HE MAY be playing for his fifth Yorkshire club but Latu Makaafi, the Tongan – who first arrived in the county as a teenager 16 years ago – has certainly now found his adopted homeland with Doncaster Knights.
The fearsome flanker scored his 17th league try of the season on Saturday – only Nottingham’s Paul Grant has accumulated more – to help the South Yorkshire side confirm second place in the Championship, their highest-ever finish.
Having initially come to the fore with Bradford & Bingley where he debuted in 2000 and helped earn three promotions from North Division Two East, the hard-running forward is now in his second spell at Castle Park after representing Hull, Wharfedale, Rotherham Titans and two stints with Jersey.
Makaafi may be approaching veteran status but, as Doncaster set up a two-legged play-off semi-final with third-placed Yorkshire Carnegie, he remains a devastating weapon in the back-row.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, the athletic 33-year-old admitted: “It is the best season I’ve ever had, not just for try-scoring but really enjoying my rugby, too.
“This is a great bunch of lads here and really good coaches as well; they make everything easy for you to follow you before we even start.
“They support you and, with this pack, often my tries are just hiding the ball at the back of driving mauls.
“They do it really well.”
Granted, many of his scores have come from line-out drives, like on Saturday’s historic afternoon when Makaafi peeled off the back of one to sprint over and give Doncaster a 15-14 lead at the start of the second period having initially trailed 14-3.
But there is much more to his game than that, as there is to Clive Griffiths’s team as a whole, too.
Although far from their best at the weekend, the side that battled to avoid relegation last year once more illustrated an unwavering spirit, determination and cussedness which, arguably, could yet prove the bedrock of the fairytale ending – promotion to the Premiership.
Having twice battled back from behind against fourth-placed opponents who will join them in the play-offs with Carnegie and leaders Bristol, resilient Doncaster then held on during 10 interminable minutes of nerve-wracking injury-time to secure a 15th Championship success of the campaign.
“We’re so proud to get second place,” added Makaafi, who re-joined Doncaster last term after they had returned to the Championship as National One champions.
“More important was that we got the win; it was a tough game and a massive effort from Bedford as we had to work so hard.
“In that injury-time at the end, no one knew who was going to come up with the win but we finished it off and I’m so happy for the boys.”
The visitors had scored inside just 15 seconds when Knights failed to deal with the kick-off and stylish centre Michael Lebourgeois created a try for Myles Dorrian, who also converted.
Declan Cusack struck the first of his three penalties in response but Doncaster were still at odds with themselves and, therefore, Steffan Jones’s converted try saw Bedford go 14-3 ahead inside just 19 minutes.
Matt Challinor, the indefatigable club captain, typically began the recovery, finishing off a superb team try in the 32nd minute.
Following Makaafi’s intervention, Mat Clark, excellent as ever at inside centre, crossed on 51 minutes for Cusack’s second conversion to make it 22-14.
At that point, ill-disciplined Bedford had a third man in the sin bin, lock Mike Howard dispatched for collapsing a maul after both props – Tom Williams and the particularly irritating Phil Boulton – were yellow-carded in the first period.
Doncaster shot themselves in the foot, however, by failing to safely secure the restart – it proved a regular occurrence on Saturday – gifting Dorrian another three points.
Knights lock Jon Phelan was then yellow carded, too, for failing to retreat 10m at a quick tap penalty and, subsequently, Tom Griffiths sliced through on 66 minutes, replacement Jake Sharp’s conversion saw a determined Bedford once more gain the lead.
It didn’t last long, however, Cusack slotting two more penalties in the 74th and 77th minutes before that last dogged defensive effort held out Bedford’s final bid.
Doncaster round off at B&I Cup winners London Welsh on Saturday before the play-offs begin the following weekend.
Can they go all the way and win promotion?
“We can’t say anything,” insisted Makaafi, who played for Tonga in the 2003 World Cup.
“We need to concentrate. We know in the first half there were a lot of mistakes against Bedford and we let ourselves down.
“It wasn’t like us and we need to fix ourselves before we start talking about play-offs and Premiership, while London Welsh have been playing really well these last few matches.
“But we’ve got a good squad and we keep rolling. More importantly, we enjoy ourselves every week.”
That much, both with this fans favourite and his united team-mates, is certainly clear.
Doncaster Knights: Jarvis (Bryant 80); Bulumakau, Clark, Hurrell, Lewis; Cusack, Heaney; List (Brugnara 68), Hunter (Viekoso 77), Quigley (Sprotson 68), Challinor, Phelan (Young 72), Makaafi (Stedman 68), Hills, Shaw. Unused substitutes: White.
Bedford Blues: Jones; Perkins (Parrili-Ocampo 17-23), Lebourgeois, Griffiths, Adamson (Parrili-Ocampo 45); Dorrian (Sharp 64), Taylor (Burns 64); Williams (Adamson 50), Clare, Boulton, Howard, Flanagan, Blanchet (Fenton-Wells 40), Buggea, Tupai (Wells 69). Unused substitutes: Currie, Staff.
Referee: Dean Richards (RFU)