Fylde 33 Preston Grasshoppers 17: report by Simon Taylor
Fylde and their old rivals Hoppers served up a Christmas Cracker of a local derby for a bumper crowd at the Woodlands. When all the discarded wrapping paper had been cleared away and the presents counted up it was Fylde who had taken the maximum five point haul and risen to third in the table on the back of what is now a seven game unbeaten run.
After four weeks of atrocious weather conditions, the Gods finally relented and provided a clear, dry and still day – a good job too as with 1,794 spectators filing through the turnstiles every inch of space was needed. Hoppers brought several bus-loads the short distance down the M55 and it was great to see so many people in and around the Clubhouse with players past and present renewing rivalries and trading stories of derring-do which no doubt got more and more fanciful as the day wore on and the beer supplies dwindled to their last trickle from the barrel.
Fylde kicked off towards the Clubhouse and it was game on for a full blooded, no holds barred contest that never once relented in ferocity and commitment from both sides. Hoppers fielded a huge pack resembling a band of marauding invaders from days gone by and they immediately started a series of hefty drives that were only interrupted by a Fylde defender resorting to a high tackle to halt their progress and give Hoppers the first penalty kick to touch. With their first choice hooker in warmer climes on holiday (cue much tutting and shaking of heads by the old guard at this dereliction of duty), Fylde old boy Oli Trippier had been moved up from the flank to the front row. The line out is such a key area of possession and it was tough on Trippier to be throwing in after not doing so frequently this season and Fylde were able to target this area from the first throw, with Oli Parkinson pinching this line out.
The early exchanges were predictably fierce and, having had success in the reverse fixture earlier in the season by forcing Fylde into a battle of the packs, Hoppers sought to repeat the formula. Fylde, however, have learnt on their feet this season and have become a lot harder to bully. Ever since the blowout at Tynedale, their defence has become much more resilient, better organised and patient and when they get the ball themselves they use it sensibly playing to their own strengths. Hoppers did have the better of the early exchanges and when Fylde did get the ball Cameron Crampton at scrum half was caught in possession on a couple of occasions by well timed darting raids by his opposite number James Gough who was a little nugget of nuisance all day long and impressive in his ability to disrupt.
Hoppers earned the first three penalties but another line out steal against the throw and a knock on saw their possession and territory come to nothing. Fylde were awarded their first penalty on 15 minutes for a no arms tackle and despite it being eminently kickable chose to go for touch close to the line. Again, cue some old school mutterings about always taking points when on offer. Although the line out drive was stalled, Fylde were awarded a scrum five metres out and from this launched a back line move. Connor Wilkinson held the ball, interesting the defenders who narrowed their defensive line too much, and then threw a wonderful long miss pass that put James Bailey in acres of space and he dotted down wide right to open the scoring, Greg Smith added a lovely conversion and it was 7-0. On 21 minutes Hoppers had their first chance of points when Fylde were penalised for not rolling away but Tom Davidson’s penalty hit the post and Fylde were able to clear their lines.
Fylde were now gaining some parity in possession and were definitely showing a greater threat when taking the game away from the tight exchanges. Bailey on a chip and chase was just beaten to the ball by a defender and Fylde forced two successive 22 drop-outs. Hoppers then wrestled possession back and it looked like they had the overlap to exploit just inside their half only for Jacob Connor to read the pass expertly and poach the interception. The big number eight then galloped away like a thoroughbred and with no defender able to get anywhere near him he dived into the left corner much to the delight of the massed ranks of Fylde 2nd and 3rd team players all dressed in Santa outfits, a rather surreal sight. Another beautiful conversion from wide out by Smith made it 14-0. Just 4 minutes later Connor again read the intentions of an inside ball and picked Hoppers pocket once more. This time he didn’t have the legs to get there and his pop pass bounced agonisingly off the supporting player’s fingertips and hit terra firma or it would certainly have been a third try.
