THERE was a point in this intriguing Championship play-offs semi-final first leg where rampant Doncaster Knights easily looked capable of amassing more than 40 points and, in effect, making the second leg a dead rubber.
Having built up a 27-3 lead at Headingley after 64 minutes, with a dominant scrum in total command and error-ridden Yorkshire Carnegie bereft of any semblance of control or guile, Clive Griffiths’s side could have finished the tie there and then.
However, they did not and, instead, by the end, they were actually almost grateful of taking a 13-point advantage into next Sunday’s return at Castle Park.
Bristol, who topped the table and vanquished Bedford Blues 45-16 in their own away leg yesterday, will almost certainly await the victors in the final when a place in the Premiership is the prize.
For all their late wobble here, Griffiths remains confident his squad will complete their own job to line up against them.
“They (Carnegie) finished well and I would have been disappointed had they scored another try late on, as they threatened to do,” conceded the Welshman, after Oli Goss and Chris Walker crossed in the 70th and 80th minute.
“But I would have settled for a 13 point win at the start of the game.
“We’ve got a cushion going into the second leg. We know they will throw everything at us on Sunday and look to start how they finished here.
“It’s certainly not over by any means and the job is only half done; I expect a ding-dong affair at Castle Park
“But we have some points in the bag and we’ve won the game at Headingley. That puts us in the driving seat.”
He hailed his “magnificent” front-row for asserting so much authority, Richard List, Ben Hunter and Colin Quigley making life miserable for Carnegie, who were hapless at times.
It was a strange game in many ways. The visitors were 17-3 ahead at half-time which was some feat, not only because this was a play-off tie but, moreover, given they lost five of their own line-outs in the opening 40 minutes.
Ordinarily, that Doncaster set-piece is so solid but here, whether over-throwing, not straight or seeing balls palmed down only for Carnegie to mop up, it was initially comparatively shambolic.
That said, the hosts’ line-out was also shaky, too, Jon Phelan stealing their first of the afternoon, and their scrum, of course, was a mess as well.
Griffiths’s side, however, did more with the possession they did secure, scoring two tries.
The first came as early as the sixth minute. Andy Bulumakau, the winger preferred to the fit-again Dougie Flockhart, embarrassed opposite wideman Taylor Prell on the outside to get into Carnegie territory and, soon after, the centre Will Hurrell bumped off a defender to cross the line.
It was meek defence from the hosts and the same could be the said when conceding the second on 38 minutes.
Granted, they were a man light, prop Charlie Beech yellow-carded moments earlier for dragging down a maul when Doncaster did finally get a line-out right. With Latu Makaafi’s charge denied, there should have been no real threat to Carnegie when Bulumakau came in off his wing behind the ruck to take scrum-half Michael Heaney’s pass.
However, they seemed taken aback by his injection of pace and the Fijian – who will miss the second leg after departing with a calf injury in the second period – squeezed over between two flat-footed defenders alarmingly rooted to their own goalline.
Declan Cuscack converted both having also slotted a penalty in between and all Carnegie could muster was Kevin Sinfield’s injury-time kick.
The second period did not start much better for Carnegie as Andy Saull spilled an easy pass down the touchline and then Phelan stole another line-out on their own 22.
Next they were punished three times consecutively at a 5m scrum to concede a penalty try meaning, during Beech’s absence, they slipped from 10-0 down to 24-3.
Cusack then kicked another scrum penalty but his side did not advance as they would have hoped.
Instead, No8 Ryan Burrows, always a talisman for Carnegie, breathed life into them with a series of bullocking runs late on.
He stormed through to lay the platform for Goss’s try and then, after another run and with just 37 seconds of normal time remaining, Walker crossed from a driving maul, both converted.
The energised hosts, now throwing the ball around at will, pressed for a further score in almost 10 minutes of injury-time but Doncaster, avenging their 27-20 loss at Headingley in October, held on.
Yorkshire Carnegie: Holmes; Goss (Imiolek 45-50 Sinfield 76), Forsyth, Lucock, Prell; Sinfield (Hodgson 63), Pilgrim (Green 61); Beech (Imiolek 50), J Walker (Nilsen 76), O’Donnell (Tideswell 50), Myerscough (Schofield 50), Smith, Beck, Saull (C Walker 50), Burrows.
Doncaster Knights: Jarvis; Bulumakau (Bryant 67), Clark, Hurrell, Lewis; Cusack, Heaney; List (Brugnara 62), Hunter (Veikoso 79), Quigley (John 56), Challinor (Young 72), Phelan, Makaafi (Stedman 62), Hills, Shaw. Unused replacement: Field.
Referee: Craig Maxwell Keys.