THE DEDICATION of the North East Worcestershire Ravens Rugby League side was rewarded with their appearance in the Midlands regional semi-final at the weekend.
The Ravens’ tenth anniversary season has proved to be the hardest in their history, having had to completely rebuild the side after many established players defected to a new local club in protest against the Hopwood club’s youth policy.
Left with several loyal young players and a handful of club stalwarts, club captain Dave Swaysland and Director of Rugby Jason Spafford committed to march on through the season despite all the odds stacked against them and it culminated in Ravens pushing hosts Sherwood Wolf Hunt all the way in the Midlands regional semi-final on Saturday.
Throughout this campaign Ravens have travelled to various games with a bare squad of 13 or less and the team have taken some beatings from some outstanding sides, but gained great respect from their opposition for turning up and never giving up.
Training numbers began to increase as other clubs in the league started to struggle, but Ravens had several clubs pull their visits to Hopwood Park, forcing the Worcestershire side to travel far and wide looking for games.
By the end of the regular Midlands Premier Division season, the club had a strong squad who had only played three home games in the whole season, but had travelled anywhere to get a game.
The character of the players and the ethos of the club had gained them eighth place in the table and more importantly the last play-off position.
Therefore, a regional semi-final against Sherwood Wolf Hunt awaited, pitting Ravens against a side who had beaten them 100-6 just a month earlier.
Ravens mustered a squad of 16 and arrived at Sherwood to meet the strong Wolf Hunt side, who had bragged on Twitter that they wanted to score 101 points this time.
Ravens’ inspirational coach used this to motivate his players ahead of kick-off and the game started with ferocious driving and tackling from both sides until Sherwood sneaked through to score first in the corner in the seventh minute.
This seemed to give Wolf Hunt the assurance they had the game in the bag and they duly relaxed, but at the same time Ravens hit fifth gear.
The Worcestershire side smashed into Sherwood for the next four minutes until a strong play by Karl Wesley broke the line and he scored a try between the posts for the experienced and calm head of the young Dave Wimbury to convert.
The assault continued when Dave Pearson outpassed the home defence to score Ravens’ second try, again converted masterfully by Wimbury.
Wimbury later put in a pinpoint cross-field kick – executed so skilfully it went straight into the arms of full back Brad Sinclair – and with blistering pace and the agility of a gazelle he skilfully stepped around his opposition and scored out wide.
Sherwood, stunned by Ravens’ much-improved performance, revived their efforts and scored three tries in quick succession, but Richard Whitehouse was not prepared to stand for this and rallied the troops by smashing through the tight defensive line to score just before half time and give the visitors a 22-20 half time lead.
In the second half Sherwood used a completely different strategy as they used physicality to turn the game into a battle rather than a rugby match.
Ravens faced fists, elbows and boots in every tackle and the hosts took the lead with a converted try.
Ravens began to suffer injuries and the tries started to flow against them.
The hosts’ four-man squad advantage soon made the difference as they stretched into a 48-22 lead and the match was ended prematurely in the 70th minute when Ravens winger Ryan Banner suffered a neck injury in the 70th minute.
Both teams agreed to call it a day in favour of the best possible care for the injured youngster. Banner, who was flown to Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham and later discharged with a chipped vertebrae, is expected to fully recover.
Ravens’ juniors celebrated the end of the season with a barbecue on Sunday and the senior squad will be marking the end of the tenth anniversary season with an awards night and social event on Friday, September 4, before heading off on their first tour in October.