Hoppers came back one last time before the break when Gough, named at the end of the game as Hoppers’ Man of the Match, made a nuisance of himself again to force a Fylde knock on and then an off side penalty allowed Hoppers to kick for the line out. A full three minutes of possession followed and with Fylde defending desperately they were able to force the Hoppers winger into touch a yard short of the line and the referee called the half over with the fourteen point lead intact.
At the start of the second half another Fylde old boy Alex Hurst came on for Brad Cave and his first act was a high tackle penalty. Fylde edged upfield and a cross kick by Smith was carried over his own line by the Hoppers winger giving Fylde the put in at a 5 yard scrum. Gough for once was less disciplined in his attempts to disrupt as he kicked the ball out of the No 8’s hands and the subsequent penalty kick to touch gave Fylde a line out 5 yards out. A towering take by Matt Garrod laid the platform for a strong drive by Parkinson and quick ball was spun down the line to Tom Carleton and the human try machine spotted the gap and scythed through to score Fylde’s third try. Smith again converted and 21-0 was looking a very healthy lead.
Hoppers weren’t all grunt and muscle and they have some dangerous runners out wide as well, notably Tyler Spence whose dangerous chip and chase led to some scrambling in defence before a penalty to Fylde for a Hoppers player taking the man out in the air relieved the pressure. The relief was only brief though as Fylde gave a penalty away in the 56th minute for not releasing while trying to exit their own half. Davidson’s touch kicking was impressive and he nailed the kick for a 5 yard line out, the type of situation Hoppers had been trying to engineer all day and was always going to be hard to defend.
Although the throw in missed the intended jumper, Adam Howard tidied up well at the back and Hoppers were on the charge. A couple of drives and then a quick pass to their centre James Fitzpatrick was all it needed and built like the proverbial outhouse there was no stopping him as he crashed over in the corner. Davidson showed he can slot them from wide out as well and Hoppers were on the board at last at 21-7. Tom Carleton had picked up a knock at this point so off he came with Ralph Dowds on at centre and Connor Wilkinson moving to full back.
Fylde knew they needed the next score to calm any nerves and quell any Hoppers thoughts of a comeback. It came sooner than expected as straight from the kick off Garrod charged down the attempted clearance kick and won the race to the ball as it bounced around in the in-goal area to secure the bonus point try and take the lead out to 26-7.
Back came Hoppers and on 64 minutes another breakdown penalty allowed Davidson to set up the line out near Fylde’s line. This line out was executed perfectly and the rolling maul was unstoppable with Oga Mabaya the man smuggled over the line. Davidson missed the conversion but Hoppers were back within two converted tries of a share of the points.
Hoppers now rolled their sleeves up and cranked up the pressure forcing three penalties as they tested the durability of the Fylde defence. Nick Ashcroft, Henry Hadfield and Ben Gregory replaced Garrod, Ben O’Ryan and Bailey and nerves and sinews were stretched to the limit. A series of drives were repelled until in the 75th minute the dam burst as Hoppers replacement Alex Ward sliced through for the visitor’s third try. Crucially the conversion was missed meaning Hoppers would have to score twice to win or once for a bonus point.
On 78 minutes Ben Gregory produced a tremendous steal in the tackle and a neat break by the always dangerous Connor Wilkinson led to a penalty for Fylde as the Hoppers definition of an offside line did not meet the criteria the officials had decided was appropriate. Smith kicked to touch 5 yards out and although the line out was won the driving maul was stopped leading to a Fylde scrum.
Gough incurred the wrath of the referee again leading to another penalty and Fylde were able to try the line out option again. This time it was Ashcroft who leapt like a particularly frisky salmon to secure a great take and the set up for the driving maul was more solid, this time with the Fylde eight advancing to give Hoppers a taste of their own medicine as skipper Adam Lewis claimed the fifth try. Smith bounced the conversion in off the post and there was no time to re-start with the final score a very satisfying 33-17 to Fylde.
