Jon Phelan in bid to end journey on perfect high with Doncaster Knights

UNSTOPPABLE: Canadian lock Jon Phelan has proven one of the stars of Doncasters season, which continues on Wednesday in the play-off final with Bristol. Picture:  Bruce Rollinson
UNSTOPPABLE: Canadian lock Jon Phelan has proven one of the stars of Doncasters season, which continues on Wednesday in the play-off final with Bristol. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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IF Doncaster Knights do complete their incredible journey next week and actually win promotion to the Premiership, then Canadian lock Jon Phelan will need to have a few serious conversations with various people.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Championship play-offs final first leg versus Bristol, he has already told the Knights director of rugby Clive Griffiths that he will be heading back across the Atlantic next season.

Afterall, Phelan, a qualified structural engineer, has been on the road living the dream of being a professional player since he was 24. He is now 30.

He initially joined Welsh side RGC 1404 – then led by Griffiths, who was also his Canada coach – and began his development there before spending a season in France with Lille Metropole and arriving at Castle Park two years ago.

Phelan, such a dominating presence in Doncaster’s line-out as they secured their highest-ever finish of second this term, has blossomed.

However, as he told The Yorkshire Post: “Much to Griff’s dismay, I have decided to head home.

“It has been a big decision. As much as I’m loving my time here with Knights, life moves forward and here in Doncaster it’s not really moving forward for me.

“I have a girlfriend, family and career back home and, at 30 years-old, it’s time to get back to real life.

“This has been a pretty amazing six years I’ve had going full-on as a professional rugby player, but the time has come to go back to what I did before – working as a structural engineer in Canada.”

That is all well and good. But what if he and his fearless team-mates do upset the odds further – they were battling relegation at one point only last season – and defeat favourites Bristol over the next 160 minutes to earn a place at the sport’s top table?

“If we did make it to the Premiership then I would have to have another talk with Griff. And try and have the conversation with the girlfriend!” added Phelan. “We’ve been doing this long-distance now for three years…

“But I don’t even know where I’d stand (with Doncaster). You’d hope to be involved but who knows…

“Anyway, for now, I’m just concentrating on Bristol.

“I’m looking at some of their line-outs now.”

Phelan has been a real force in that set-piece area for Knights where he reliably secures his own ball but so often manages to steal that of the opponents, too.

If Doncaster can gain the edge there in the first leg at Castle Park on Wednesday, it will go a long way towards helping potentially build-up an advantage to take to Bristol a week later.

They, of course, memorably won at the Memorial Ground 
39-27 in November, inflicting one of only two home defeats on a Bristol side that finished top of the table by a margin of 16 points.

Only an injury-time try conceded to former England winger Tom Varndell with the game’s final play saw the Knights prevented from completing an historic double when they lost 31-29 at Castle Park in March.

For all of the millions, then, that traditional giants Bristol have spent in trying to return to the Premiership – this is the third successive year they have finished top – unfashionable Doncaster have fair reason to believe in their maiden appearance.

“We definitely believe in ourselves,” admitted Phelan.

“We were the only side in the regular season to gain an aggregate win over Bristol.

“Are we confident or over-confident? We have confidence in ourselves to be able to do this.

“We just need to get it right on the night and go through our processes.”

Add in the fact Andy Robinson’s side have traditionally fallen at this crucial hurdle – Worcester Warriors denied them last year, London Welsh, the season before that – and there is all the more reason for confidence.

Indeed, Bristol lost their first play-offs final to Exeter Chiefs in 2010 and did not even qualify despite finishing top two years later.

“They will be under pressure,” added Phelan.

“They have been here a number of times before and not made it. It’s up to us to see if we can re-open some of those old wounds. Nobody expected us to be here. “

When Phelan arrived at Doncaster in the summer of 2014, the club had just returned to the second tier as National One champions.

“I knew last season, my first here, that we were a good team and were just missing out by a few points in a lot of games,” he recollected. We came away from that campaign knowing we were very, very close to being a team that could compete at the top end.”