Game of two halves sees ‘Gate beaten by table-topping Grasshoppers

Andrew Lawson attempts to halt a Preston attack during Saturday's clash at the Stratstone Stadium. Picture: Richard Bown
Andrew Lawson attempts to halt a Preston attack during Saturday's clash at the Stratstone Stadium. Picture: Richard Bown

Harrogate RUFC’s National Three North promotion hopes suffered a blow when a second-half capitulation saw them beaten by top-of-the-table Preston Grasshoppers.

The Aces were excellent for 39 minutes and should have taken a healthy lead into the interval of Saturday’s contest, however they allowed their visitors back into the game just seconds before the half-time whistle.

Preston then seized the initiative in the second period, running away with the match as they progressed through the gears and the home defence crumbled.

Only the team that finishes top of the pile is guaranteed promotion to National Two North, while runners-up spot would secure a play-off berth, however this result leaves ‘Gate fifth in the table, 12 points behind the Grasshoppers and 10 shy of second-placed Lymm.

Harrogate RUFC’s National Three North promotion hopes suffered a blow when a second-half capitulation saw them beaten by top-of-the-table Preston Grasshoppers.

The Aces were excellent for 39 minutes and should have taken a healthy lead into the interval of Saturday’s contest, however they allowed their visitors back into the game just seconds before the half-time whistle.

Preston then seized the initiative in the second period, running away with the match as they progressed through the gears and the home defence crumbled.

Only the team that finishes top of the pile is guaranteed promotion to National Two North, while runners-up spot would secure a play-off berth, however this result leaves ‘Gate fifth in the table, 12 points behind the Grasshoppers and 10 shy of second-placed Lymm.

“Where we find ourselves in the table is the reality of where we are as a team right now,” directory of rugby Dave Doherty said.

“There’s still a long way to go, however, and I 100 per cent think we’re still in contention for promotion.

“Unfortunately, we have already lost to two of our promotion rivals in Preston and Hull on home soil, and we’ve got to be better. What we must make sure we do is learn from our mistakes and go away from home and beat these teams.

“On Saturday, we did well in the first half and contained Preston, but in the second 40 we reacted too slowly and the power in their side proved the difference.

“Their try before half-time was a bit of a sucker punch. That score gave them the momentum going into the second half and they used that to take the game away from us after the re-start.

“This was a top-of-the-table encounter and a massive game for us so I’m very disappointed by the outcome.”

The first half was a fairly even affair, but Harrogate’s first-up tackling and all-round defensive work was excellent.

With the Coser brothers, Guy and Jonny, in typically excellent form, the hosts had the edge at the breakdown.

They got their noses in front when number eight Jonny Coser ran a great line from just outside the Grasshoppers’ 22, burst through a gap, handed-off a would-be tackler and then outpaced the cover down the left wing and went over in the corner.

Luke White added the extras with an excellent coversion from close to the touchline for a 7-0 lead in the 20th minute.

White then extended his side’s advantage with another fine kick, this time a long-range strike from just a yard inside the Preston half, but visiting scrum-half Jake Squirrell hit back with a penalty of his own to trim the gap at 10-3.

Any Grasshoppers attempts to make inroads into the home half were repelled by some resolute defending, and White sent over another three-pointer from close to halfway.

With just a minute to go until the interval, the game’s turning point arrived when White missed the easiest of his four kicks of the first half and Preston went down the other end and finally made some progress in ‘Gate territory.

James Fitzpatrick’s initial surge was halted, but the ball was recylced and Grasshoppers skipper Paul Millea was able to burrow over and instead of going into the break 16-3 up as they might have done, the Aces’ lead was a narrow one at 13-10.

Doherty’s men began the second period sluggishly and, in stark contrast to the opening half, their tackling left much to be desired.

Replacement Sam Stott touched down in the 44th minute as the ‘Gate defence went awol in midfield in the face of a strong carry by flanker Ally Murray and Squirrell’s conversion put Preston ahead for the first time.

A White penalty brought Harrogate back to within a point at 17-16 shortly afterwards, but more missed tackles then allowed Nial Crosley in for the visitors’ third touchdown, again converted by Squirrell.

As ‘Gate attempted to respond, they threw the ball wide, but lost possession and a swift counter-attack was ended with Alex Hurst going over for 29-19 in the 58th minute.

Home centre Keane Naylor and Grasshoppers wing Tyler Spence were then sin-binned as tempers frayed and an easy penalty conversion by Squirrell took the game out of the Aces’ reach with less than 10 minutes to play.

More ugly scenes saw ‘Gate prop Connor Ward and Grasshoppers lock Paul Arnold sent off in the closing stages, and although the hosts pushed hard for a consolation try, they were twice held up over the line as the league leaders held firm to take the game by a 32-16 scoreline.