This was an excellent local derby played in front of a packed and appreciative crowd and the standard of play was a real credit to both teams and coaching staff. Jacob Connor was the man of the match for Fylde and whilst he and the other young guns are the future as well as the present of Fylde, the influence of old heads such as Chris Briers, Alex Loney, Adam Lewis and Ben Vernon especially in games like this is invaluable. Loney in particular was a colossus in the contact area and the accuracy of his line out work provided a great platform, with his jumpers securing their own ball and significantly disrupting the Hoppers set piece. Against a much heavier pack only one scrum penalty was conceded with the front row claiming that was never a penalty anyway (as they always do of course).
Mention should also be made of referee Ben Rayner. These local derbies are never easy to officiate and he did so with a calm and assured manner, not needing to dish out any yellow cards and with only a 7 to 10 penalty count despite the ferocity of the collision area.
Honours are even in terms of one win each this season although Fylde can claim the upper hand having taken 6 points to Hoppers 4 over the two fixtures. After the Tynedale hammering Fylde had won 4, lost 5, and had to roll their collective sleeves up and decide on their true identity, particularly in their defence. Their run since sees them now with 10 wins, 1 draw and 5 losses and sitting third as the year ends, something they, Warren Spragg and his coaching staff should be proud of, particularly the three consecutive away wins at Stourbridge, Chester and Sedgley Park. If they can maintain this identity and style of play into 2019 no one will fancy playing them home or away.
Special thanks also to Nigel and all the bar staff and Johnny Bullitt and the Promise for the after match entertainment in the club house, even if he did sneak a few of his own songs in there when he was supposed to be regaling us with only the cover songs he hates doing. A great day at the Club enjoyed by all.
Fylde Head Coach Warren Spragg said: “I was really proud of the lads. I thought we controlled the game for 55 minutes or so and then they got back into it and it was really nervy for a while. Hoppers had some success in earning turnovers, putting us under pressure and it was obviously tense. But fair play to the lads, they dug in and managed to get the ball back, pinned Hoppers back in their own 22 and finished off with a hard worked try.
“I’m over the moon and delighted to have earned five league points. There’s been a lot of hype around this game, including on social media, and the young lads do pay a lot of attention to this. It was important that we just played the game rather than the occasion. The pre-match banter has been very good natured. We’ve all learnt from our previous experiences.
“Before the game in September I thought that some of the stuff coming from Hoppers was a bit over the top. Being so close geographically, people bump into each other regularly. I think we’ve smoothed a lot of that out and got over the initial hype of being in the same league. Both teams came into the game on a good run of form – these are two decent teams! Now we are where we are, with Hoppers winning one, us winning today. Let’s crack on with our season and support each other into becoming the two top Lancashire clubs.
“The lads have a decent spell off now and we won’t be training until Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the Macclesfield game on the 5th of January. We’ll obviously look forward to that and try to extend our run of six wins and a draw in the last seven weeks.
“If you had offered me the current position when we were struggling in the middle of October and taking a pasting in the 2nd half against Hull Ionians then I would have bitten your hand off. I’m really chuffed for all the players in the squad!”
Fylde: 15 T. Carleton, 14 J. Bailey, 13 C. Briers, 12 C. Wilkinson, 11 T. Grimes, 10 G. Smith, 9 C. Crampton, 8 J. Connor, 7 B O’Ryan, 6 B. Vernon, 5 M. Garrod, 4. O. Parkinson, 3 A. Lewis, 2 A. Loney, 1 E. Horner
Replacements. M. Ashcroft, B. Gregory, N. Ashcroft, R. Dowds, H. Hadfield
Preston Grasshoppers: 15 B. Cave, 14 T. Spence, 13 M. Crow, 12 J. Fitzpatrick, 11 C. Trueman, 10 T. Davidson, 9 J. Gough, 8 M. Lamprey, 7 A. Murray, 6 A. Howard, 5 C. Roddy, 4 L. Proctor, 3 P. Altham, 2 O. Trippier, 1 O. Mabaya
Replacements: C. Johnson, N. Miller, J. Edwards, A. Hurst, A. Ward