ORKNEY are finding getting back into the National Leagues hard going after narrowly losing out to fellow promotion candidates Dunfermline in an tense affair at the McKane Park on Saturday, but despite that 11-7 defeat they are still warm favourites to top Caledonia Division One.
The islanders are one point behind the Fifers but have two games in hand going into the last third of the competition, and according to head coach Garry Coltherd are well placed to achieve their objective of going back to National League Three.
“We always knew it was going to be tough after they ran us close up in Kirkwall earlier in the season,” he said. “We had our chances but had to settle for a losing bonus point which may yet be extremely valuable. But I will back us to go up. This has been our target all along.”
The visitors led 7-3 at half time but were unable to cement their position in the second period when the home side took control with a penalty and an unconverted try to set up a thrilling climax to the season for both contenders, although Ellon and Caithness still have outside chances of overhauling the two leaders.
Orkney are, in fact, no strangers to fighting to go up into the National Leagues, having spent a number of years in the 1990s trying not only to win games but beat a system which was not overly supportive of having an island team competing nationwide.
There is one thing for certain, the popular Orcadians will have the backing of most mainland teams should they go up, something they could not have said at the tail-end of the last century when it was clear teams saw them as an expense they did not need.
The ruling body clearly agreed, for why else would they have placed so many obstacles in the way of an aspiring club who only wanted to better themselves?
The situation rightly intrigued the central belt media, including The Scotsman and The Herald newspapers who both paid my trips to various parts of Scotland to cover play-off games involving Orkney, including three trips to Kirkwall. This, after all, was a David versus Goliath clash well worthy of coverage.
The first play-off game I covered was at Invergordon where Helensburgh beat Orkney on a ground which was deemed to be neutral.
Next was RAF Lossiemouth where the islanders did battle with Ellon, the most progressive team of that era who went on to win six consecutive promotions. That encounter was memorable in part for the security arrangements that required each and every one of the 600 spectators to be signed in at the camp’s guardhouse which delayed the kick-off by 15 minutes.
I was also present at Pickaquoy on February 8th 1997 when Ellon again were the opponents on a day when 300 spectators braved the elements to watch Orkney win 43- 9. So foul were the conditions that Ellon’s chartered flight was the only one to land at Kirkwall Airport that day.
And yet, despite all these play-off deciders, there was no evidence of the SRU relenting and allowing Orkney into the National Leagues.
The biggest farce of a game was the so called final league game of the 1999 season when islanders were scheduled to meet Mackie FP’s in Kirkwall and informed by the SRU that they needed to win by 78 points to go up. So, there I was again back on a plane from Aberdeen to Kirkwall with a request from the ruling body to ring back with the final score. This I duly did, happily reporting that Orkney had in fact won 105-0 on a beautifully warm, spring day in front of over 1,500 spectators who rejoiced in the fact that surely their team was now on the way to the big time of Scottish rugby.
But even as the fog rolled in from the North Sea over the Island, a fax from the SRU arrived informing Orkney that the championship committee had invoked clause 16.4 of the constitution and that they would not be promoted.
At this point I almost gave up but then so did the SRU, who folded under the volume of support from the game for the men of Pickaquoy, not least I am told from senior players from the Scotland team in the 1990s.
The rest, of course, is history, with Orkney going on to make friends all over Scotland in their fulfilment of national league fixtures. A trip to Orkney is now considered a must for many teams, not least for the warmth of hospitality received there.
Hopefully, and with no disrespect to Dunfermline, normal service will be resumed in the 2022-23 season, three years after the islanders were relegated.