The tale of Wetherby Rugby Club is one which could quite feasibly pass as a children’s novel, and it could have a fairytale ending at Twickenham later this season.
Forty-eight league matches ago, Wetherby were a run of the mill side in Yorkshire Four, aiming to finish in the top three of another attritional season.
Years before, the club had endured the strife of pondering their future as a competitive outfit. An escape route was found through the club’s thriving junior section, with teenagers backed to bring fortune to the club.
A move to a new facility aided the process, so did the hardy work of an aspirational committee and the persistent pestering of two captains.
Now, 48 games into an unbeaten streak – which has seen the club win its last 43 matches – the painstaking decisions to keep the club afloat can be looked back on rather fondly.
The Reds are marching towards back-to-back promotions under head coach Mike McHugh-Hicks. They are on course to rise up to Yorkshire Division Two, and have a return trip to Twickenham in their sights after winning the national ‘club of the year’ prize for their unbeaten season 12 months ago at England’s home in May.
“We have all stuck at it and we can’t believe our luck,” said former chairman Brian Aston as he perused over the pitch ahead of a crunch clash against Northallerton on Saturday. It’s one of those things like Clive Woodward when England won the World Cup. It’s the right man, at the right place, at the right club, just as the juniors were producing.”
The unbeaten journey began back in February 2014. On the back of two straight defeats against Northallerton (29-8 on February 1) and Old Otliensians (14-11 on February 8), Wetherby edged past Sheffield Oaks in a quite ordinary 12-0 victory.
For that to begin a run lasting almost two years, was quite unthinkable.
Wetherby finished that campaign with two draws and a further three victories but it wasn’t until the following winter when the fireworks really began to fire.
The 2014/15 campaign started with a bang. The Reds racked up a century of points to defeat neighbours Knaresborough 104-5, just 24 points short of their thumping win over the same opposition later in the season.
Sheffield Oaks were soon to play a second role in the story, too. In October 2014, they were thumped by a club – and potentially league – record scoreline of 136-0 by the free-flowing Reds.
That was to be the most emphatic of days in an unbeaten season but trophies arrived in the new year as McHugh-Hicks’ side wrapped up a league title and beat sides from the level above to secure the Yorkshire Silver Trophy in Hull in May.
Such success brought national recognition, too, and the Rugby Football Union awarded Wetherby the ‘Team of the Year’ prize at their annual awards. Promotion followed but it could not quell the winning feeling. And 14 wins to start the season completed the first undefeated calendar in the club’s history.
“Within the divisions and within Yorkshire, they know that Wetherby is here now,” said chairman Charlie Wetton. “It’s great for the town. It’s putting Wetherby on the map.
“I am just proud of all the players. They all want to play for Wetherby. The big clubs that used to come pinch from Wetherby know that they want to stay and play for us.”
The trouble with players leaving the club was one of the factors which led to the dark days of 2008. There were days when the club turned up for battle with just 12 men. Wetherby were playing in the lowest tier of rugby. There weren’t many positives to garner.
“There was a very real danger of becoming a social side away from the Yorkshire League structures,” said club captain Danny Warden.
“The guys managed to keep the club running and even fielded sides with 12 or 13 men at times.
“It kept the club just afloat and buoyant until two or three age groups of the juniors made their way through.
“We have a massive junior section and it’s that junior section who now make up 80 per cent of our first team. Thank God we managed to keep them.”
Danny Warden had led the team at their lowest ebb before he left to join West Park Leeds and further his own career. He was dragged back by the aspiration shown by the club seven years later, and he now has the honour to lead his side towards an undefeated half century.
“Everything is going in the right direction at the minute and we just need to continue it,” the skipper said.
“When I left West Park, there were two divisions between the two and I set myself a personal target of playing against my old friends with Wetherby. That would just about complete my career. Coming back into the club again on the run they were on, I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting to 50 wins on the bounce but now we are not too far from it.”
The winning streak has not happened by chance. But it has astonished players, members and supporters alike. The decision to back the current crop of talent has paid dividends, and now those players, members and supporters are wondering what will be next.
In two weeks’ time the club could celebrate 50 games unbeaten, while in two months they have the chance of reaching two years undefeated.
By then, promotion to Yorkshire Two should be almost secured and Hicks and his squad can focus all their attentions on a fairytale ending in the National Junior Vase at Twickenham.
Warden added: “We are potentially in for three bits of silverware this year so we just need to keep on performing the way we can. We don’t want to count our chickens just yet but fingers crossed we can get to Twickenham.”