Two years ago South Tyneside College were rock-bottom of the rugby pyramid and heading for oblivion but, rising from the ashes, they are back with a bang and on course for promotion.
Saturday sees the top two teams in Durham and Northumberland Three doing battle when they travel to league leaders Winlaton Vulcans, team manager and first-team second-row Daniel McKay explaining their remarkable turnaround in fortunes.
“My dad played for the club, so from the age of five or six I was going to the rugby and watching him,” said McKay, who returned to the game back in 2012 after a year and a half away from rugby with a cruciate knee ligament injury.
“I played for South Tyneside College as early as I could, but the season before last the club nearly folded through lack of numbers.
“We were getting hammered home and away by teams we really should not have been losing to.
“We finished rock-bottom of the league system, and a few of us just got our heads together.
“We got a new captain, roped a few of our old friends back in from Harton School and involved a lot of guys who had fallen away from the game for one reason or another but were keen to come back.”
Finding new leadership as well as a fresh injection to their playing base, McKay explained: “We played Westoe in a pre-season friendly and a guy called Tom Brooks, who is a teacher at Harton, just came down to watch.
“He pulled the captain and I aside after the game and said he wanted to get into coaching, and he is now our head coach.
“Last season we missed out on promotion by a couple of wins, we strengthened again in the summer and this season it is between ourselves and Winlaton for the No 1 spot.”
Having had no game last weekend due to Washington being unable to field a side, the gap between South Tyneside College and Winlaton is now eight points, albeit with McKay’s side having three games in hand still to play.
“It is going really well, and just having a coach in charge at all has been a massive help in terms of organisation and structure,” said the manager.
“Before that we were basically coaching ourselves and it was always a social, but we want to progress in the leagues now as well as obviously keeping that enjoyment factor.
“We are a club that wants to move forward, and we are all really good friends.
“It is like going into battle with your mates every time we play, and a win means so much to us.”
Playing their home games in South Shields, the lock-forward said: “We are based at the Westoe campus. We are not a representative team for South Tyneside College as such, but we have always had good links with them and had a fair few students play for us.
“Some of our committee guys are lecturers there, which keeps the link, and this year we have had quite an influx.
“Two weeks ago we managed to field a third team for the first time and, while that will not realistically be a regular thing at the moment, it would be nice to be able to do it every once in a while.
“On a good weekend we could probably field two sides and have a further 12 or so lads available for a third team.
“We are active on social media and on the college noticeboards, just trying to get the word out really for people wanting to come down and get involved.”
Understandably focused on Saturday’s potential title decider at Winlaton, McKay is keen to do the double over a Vulcans side who were beaten 17-14 when they last met in November.
“Two teams go up and two come down in our league.
“We are currently second with games in hand, but we want to go up as champions and no one remembers runners-up,” he said.
“We beat Winlaton at home earlier in the season in a very close game and we are going to go there to win, not for them to roll us over and tickle our bellies.
“They had a really good fly-half when they played us, who also plays rugby league for Gateshead Storm.
“It makes a difference because not a lot of sides at this level have such a good goal-kicker.
“That means we will pay for any bad discipline inside our own half, and our coach has been really good with us in terms of hammering home how important it is not to give away penalties. Winlaton also have a good set of backs, but if we have everyone available I am confident we can go there and do the job.”
Keeping an eye on the bigger picture and hoping other clubs can learn from their resurgence, he said: “The fact that we nearly folded but came back from the brink,I think it can show teams in similar positions at the moment that they can turn it around.
“All it takes is a few people getting their heads together, and the support is there with Matt Bryan as Durham’s RFU development officer.
“He has been instrumental in helping us get organised, and now with our latest project in trying to get some new facilities.
“We got our RFU accreditation just before Christmas, and we are a club now which is moving in the right direction.
“Winning the league this season would be massive for us, and that is the short-term target.”