Interview: Doncaster Knights crusade heads to the promised land

Doncaster Knights chairman Tony De Mulder pictured in the De Mulder Lloyd Stand at the Knights' Castle Park ground. (Picture: Scott Merrylees)
Doncaster Knights chairman Tony De Mulder pictured in the De Mulder Lloyd Stand at the Knights' Castle Park ground. (Picture: Scott Merrylees)
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THE whole sport of rugby union, not just Doncaster Knights where he is so central, has changed so much since Tony De Mulder first became involved.

He celebrated his 25th anniversary as chairman of the aspiring Championship club a week ago and could today see them go top of the division – which is just one step away from the glory of the Premiership – if they win at Bedford Blues.

However, his first recollections of Doncaster rugby go back more than double that tenure to as long ago as 1962.

Looking back on more than half-a-century of memories, the 72-year-old businessman, whose generosity has helped catapult them up the leagues, admitted: “I’ve enjoyed it all. My playing days were absolutely wonderful times, the days when the sport was completely amateur.

“My first away game for Doncaster was at Driffield and I remember it to this day.

“I’d just come out of school, I’d been picked for the first-team and the chap in front of me called Jonny Parker, had a lighted cigarette – he was smoking as he ran on the field!

“I thought ‘What’s this!?’ There was was a big culture of drinking and singing and all those things that go on. It was a good, good time.”

For all that no current Doncaster player would ever dare enter the playing field at Castle Park – the club’s home that has been transformed under De Mulder and co-benefactor Steve Lloyd – with a fag in his mouth, the drinking and singing certainly remained last Saturday at least.

Friends and colleagues held a surprise lunch for De Mulder before kick-off against Moseley to mark his 25 years at the helm.

“I had a fantastic day,” he recalled, having also run out on to the pitch with the players to warm applause from the club’s appreciative fans.

“Obviously, it all came as a complete surprise. I had no idea whatsoever that they’d been planning it. Just walking into that room and seeing so many people was overwhelming.

“My daughter travelled over from Greece and all my family was there along with lots of old players I’d played with.

“I’d started here when I was 17 and, though I had three years away playing for Wolverhampton from 19 to 21, I came back and have been here ever since.

“They’d done well to keep the party a surprise. They’d all been sworn to secrecy. We normally arrive fairly early on match-day, about 12 o’clock, as we just want to see (director of rugby) Clive Griffiths or whatever.

“So it didn’t worry me that not many people were around. But the table plan was up on the top of the stairs so apparently our sales manager had to move that pretty quickly!

“Then there was a fanfare coming up the stairs but I just thought it was something Clive was doing to gee up the team in one of the other rooms.

“Anyway, when I came in I was completely taken aback.”

Son of the late Prosper de Mulder, who founded the Doncaster-based food waste PDM Group, he has overseen the Knights rise from Yorkshire Two – 10th in the national pyrimid – to the verge of the very elite of English club rugby.

The club is now famous for being the most promoted in the land as De Mulder recalled: “The leagues structure was introduced in 1987. The RFU had set up some sort of system whereby it was decided which division you’d begin in by the teams you played preceding that initial start-up.

“But we were only playing local sides and very few good teams.

“For instance, we’d play Headingley Wanderers which was their second team so, basically, we were put quite low down in Yorkshire Two when the leagues started.

“Clubs like Rotherham knew what was going on and got themselves organised so got some good results beforehand and so were much higher up the leagues than us.

“It was disappointing but we were an amateur club and not really thinking about what we were doing. We were just happily going along. We had the one pitch here (Castle Park) another pitch across the end and the old clubhouse in the corner.

“The old chairman asked me to become president in 1990 and we went on for a couple of years.

“But then one day we were playing away at Thornesians and got absolutely hammered.

“They were a good side in those days with the traditional thing of all the farmers playing but also players from Thorne Grammar School.

“Anyway, we were absolutely slaughtered. I was stood with Steve Lloyd at the time, my other partner in the rise of the Knights and the other benefactor to the club, and we just said it was time we cracked on.”

Doncaster certainly did that, initially hiring North of England lock Kevin Westgarth as player-coach to start the ball rolling and eventually securing eight promotions in just 15 years to ascend to their current standard.

A £1.4m grant from Sport England saw their new clubhouse opened in 2000 with gymnasium, medical facilities and a dozen changing rooms all included while the number of pitches rose to six.

Later, De Mulder and Lloyd invested yet more as they financed a new main stand which holds 1,800 – taking capacity to 5,000 – and has a conference centre plus hospitality suites.

The stadium would have to improve further if they did upset the odds and make that last, final, giant step into the Premiership.

On the question of whether Doncaster could earn promotion, De Mulder sees no reason why not.

Granted, big-spending Bristol, the current leaders and awash with stars such as former British Lions Gavin Henson and Ryan Jones, will remain favourites but they have an infamous tendancy to fail when it comes to the business end of the campaign and the top-four play-offs.

Furthermore, Doncaster won there just a few weeks ago to show they have the credentials if the season’s denouement did ever come down to an 80-minute shoot-out in the play-off final.

Given their start to this season, the Knights are rightly confident and De Mulder admitted: “We see it all as possible (finishing first, top two or top four).

“We’ve beaten Bristol, the top team with a playing budget four or five times more than ours, already so why shouldn’t we be able to beat anyone else?

“It’s there for the taking and I can’t think of anything better. We’re playing tremendously.”

So many clubs, of course, have struggled to maintain Premiership status having got there and De Mulder concedes that would be an issue.

“The problem for Doncaster is it’s not a rugby union area,” he said. “Our crowds run normally at about 1,500 with local derbies and special matches getting up to capacity but that’s very rarely.

“To be a good Premiership side, you probably need 10 to 14 thousand to support it.

“If we were to do it – and we’re in second today ahead of a huge game on Saturday – we’d take it.

“But I’d doubt whether we could actually sustain it. It’d probably be a one-off thing and then rather like London Welsh – up and down – but it depends how the mood would swing with the local population.

“I don’t want to decry them but I’m afraid the good people of Doncaster would have to get behind us.”

Surely that would be the least De Mulder and Lloyd deserve?