Harrogate RUFC sweating over promotion decision as RFU ends 2019/20 season early

Harrogate RUFC's director of rugby Dave Doherty. Picture: Caught Light PhotographyHarrogate RUFC's director of rugby Dave Doherty. Picture: Caught Light Photography
Harrogate RUFC's director of rugby Dave Doherty. Picture: Caught Light Photography | other
Up until Friday morning, Harrogate RUFC were arguably the favourites to go on and win the North Premier title and secure promotion back to National Two following a three-year absence.

The Rugby Football Union’s decision to end 2019/20 with immediate effect for all levels below the Premiership due to the coronavirus outbreak does however mean that the Aces’

fate is no longer in their own hands.

With five sides – including Yorkshire rivals Sandal – all still harbouring genuine hopes of finishing the season in pole position, there was no guarantee that ’Gate would have gone on and claimed top spot.

But Dave Doherty’s team definitely fancied their chances.

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Saturday’s bonus-point win over Rossendale left them third in the table, five points behind leaders Blaydon, with a game in hand over the Durham outfit, whom they were still due to play at home.

This meant that if ’Gate had secured bonus-point victories in each of their remaining five fixtures – three of which were against teams in the bottom five – then they would have been guarateed to finish in pole position.

And, although fifth-placed Macclesfield could conceivably have matched the Rudding Lane club’s overall points tally, had they garnered a maximum return from their last six matches, Harrogate would still have finished above them due to the fact that they would have won more games over the course of the campaign.

Friday’s announcement that the season has been cancelled does however render much of the above meangingless.

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Now, it is a case of waiting to see what the RFU decides to do regarding promotion and relegation issues, with an update on the situation promised before the end of next month.

“We just have to deal with it,” said ex-Wasps and Sale Sharks winger Doherty, into his fourth season as Harrogate’s director of rugby.

“I was confident that the season would restart again eventually, so to be honest I wasn’t expecting this decision.

“I can see why the RFU have made the call however. I do understand it, but the lads are gutted because we’ve put an awful lot into this campaign and we backed ourselves to go on and win our last five fixtures.

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“It’s important not to get too precious about our position, however. You have to be mindful that rugby is a sport. We’re not talking about people’s health or their livelihoods here.

“Rugby becomes trivial when people are dying and that is the bottom line.”

It remains to be seen how the RFU will determine who, if anyone, is promoted and relegated ahead of the start of 2020/21, but if they go on league tables as they stand, then Harrogate are out of luck.

Blaydon would be promoted as champions, while second-placed Sandal would qualify for the one and only promotion play-off berth.

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“It’s going to be a real challenge for the RFU to work out who goes up and down now, I certainly wouldn’t like to be the one having to make those calls,” Doherty added.

“The last couple of seasons there has been a stand-out team in the North Premier, who’ve dominated and been clear at the top. This year it’s totally different.

“What do you do? Go with the table as it is? Declare the whole season null and void? Perhaps you could divide the amount of points each team has by the number of games they’ve played and look at it that way.

“What I would do before looking at the mathematical equations is ask the clubs involved what their preference would be. Because some teams won’t want to go up, and others who have struggled in their division may be happy to accept relegation.

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"It’s going to take some working out, but it’s out of our control and, as I’ve said to our players, we just have to accept whatever the outcome is and roll with it.”

The RFU’s decision to end the season is in stark contrast to that of the Premier League and English Football League, who have extended 2019-20 indefinitely.

“I don’t think you can compare it,” Doherty said.

“Because of the extra physicality, rugby players need an enforced break.

"You couldn’t extend the season then go straight into 2020/21. It would be unsafe.

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"Similarly, you wouldn't just be able to re-start this season at short-notice. Clubs haven't been able to train, so in terms of things like scrummaging and tackling, it would be too dangerous to start things up again until you've had chance to prepare the players.

"You would never go live without some pre-season fixtures. The amount of injuries you'd see would go through the roof."

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