Preston Grasshoppers 20, Fylde 27
IF Fylde needed a timely reminder that they still have work to do before they clinch the National League North title, this was it.
They were never remotely near their best against tenacious opposition and just got away with extending their winning sequence to 12 ... but they left it late.
Mike Waywell’s stoppage-time try denied the home side a share of the spoils, which was the least they deserved.
Fylde were always up against it with so many key personnel absent and selection disrupted by representative calls.
They were bound to miss playmakers and prolific try-scorers of the calibre of Nick Royle, Oli Brennand and Richard Kenyon, and the back-line had a makeshift look about it as scrum-halves Craig Aikman and Callum McShane played as emergency wingers.
They needed to call on the good offices of Mark Evans, who has long since ‘retired’ from senior rugby, to fill in on the bench and come on briefly as a blood replacement for Martin Wallwork.
As a result Preston scented their chance ... and nearly took it, taking an early lead and later coming from behind to set up a dramatic last few minutes.
Indeed, Preston will rue the fact that they let too much ball spill from their grasp in an error-strewn match.
Fylde were reduced to 13 men at one point in the first half, though it says much for their mettle that they did not concede a point during that worrying spell.
It was competitive in the extreme and Preston were always in with a chance.
Steve McGinnis was principal among the stand-out performers for Fylde, ably assisted by Paul Arnold and Mark Stephenson.
Waywell was the clear eye-catcher among the backs, with two all-important tries, the second superbly crafted, supplying the killer touch just when it was sorely needed.
Hoppers opened the scoring after only 90 seconds, when Mark Edwards’ pinpoint cross-kick landed in the hands of Matt Hughes on the right wing and he dashed over in the corner.
But by the fourth minute Fylde had levelled the scores. Arnold made the initial break, feeding McGinnis who barged through before offloading to Stephenson, who scored on the overlap. Steve Collins’ long-range conversion found the target and put Fylde 7-5 ahead.
Aikman nearly breached the Preston line again with a clever kick and chase after a counter-attack spearheaded by Waywell, who extended the lead after sustained pressure.
After Wallwork’s tap-penalty, Collins held a tricky pass and Waywell, playing against his old side, supplied the finishing touch in the corner after 11 minutes.
Collins was short with the conversion and straight away Preston replied with a long-range penalty by Edwards.
McGinnis again figured prominently in the next Fylde attack but a stooping Arnold could not take a low pass.
A sloppy pass by Ward almost presented Preston with a gift but Hughes kicked the ball out of play.
A hard afternoon for Fylde became even more difficult when Tom Lavelle and Nick King received yellow cards within two minutes of each other.
Even with this handicap, Fylde created a fine chance thanks to a charging run by captain for the day Arnold.
The lock found a willing ally in Jonny Roddam, but Stephen Briers failed to find Ward on his outside and passed straight into touch.
Collins tried a long-range penalty, more to eat up time than anything else with his side two men down.
Preston wasted a good chance as Russell Flynn passed forward in a promising position, and there was another scare for Fylde when Callum McShane smothered Edwards’ clever kick behind the line in the nick of time.
Waywell knocked on near his own line as Fylde continued to live dangerously, despite returning to their full complement, but they dug deep to cling to their slender 12-8 lead until half-time.
Preston started the second half with similar intensity, and the visitors had an escape when prop Peter Peterson only succeeded in finding Aikman with his pass close to the line.
Collins made a searing break from deep only to fling out a dreadful pass intended for McShane.
It allowed Preston to counter through Matt Hughes, who wellied the ball forward and Edwards followed up to touch down. The try went unconverted but Preston were ahead 13-12.
It was deserved but shortlived as Collins went some way towards atoning for his error with a successful penalty.
Richard Morton, the Preston flanker, was the next to get a yellow card and within second Fylde crossed for a try which gave them a little breathing space.
With a big overlap on the left, Waywell and Aikman linked neatly and McShane just squeezed in at the corner.
Collins missed the conversion from wide out but Fylde led 20-13 entering the final quarter.
Wallwork made a saving tackle on Tom Hughes but it wasn’t long before the Fylde line was breached.
Preston claimed good line-out ball, surging onwards before Dominic Moon scrambled over on 73 minutes. Occasional kicker Flynn stepped up to land the conversion and tie up the scores.
Waywell threatened for Fylde, pinning the opposition back, but Hoppers held firm.
In the second minute of stoppage time, Fylde played their get out of jail card, scoring a try through the individual enterprise of centre Waywell.
The centre got the ball 35 yards out, dummied and raced clear, beating the cover to reach the line with Matt Hughes hanging on to his back.
Collins landed the kick from wide out and Fylde survived the final minute or so as they continued their way towards the title ... but it’s not over yet.
Fylde: Waywell; McShane, Briers, Ward, Aikman; Collins, Wallwork; Livesey Roddam, Lavelle (Thoma, 65) Arnold, King (J Beaumont 60) Ferguson (S Beaumont, 69) McGinnis, Stephenson.