Harrogate RUFC clinched promotion on Saturday after they battled to a tense 28-15 play-off victory at Midlands side Sutton Coldfield.
‘Gate extended a slender half-time lead with three early second half tries to ensure they will play National League Two North rugby next season.
Arriving at a damp, yet sunny Sutton Coldfield Mike Aspinall’s side were given a huge boost when speedy winger Peter Wackett passed a late fitness test.
That allowed Aspinall to move back to the bench from his starting berth announced in the matchday programme.
Both sides had finished second in their respective leagues but for both, the contest was measurably different.
For ‘Gate this was a chance to return to where they had come from after suffering the heartache of relegation last season.
The home side, in contrast, had enjoyed their finest year ever and were aiming to reach the third tier for a first time after only two defeats all season. One supporter said, “the only way to describe this year is historic.”
It was the Birmingham-based side that started on the front foot and they took the lead with an unconverted try, minutes after missing a penalty shot at goal.
The home side showed their tremendous pace in attack as centre Tom Lucas spun a ball out wide for winger Robert Watts to dash down the white paint and dive over.
Harrogate responded to the early set-back well as their forwards tried to grasp a stranglehold with weighty drives. Their pressure earned a central penalty inside their opponents 22 but to the surprise of the crowd, and most probably the players, fly-half Callum Irvine dragged his attempt wide.
Sam Bottomley then broke through the home defence but a double movement on the try-line cost him levelling the scores.
The centre, Harrogate’s leading try-scorer this year, offered the best breaks for his side throughout the opening period but Coldfield remained on top of territory.
But ‘Gate gradually edged themselves into the ascendency and they took the lead when Wackett and Aspinall combined for a converted effort. A beautiful pass from Aspinall found the winger in space and he crashed over, Irvine adding the two with a quality kick.
The referee blew the half-time whistle as dark cloud swarmed over. But the weather couldn’t dampen the team talk for Aspinall with ‘Gate leading the tight contest.
Whatever was said at half-time by the coach and team manager Graham Siswick instantly paid dividend. Within two minutes of the second half Noel Minikin swooped to extend ‘Gate’s lead after claiming a risky pass from Kyle Dench, Irvine again converting.
The home side looked rattled, and a minute later they were another seven points adrift. Minikin broke through again, this time in the centre and squirmed under the posts to give Irvine a straight-forward conversion.
There was a feeling amongst the home set-up that the game was drifting away. And it got better for ‘Gate when Sutton Coldfield’s captain, prop Brook Davies was binned as the penalty count rapidly increased.
Irvine then failed to reach the try-line down the left, knocking the ball on as he was hauled to the ground. But with the extra power in the pack, ‘Gate overturned the resultant scrum and when the ball fell to substitute lock Sam Brady he bounded over, another fine conversion from Irvine took the score to 28-5.
To their credit, Sutton Coldfield never gave up their pursuit despite the scoreline.
And they picked up another penalty before Watts grabbed his second try of the afternoon to reduce the deficit. The winger evaded a tackle before twisting over the line, Lucas adding the conversion.
Watts nearly struck a hat-trick blow with the clock ticking down, but the touch judge raised his flag for a foot in touch.
And so the celebrations began for Aspinall and Siswick and captain Jimmy Browne. A deserved success owing to their extra bite up front and cutting edge through the back line.
With the champagne flowing, the squad and supporters joined in one mass huddle on the pitch to sing, or more correctly, shout the club’s song “Harrogate Aces”.
It will not be trips to Percy Park, Birkenhead and Rossendale next season, it will be Sheffield Tigers, Hull and Leicester Lions.
Harrogate are promoted to National League Two North.