Doncaster conceded four tries in the opening half an hour, but – against a team who had put 70 points on Yorkshire Carnegie a week earlier – kept a clean sheet for the final 50 minutes.
It was the South Yorkshire side’s sixth defeat in eight Championship matches and they remain third from bottom, but for skills and backs coach Paul Cooke the performance indicated better times are just around the corner.
He had felt Knights were “probably half way out of a hole” with their performance in the previous week’s 29-28 reverse at Bedford and said: “We thought we probably should have got more out of that game than two points.
“We leave this with none, but, daft as it sounds, we may be a bit happier.
“We saw Carnegie roll over last week and have their tummy tickled by 70.
“We spoke about that during the week and said you can either be Coventry and give them a game or be Carnegie and roll over.
“You decide as players.”
Doncaster made a positive start, but found themselves 12-3 behind after 16 minutes to tries by Blair Cowan and Ben Loader either side of a Kurt Morath penalty.
The home team rallied through Tom James’s try, created from a break Joshua Tyrell break and improved by Morath’s conversion, but Irish secured a bonus point by the half-hour mark with further touchdowns from Fergus Mulchrone and Motu Matuu and the third of Ben Meehan’s conversions.
That made it 26-10 and nobody in the 1,279 crowd would have expected the next – and final – score to come with seven minutes left and be registered by Doncaster.
They were pinned inside their own half for much of the second period, but withstood everything the Exiles threw at them before rallying when Richard Hayes crossed from Elliott Creed’s pass and Stephen McColl tagged on the goal points.
Though they could not get into field position to kick a drop goal, which would have secured a bonus point, and the penalty they received during the closing stages was narrowly out of kicking range, Cooke felt in the circumstances it was a notable effort against an in-form and confident team.
“You wouldn’t believe the week the players have had,” he said.
“The last three weeks with illness we’ve had 20 blokes training on a Tuesday.
“This week we couldn’t get 15 together.
“We had our second-choice hooker to start, but he pulled out on Friday morning.
“We were trying to register a hooker and couldn’t get one registered so we had a contingency plan of pulling Colin Quigley off after 45 minutes and then putting him on as a thrower should James Malcolm not get through.
“Ben Hunter is already injured. You could not imagine what the players are going through and what it takes for us to get a team on the training field, never mind the playing field.
“I could not be more proud of the players, and I mean that.
“I could not be more proud of the staff and everybody at the club that’s pulling in the right direction.
“I think [Saturday] proves they are doing that.”
Though Doncaster threatened only rarely in the second half their defence gave Cooke reason to believe an end to the losing run is within sight.
He added: “As daft as it is we conceded four tries, but we haven’t defended much better.
“A couple of really poor errors in the first half, two catch and drives and two penalties with ball in hand, have cost us.
“They had enough football in the second half to score another four and we defended manfully.
“We were still chasing a bonus point at the end of the game and it shows what the players are all about.
“As players and staff we are positive and I think over the last two performances the league table’s lying to us a bit.”
Doncaster Knights: Cowell, Wilson, Hayes, Creed, Lewis, Morath, James, Hislop, Malcolm, Quigley, Challinor, Eames, Ryan, Hills, Tyrell. Replacements: Mullen, Sprotson, List, Booth, Foley, Seniloli, McColl.
London Irish: Parton, Loader, Macken, Mulchrone, McLean, Meehan, McKibbin, Reid, Matuu, Cilliers, McNally, Paulo, Gilsenan, Cowan, Schatz. Replacements: Porecki, Hobbs-Awoyemi, Hoskins, Maddison, Rogerson, Atkins, Campbell.
Referee: Neil Chivers.