SUNDERLAND clinched promotion back to Durham and Northumberland Division One at the first time of asking with a thrilling 20-6 win against Whitley Bay Rockliffe on Saturday.
An 87th minute try from skipper Peter Carter clinched the all-important bonus point that means Sunderland now travel to Whitby next week with nothing resting on the game.
With a vocal crowd of around 200, which included Newcastle Falcons director of Rugby Dean Richards among its number, a bright spring day and a wide firm pitch meant that the scene was set for a great day of rugby between the teams in second and third place in the league.
Despite a relatively low scoring game, it had everything for the spectators and as if things weren’t tense enough already, the kick-off was delayed while Whitley Bay had to find their change strip – with the referee deeming both kits too similar!
Sunderland took the ascendancy from the start and played the opening minutes in the Rockliffe 22 without creating any chances, and a penalty allowed Rockliffe to clear their lines.
Much of the talk before the game had surrounded whether Sunderland would be able to cope with the pacy Whitley Bay backline that had torn many a team in this division apart. Sunderland’s cause wasn’t helped by the loss of seven backs due to injury and unavailability in the build-up to the game, so a makeshift backline had been named.
It was from that backline that Sunderland opened the scoring when Craig O’Donnovan, largely employed on the wing this season but starting at 13, touched down for a try.
A chip into the Sunderland 22 from Sunderland scrum-half Michael Brace had given the Whitley Bay backline their first touch of the ball.
Whether it was arrogance or naivety that made them believe they could run the ball back from their own tryline under pressure from Tom Townend and Andy Sumner will never be known but that pressure allowed O’Donnovan to get up in the face of the home winger.
O’Donnovan stripped the winger and had the easiest of scores from five metres out.
Rockliffe then went on the offensive. They found some joy with their backline exploiting gaps in the Sunderland defence and a break from half way was only stopped when Simon Coleman stepped in from the wing and attempted an interception, but was adjudged to have deliberately knocked on.
Rockliffe took a quick penalty and made their way up to the Sunderland five-metre line where they repeatedly drove at the Sunderland line – only to be rebuffed by some solid defensive work, with Pete Harrison and Damian Martinez tireless in their efforts.
Sunderland ended the Whitley Bay attack after conceding a number of penalties and when there was a break, Simon Coleman was sin-binned for his deliberate knock on. Rockliffe kicked the penalty to reduce the arrears.
Whitley Bay soon found themselves in exactly the same position five metres out from the Sunderland line but despite numerous attempts to cross they couldn’t quite make it.
Dan Abraham led the defensive efforts this time but not always legally and Sunderland conceded another penalty in front of the posts. In a case of mistaken identity, Michael Brace was sent to the sin bin to reduce Sunderland to 13 men.
Rockliffe kicked the penalty to take the lead 6-5.
Adam Reay came on to stand in at scrum-half in Brace’s absence but after two minutes suffered what turned out to be a badly broken thumb. Reay manfully battled on and saw out a further ten minutes before Brace returned to the fold.
Sunderland conceded no further points during their spell with a numerical disadvantage in a superb rearguard defensive display but Whitley Bay held on for a 6-5 half-time lead.
The visitors took the lead after being knocked back in an attempted a catch and drive lineout. The ball was spread wide and ended up with Martin Watt, who crashed over the line despite the attention of two defenders.
Sunderland were forced into a reshuffle when O’Donnovan was forced from the pitch with a knee injury, meaning Coleman moved into the centres and flanker Joe Arrowsmith showed his versatility by moving to the wing. Andy Wordsworth replaced Arrowsmith on the flank.
Whitley Bay then took the initiative from the restart and put Sunderland under pressure but more excellent defensive work kept them out with Chris Geehan and Jake Belfield putting in hit after hit. A failed drop goal attempt showed Rockliffe’s frustrations.
After clearing their lines, it was Sunderland’s turn to go on the offensive. Repeated runs from their forwards were halted short of the line but where Whitley Bay failed, Sunderland were successful as the ball was spun out to Carter, who drew the last defender and fed Watt to score from close range.
With the clock ticking down, it looked like Sunderland would still need to pick up a point at Whitby this weekend to clinch promotion.
With three minutes left, though, they were awarded a penalty seven metres out.
Carter was the first to react with a quick tap penalty that caught the Rockliffe defence napping and piled over to clinch the crucial bonus point.
Chairman Paul Geehan said: “The players were great today and really deserve their promotion.
“I’m proud of everyone that has pulled on the shirt this year and contributed to our success.”
Joe Arrowsmith took the man-of-the-match award having been a thorn in the Rockliffe side all day.