. Fylde had the majority of pressure yet were unable to turn this to points against a formidable and brave ‘Hoppers defence. 10-7 at half-time.
Greg Smith missed a kickable penalty early in the 2nd half but his side was soon on the attack. In the 45th minute Chris Briers turned creator as he broke away from the half-way line and threatened to go all the way to the line. He was pulled up short and the ball was recycled for winger Tom Grimes to plunge over for the try in the left corner. Smith’s attempted conversion from the touchline drifted wide but Fylde held the lead at 10-12 up.
Grasshoppers now began to dominate possession and territory, with the powerful Adam Howard and Lamprey prominent, and they fed off Fylde errors. Davidson missed a penalty opportunity in the 52nd minute but was successful a couple of minutes later as Fylde offended again and he regained the lead at 13-12.
The crucial period turned out to be between the 63rd & 65th minutes when, first flanker Harlan Corrie and then David Fairbrother, were sinbinned.
Hoppers duly exploited their two man advantage as they pounded the Fylde line. The defence initially held but in the 68th minute young centre Sam Stott found a gap and plunged over from 5m out. Davidson’s conversion was wide but ‘Hoppers had a 18-12 lead.
Fylde then launched a late bid to rescue the game. In the 70th minute Greg Smith converted a penalty to reduce the deficit to three points. With Fylde back to 15 players, it was ‘Hoppers turn to lose a player as James Fitzpatrick trouped off to the sin bin. Fylde had opportunities to attack in the closing minutes but handling mistakes undermined their efforts. The final whistle blew to ‘Hoppers delight and a well earned four league points. Fylde’s minor consolation was a losing bonus point.
Fylde Warren Spragg said: “This was a tough defeat to take, if I’m being honest because we’re a better team than we showed today. We should have scored more points in the first half with the amount of pressure we had them under and we also had some great opportunities to score towards the end of the game but lost the ball cheaply. I expect better from this group of players and for them to show a lot of character next Saturday when we welcome Macclesfield to the Woodlands.”
FYLDE: 15 Tom Carleton; 14 Henry Hadfield, 13 Chris Briers, 12 Connor Wilkinson, 11 Tom Grimes; 10 Greg Smith, 9 Cameron Crampton; 1 Elliot Horner, 2 Ben Gregory (Tom Burtonwood 51), 3 Adam Lewis, 4 Nick Ashcroft (Olli Parkinson 40), 5 Matt Garrod, 6 Harlan Corrie (Ben O’Ryan 73), 7 Ben Vernon, 8 David Fairbrother.
Non-playing replacements: Adam Joyner and Tom Forster.