IT could not have been scripted better as a second successive Saturday of excruciating tension for Darlington Mowden Park had an extra special ending.
Extra time was four minutes into overtime when scrum half Zylon McGaffin delivered the perfect parting gift by nipping over for the try which secured Mowden’s place in National One.
The score in the play-off at home to Ampthill was 25-25 at the end of normal time, prompting an extra ten minutes each way, which the visitors dominated.
They led through a penalty in the first period and their stronger, more experienced forwards were successfully running down the clock until Mowden secured possession when time was almost up.
The referee could not blow for time until there was a breakdown in play and Mowden continually recycled the ball for four minutes, knowing that one knock-on would end it.
They were finally awarded a penalty five metres from the line, but there was no point in going for goal to level the scores again as Ampthill would have won by virtue of scoring three tries to one.
McGaffin, as he had done several times, took it quickly and scrambled over, giving Mowden a 30-28 win and prompting scenes of wild celebration.
The South African is to play for Rotherham next season, while lock Pierce Phillips will also be performing one level above Mowden for Jersey. But everyone else is expected to stay for a season which will bring five trips to London to play the likes of Rosslyn Park and Richmond. Once mighty Coventry will also be on the fixture list, with the “derbies” being against Blaydon, Tynedale and Wharfedale.
Mowden are already working on strengthening their squad but chairman Mike Keeligan stressed that this season’s heroes will be given their chance.
“We need to recruit because National One clubs have strength in depth and we will come up against bigger packs,” he said. “But the young lads of 19 or 20 in our pack will get bigger and stronger and deserve their chance after winning promotion for us.
“Talite Vaioleti needs a shoulder operation but insisted on playing against Ampthill. He loves it here.”
The ex-Tonga international had to be replaced after 50 minutes, leaving Mowden with no-one over 24 on the field and Keeligan said: “I don’t know were the players got their strength and spirit from in the last few minutes.
“After the huge effort they put in to beat Macclesfield I felt they were perhaps a bit jaded. But they all put their bodies on the line against a very good side.
“We are already talking to some potential new players and we have a lot to offer here.
People said we were mad to move to the Northern Echo Arena 15 months ago. I don’t want to gloat and say we have proved them wrong, but we are doing OK.
“The Arena has provided an impetus and the big crowds for the last two games have shown that we are attracting people to the game of rugby.
Promotion has rounded off a very good year.”
It was too much to expect the marketing team to attract a repeat of the
3,750 who watched the Macclesfield match, but 975 ignored the other Bank Holiday attractions.
Teams who are heavily out-scrummaged rarely win, but Mowden’s never-say-die spirit kept them in the game and they almost won it without recourse to extra time.
Some couldn’t bear to watch as Tom Hodgson lined up his seventh penalty in injury time. For the second successive week it seemed the fly half would have a 100 per cent record as the 40-metre kick soared towards the target. But it drifted inches wide.
Hodgson had kicked superbly, landing six penalties and converting Mowden’s only try, scored by left winger Tom Kill.
That came shortly after the visitors had gone ahead when Mowden went backwards at a scrum and Hodgson’s hasty attempted clearance was plucked off his boot by his opposite number, who had a clear run to the posts.
The only time a gap opened up was when Hodgson kicked three successive penalties to earn a 19-10 interval lead. A visiting flanker crashed over by the posts just before half-time and couldn’t believe it when the referee ruled he hadn’t grounded the ball.
A penalty followed by a converted catch-and-drive try after 57 minutes put Ampthill in front and after Hodgson struck again from 40 metres the visiting full back showed electrifying pace in racing outside the defence to score in the right corner.
That made it 25-22 to Ampthill, but through impeding McGaffin’s attempts to take quick penalties they gave Hodgson a simple chance to level the scores with six minutes left.
Two minutes into injury time came his chance of glory. Many thought the well-struck kick was over, but the agony of that miss turned to sheer ecstasy in the end.