David Doherty has told the story of how Harrogate experienced mixed emotions before their promotion back to National Two North was rubber-stamped. Photo Credit: Richard Bown
The Yorkshire outfit were relegated from the fourth tier in 2017 and consecutive third-place finishes followed for Harrogate in North Premier.
Once again, the men from Rudding Lane mounted a push for a top two spot this year and with five fixtures remaining, Doherty’s side were just five points behind leaders Blaydon with a game in hand.
However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the campaign was curtailed leaving Harrogate’s fate in the balance along with their fellow promotion candidates.
— Harrogate Rugby (@Harrogate_Rugby) April 3, 2020
In the end, Harrogate were awarded second place by virtue of the RFU’s ‘best record playing formula’, meaning the Yorkshire club’s position in National Two North was confirmed ahead of Newport (Salop) of the Midlands Premier due to them having a better playing record over the course of the season.
Speaking to ncarugby.com, Doherty said: “There certainly were a few nerves! We had five games left, three at home, so we were confident as group that we could end the season strongly.
“We managed to get boys back fit which is a key factor when you are in that race at the top so we were excited about it, but because of what has happened, everyone across the game would have been nervous about outcomes.
“Obviously, the decision has gone in our favour and it is easy to say the RFU made the right judgement, but it is what it is. I feel for the other guys, but on balance, we beat Sandal home and away and Blaydon away, all be it, in a very competitive fixture.
“Of course, we would’ve loved to challenge for the title and I think everyone across the game was gutted, but cutting the season short was the right thing for the wider picture. You have got to balance out people’s love of rugby with the reality and it was, and still is, about keeping people safe.
“At the end of the day, we put ourselves in a good position and thankfully we did get promoted and we just have to prove ourselves in National Two next year.”
Doherty stepped into the role of Director of Rugby at the beginning of the 2016/17 campaign and he also took time to reflect on Harrogate’s journey back to National Two.
— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) May 2, 2017
The club suffered relegation on the final day of that season, but the way the Yorkshire outfit has rebuilt and stuck to its principles is something Doherty takes pride in.
“The first year I came in, it was more about the club rebuilding,” Doherty added.
“We had some significant debt at the club so we needed to get things in order and build a team with young players which didn’t have a lot of first team experience.
“Towards the second half of that season, I think they adapted really well and we would’ve been a midtable side apart from the challenging start we had.
“It is very hard to get young players to be that consistent every week, but with our budget and the way we have gone about it, we have made sure we are now in position where we are very close to being debt free. We’ve now got freehold of our ground which we didn’t have when I came and that is one of the major positives for me and the club.
“What we have built is very different to being the ‘best team.’ I am really proud we stuck by our guns in that first year and we have continued to do that. Players come to the club and generally stay at Harrogate for quite a while because they come for the right reasons.”
Their philosophy of putting faith in their young and loyal players paid off for Harrogate this season and Doherty revealed 16 of the first team squad had either being at the club for four years or more or had come through their junior section.
The likes of Harry Yates and Jack Haydock are prime examples of this and Doherty believes the squad depth the club now has is vital ahead of next season.
He added: “We are a real tight bunch. We have got a really strong Colts group as well and they have been able to come into seniors and add that enthusiasm. They have come into first team rugby and really thrived and we have got a few more boys who hopefully can really add to the group next year so they feel comfortable rather than us just chucking them straight into National League rugby!
“The players also aspire to be in that group and they are inspired by the guys in the first team both on and off the field.”
After a three-year absence, National Two North now beckons for Harrogate and since their last experience in the fourth tier, the competitiveness of the division has increased.
Harrogate will be competing against the likes of Rotherham Titans, Hull Ionians and Fylde next term and Doherty, who has also plied his trade in both the Premiership and Championship, is looking forward to taking the next step.
“It is going to be a massive challenge,” he said. “The reality is there are teams that are going to recruit the players that they are looking to recruit because of their budgets. The nice thing at Harrogate is that we don’t have players who need to hit certain expectations so we are really excited about growing with the group we have got.
“Physically, it is going to be a big step up. You see in set-piece that every team specialises in having a strong platform and also the depth of these squads is also clear to see. That’s one thing that I hope we will be in good position with because there is a lot of challenge in our group.
“Our 1sts and 2nds are always looking to develop so I think that is the nice balance. It is going to be a challenge. There is no doubt about that.
“We’re ambitious and we want to make sure we are fighting it out and winning games. It may be a quicker brand of rugby for us to move the ball around and we’ll certainly try an out manoeuvre teams so we have got to challenge teams in that respect, but it will be a really good challenge overall and one we are looking forward to.”