National League 3 (Midlands)
Rugby Lions 19
Dudley Kingswinford 14
In front of a big and good-humoured crowd, Lions achieved their main mission for the season by securing promotion back to level 4 of the game and a place in National 2 rugby again for next season.
It couldn’t have been better organised with the visitors second-placed Dudley Kingswinford, the only team who could catch Lions and the other most impressive rugby-playing team in the division and the game high on skill and tension played in front one of the rugby men of the moment, England defence coach Graham Rowntree.
Lions were up for this game, and not only to test Neil Back’s promise to stand them a drink for the first time this season if they won promotion.
But Dudley were also not just here to make up the numbers and, although the game was very different from the free-running style of the reverse fixture when Rugby ran riot, it was a riveting game and probably one of the best rugby matches played at this level this season and given the benefit of a good refereeing performance from David Clarkson.
Lions scored first through Leigh Hinton’s 7th-minute penalty and soon looked likely to add a try from a wonderful passage of inventive play until a forward pass pulled them up short.
Instead, it was Dudley who scored first when the prolific Stefan Shillingford slipped through an inviting gap, for some reason third-choice kicker in DK colours Gareth Bown converting for 3-7 after 15 minutes.
The Lions forwards showed their power when they chose this game to maul more than usual and made significant progress before winning another penalty for Hinton to close the scores to 6-7 on 27 minutes.
The last 10 minutes of the first half saw Lions in almost sole possession of the ball but, meeting a very solid Dudley defence, they could not find a way through and, a point down at the break, the home supporters could at least be relieved Lions were self-evidently playing so much better than a week earlier at Syston.
But Rugby had an extra gear and used the half-time period to set themselves to use it.
And so the first few minutes of the second half saw Dudley forced into conceding three more penalties, Lions’ backs stringing together another breathtaking move and Hinton putting his team back into the lead at 9-7 on 49 minutes.
A moment of magic from Ben Gollings then turned Lions’ domination into points.
A half-volley pick-up that has become his trademark left him looking at his options. Suddenly he saw half a gap and accelerated through it to score a try of top quality to give Lions a little breathing space at 14-7. One sensed a crucial turning point had been reached.
A missed Dudley touch saw Emyr Lewis and Hinton run the ball back and forced the visitors into conceding another penalty and their flanker Sam Pedley being sinbinned.
More fine Rugby play switched the ball from side to side until Nigel Mukarati was able to complete what looked like a decisive try for 19-7 after 67 minutes.
But Dudley Kingswinford have more reason to keep their tails up than most sides Lions meet and they weren’t finished yet.
Pedley returned and a weaving run led to an offload to Shillingford who scored his second try, Bown converting for 19-14.
Then it looked like it might all go wrong right at the death.
Hinton was sinbinned for a marginal decision on tackling without use of his arms that prompted an uncharacteristic scuffle in this hard-fought but properly played game.
DK took advantage of Lions missing their right winger and a sweeping move just seemed to need a final pass out wide for a try that, if converted, would have won the game for Dudley and would have - temporarily at least - deprived Lions of the league title the occasion had seemed almost stage-managed to be theirs just a few minutes later.
But the pass was forward and didn’t go to hand and, soon after, the ball was punted into touch to end the game like they do on television and the celebrations began.
Neil Back said, “You could see why Dudley are second in the table and I am pleased this was a fitting game to decide the league title. We dominated possession and territory but credit to Dudley for their defensive work.”
Gollings added, “We speeded up the game after half time and that made the difference for us.”
Rugby Lions: Lewis, Hinton, Brock, Vilk, Hales, Gollings, N Davies, Walton, Oselton, Adams (Nuttall), Raven, Wright (Ellis), Tait, Carney, Mukarati. Rep: Canning