So many 'what ifs'

The unthinkable has happened - Rugby Lions have been relegated from the National Leagues.

Next season they will play in Midlands One, a division in which both Old Laurentians and Newbold have played in recent years and are currently just one below.

On Saturday Lions did what they had to do - beating Bedford Athletic 37-15. But as Cleckheaton and Blaydon won too, Lions victory was not enough to escape the third relegation place in Division Three North.

It really has been one of those seasons, with at least six games that Lions know they should have won, but lost by just one score. They were also docked five points for fielding an extra overseas player.

It's incredible that a team can finish with a positive points difference (+9) and still be relegated. The other two teams going down, Dudley Kingswinford and Bedford Athletic ended with -246 and -219 respectively. And even the five sides above Lions all have hefty negatives.

However bleak the situation looks, Lions can also take some heart from the fact that they had the fifth best record in attack and sixth best in defence. But it's the results that count and that's what has been so frustrating.

Lions are desperately disappointed and Director of Rugby Brett Taylor knows the knives will be out. But there are plenty of positives, which they will build on.

He explained: "We had a settled squad for the first time in four years, developing a youth and second team, which has produced six or seven home grown players where the average age is 23.

"There's a great group of youngsters coming through, like Glen Carson, Tim Douglas, Wilf Barclay, Tommy Turner, Glenn Bond and Danny Facer. I could name reams, who've all been a part of the first team squad.

"We've made certain strides, but the black and white table shows this season has been a failure.

"There have been a lot of what ifs, but there were only three games where we played very badly and were well beaten.

"We have to build on what we have achieved. The games against Blaydon and Bedford showed we don't need to change what we're doing, we just need to do it better, be better conditioned and fitter, which is the challenge for the players.

"I accept some responsibility. Half way through the season I admit I was coaching them badly and we were using the scoreboard as our slave instead of focusing on performance. I started getting them to play a more structured game, instead of the 'all skills, all players, pace kills', which worked at the beginning and end of the season.

"We've all made mistakes and must learn from them. I would like to see the challenge through.

"No one likes what's happened, but we have to find the winning way. If going down is the way to find it, Midlands One could be our springboard."

Alistair Bruten's analysis

So it wasn't to be.

Lions played well enough to have beaten three-quarters of the teams in their division, let alone the bottom side, but by half time it was clear from the scores phoned in from Cleckheaton and Blaydon that a win was not going to be enough.

A strong performance from Rugby in front of a big enthusiastic Lions support; what a season it would have been with these two ingredients week in, week out.

But no one has yet found a way to explain the downturn in Lions' performances since the opening games of the season; and who can be surprised if supporters haven't chosen to travel interminable motorway miles to far-distant grounds every other week?

Early on, even a Lions win did not look a certainty as they saw little possession and lost hooker Matt Davies for a brief bloodbin after a sharp collision with a team mate. And ex-Lion Chris Richards missed a penalty opportunity on nine minutes with a stiff breeze behind him.

When Rugby did use their power in a drive, however, Ath had to concede a penalty for not rolling away and Glenn Bond made no mistake.

Just into the second quarter, Lions scored their first try with quick passes taking Matt Goode through on the left, but Richards cut the deficit to 3-8 when Lions gave away three penalties in quick succession.

Ricky Hyslop came on to replace the injured James Hunt and he immediately produced some magic with a dummy and a superbly straightened run that took him clear through and under the posts, Bond converting for a 3-15 interval lead.

As you know, Bedford has the largest Italian community in the country, but it was not the big Lions support whose patriotic red and white puzzled the azzuri in the town centre in the morning and the thoughts of the locals were more on the Blues' clash with Premiership-bound Bristol.

The players thank all those who wore their club shirts on the day to support the team but circumstances elsewhere could not be overcome.

Against struggling Blaydon, New Brighton could only field half the side who had started against Rugby through broken bones, playing trips to New Zealand, etc.

Tynedale, however, having made their priorities clear by selecting their first team in a County Cup game on the previous Wednesday, were as ineffectual as feared against Cleckheaton, getting to 5-6 ahead just before half time before effectively sticking their hands down their shorts and letting Cleck score 36 unanswered points.

