THERE was no Grand Final double for Underbank Rangers as their dreams were shattered by a Hemel Stags side who showed exactly why they’ll be stepping up into the semi-professional Co-operative Championship I next season.
Head coach Richard Knight’s men may have finished this summer campaign as National Conference League III minor champions and had the experience of winning last year’s Grand Final at Warrington.
But when it came to the crunch, it was the side from Hemel Hempstead who were better equipped to take the honours when it really mattered to secure a thoroughly-deserved 17-10 triumph at Featherstone Rovers’ Big Fellas Stadium.
And won’t Rangers be glad to see the back of them!
Despite being the dominant force throughout much of the weekly rounds, Underbank came unstuck only when they faced one team – Hemel Stags.
Not only did the southern-based side secure the League double over Bank, they also won 24-14 at The Cross in the qualifying semi-final the fortnight before.
That was by far the clearest warning that only Rangers’ very best would be good enough on the Grand Final stage. Unfortunately, they were unable to deliver.
It’s true, the Holmfirth-based side did have their moments, and when they took a 10-6 lead after 23 hard-fought minutes, there was genuine hope this could be their day.
But with some poor execution and decision-making at crucial times and the concession of some cheap penalties – albeit a number of which could be described as a little harsh – the Stags had that little extra edge, with man-of-the-match goal-kicking scrum half Ryan Butcher making all the difference in the world.
Although Rangers half-backs Neil Barrett and Kris Harrop worked hard on the back of a fairly solid forward platform laid by the likes of industrious prop David Valentine and battling back-rowers Lee St Hilaire and Nick Briggs, they were no match for their opposite numbers of Butcher and stand-off Sean Johnson.
The Stags’ halves were in their element profiting on the back of a Hemel pack that may have lacked skill but made up for it in bulk – big time!
To say the Stags’ forwards were far bigger than Rangers’ more mobile front men would be a massive understatement. They were huge.
And those extra stones down the middle were a big factor in keeping Bank on the back foot for large parts of the contest, particularly during the opening half when Rangers were playing up the notorious Featherstone slope.
Having said that, it didn’t stop Rangers making a highly-promising start.
Within four minutes they were unlucky not to take the lead when Barrett’s short pass to put St Hilaire over was ruled forward – which was to be the first of a number of 50-50 calls ruled by referee Darren Hayes against Knight’s side.