MICHAEL HILLS has spoken of his “immense pride” at the prospect of captaining hometown Doncaster Knights in their maiden Championship play-offs final and insisted any nerves will only bring positive effects.
The industrious openside, who returned to the club in 2013 to help guide them out of National One, will captain Doncaster tonight as they now face favourites Bristol for a Premiership place.
The first leg gets underway at Castle Park before the second 80 minutes take place at Bristol in a week’s time.
Their opponents are, of course, massive favourites to progress given their vast experience, status and pedigree but they are only too aware of the South Yorkshire club’s own threat.
Indeed, the last side to defeat Bristol in the league was Doncaster who won 39-27 at Ashton Gate although that was back in November and Andy Robinson’s side have won 15 successive Championship games since.
Furthermore, Bristol, who have spent millions trying to regain their Premiership place after relegation in 2009, are in a third successive play-offs final.
In contrast, this is new ground for Doncaster who finished second behind Bristol and also become the first Yorkshire side in sevens years of the format to reach the promotion showpiece.
Nevertheless, there is an inner belief among the tight-knit squad that they can inflict more heartache on their illustrious opponents who boast internationals galore in their side, including captain David Lemi, the Samoa wing.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post last night, Hills said: “We had our final team run this morning and it is a nervy time.
“But I think that’s a good thing. You don’t want to be too relaxed or over-nervous and I feel there’s definitely nerves and excitement about the lads which will help us.
“We have to control that, of course, and get into the game early but we’re all looking forward to this opportunity.
“I’m immensely proud. It’s a great honour to run out and lead the team tomorrow. I think the lads have put in so much hard work that, as a team, we definitely deserve to be where we are.
“It all comes down to two games now. We’ll take the first being at home and we’ll enjoy it.
“Given the crowd we got in the semi - there’s going to be more again on Wednesday - the atmosphere will be great. Our fans always get behind us and that give us an extra few percent, too.”
Hills, 30, has experience of completing this critical final stage of an arduous campaign having earned promotion with London Welsh when they defeated Cornish Pirates in 2012.
Asked how it would feel to repeat the feat with Clive Griffiths’ side, he replied: “It would be brilliant. When I left London Welsh to come back to Doncaster it’s because this is where I started my rugby and started enjoying it.
“I had many meetings with Clive who had this vision - some will have thought it was just a pipedream - of getting back into the Championship and then to the top end of that. We’ve managed to get to where his vision was - and now there’s only one more step to take.”
It goes without saying there is sure to be tension in the Bristol camp given their painful recent experiences here; they have finished top five times since 2010 yet still operate in the second tier.
If Doncaster can build an early lead this evening - as they did at Yorkshire Carnegie in the semi-final first leg - that could certainly make the revered visitors fragile once more.
Hills insisted: “We’ve got to concentrate on our own process.
“The pressure in many ways will be put on them by themselves. We’ve got to go out there and not worry about that.
“I feel in that first leg against Carnegie we did that very well. We went out and played rugby. It was in our mindset to do so.
“It’s well-documented how Bristol have fared in play-offs final but we won’t worry about that.
“We’ll just go out there to perform and put on a show.”
Hills played alongside Jason Robinson in the Sale Sharks side that actually won the Premiership title in 2006.
He recalled: “I only made about three appearances that season but it was a brilliant experience.
“It was nice to be a part of and we had some great stars in that side. You work so hard to get to somewhere and the chance to play at the top level.
“Every player at this level aspires to be playing in this game now and we’re doing it.”