The unpredictabilty of this division's results was confirmed when mediocre Darlington Mowden Park became the first side to beat champions Halifax.

Another Bond penalty marked the restart before an evenly contested period of play saw 20 scoreless minutes.

Then came five tries in the following 15 minutes, two to Athletic and three to Lions with exciting play producing scores for Hyslop again and the two wingers, Andrew Kaminsa and Tim Douglas, with two converted by Bond.

An unnecessary coda saw Karl Braband punched without punishment before Lions came off to appreciative applause, but the awful truth soon filtered through to them.

Rugby, Bedford Athletic and Dudley Kingswinford, the three Midlands clubs, are the three clubs relegated from National League division 3 North. Lions will play there next season, but it will be newly-promoted Leicester Lions, a club only formed in 1999.

If Nuneaton escape relegation, these Lions will be the only Midlands team in the division (unless Kettering win their play-off) and the additional and unfair disadvantage of so much travelling makes them the hottest favourites for relegation imaginable.

Skipper Steve Stewart said: "For me personally and for the rest of the players, it is initially devastating to come off the pitch after a very good win to find we have been relegated.

"It has taken the season to gel the players into a team and to accustom the young players to league rugby.

"Our positive points difference shows how close so many games have been and so the loss of the five league points has taken us down from a mid-table position.

"But this is a squad who are socially closely bonded and I think a lot of them are going to stay. We must come back to pre-season training and work as if we were aiming for promotion out of National 3, not trying to get back in it.

"The situation could be the making of the young talent we have at the club although we will need some old heads for Midlands 1.

"I was there with Birmingham/Solihull; it's a tough division but can be a launching pad for us as it was for them.

"I would like to thank all the supporters who cheered us on at Bedford. I hope it continues through next season."

Director of Rugby, Brett Taylor added: "It was out of our hands today and 'hope' is not a method.

"We have had enough opportunities this season to get enough points for safety although losing the five points in the end proved massive.

"In this final game we showed the width, depth and penetration that we've been working towards all season - but it's taken all season to get that performance.

"Relegation is a great disappointment as the club as a whole has made great strides this season throughout the age groups and in its communications.

"The smaller picture may be gloomy but the bigger picture is one of progress and possibilities. "I want to stay at Rugby - unless the directors don't want me to.

"I have a belief in the club. Some young players will want to play at the highest level they can, and good luck to them if they move on, but I think a lot will stay and I really hope they do.

"Thank you to the supporters for today and all season. I hope to see them all again next season."

Tentative enquiries about players' intentions for next year backed up the belief that many will stay (but one could see up to ten of the squad in this last game not being players at Rugby next season for a variety of reasons and Toby Handley's planned return is now unlikely).

It was disappointing to learn that at least one man who has played many league games this season and would like to stay had still not been approached to be told whether the club wanted to retain him or not.

Informed opinion is that no team can prosper in the very competitive Midlands 1 without enough tough, gnarled old heads as enforcers to deal with the uncompromising type of rugby found there. A sparkling galactico of embryonic stars will simply not be enough on its own.

If spare time hangs heavy on your hands over the summer, look out for the film Bullet Boy, in which twinkle-eyed Lions physio Alan Collins has a speaking role, and he is also to appear later in a TV film about the birth of Rugby Union in which his son James plays Webb Ellis himself. Given that Alan's wife Caroline and daughter Laura look naturals for the silver screen, this could be the start of an acting dynasty to rival even the Minogues...

Rugby Lions: Bond, Kaminsa, Goode, Hunt (Hyslop 20, Braband 73), Douglas, Turner, Cooper, Greenbury (Todd 75), Davies (Todd 1-5), Wati, Hepher, Stewart, Ellis (Carson 58), Collins, Thompson.

l Rugby Lions back-row forward Mark Ellis was suspended for five weeks when he appeared before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel in Coventry on April 19.

Ellis denied striking an opponent with his knee during the National League Three North game against Dudley Kingswinford on March 19, an offence for which he was sent off.

But the panel found Ellis guilty and suspended him from all rugby until May 24. He was also ordered to pay 150 costs.

The case was heard at the Coventry M6 Holiday Inn Hotel by a panel that comprised Richard Moon (chairman), Bob Taylor and Keith Plain.