Doncaster Knights remain hopeful of achieving Gallagher Premiership dream
The South Yorkshire club have kept the big-spending Londoners honest this season in a thrilling pursuit that has taken the title fight down to the last round of fixtures.
Win at lowly Nottingham tonight and Doncaster will climb back to the top of the second tier, forcing Ealing to need at least a draw against another struggling side in Richmond tomorrow to win the league.
It is an intriguing denouement, though one sadly played out against the backdrop of there likely being no promotion to the Premiership for either team should they come out on top.
That is because the Rugby Football Union announced on March 1 that both Doncaster and Ealing would not be granted promotion to the top flight because they fell short of the Premiership’s minimum standards criteria over the size of their grounds.
Clubs need a minimum capacity of 10,001 to gain entry; Doncaster’s Castle Park is 5,183, Ealing’s is smaller.
Both clubs have appealed and await the outcome.
“We will say nothing until the outcome of the appeal,” said a pragmatic Lloyd. “We have put the appeal in and by the final whistle this Saturday we will know who’s won the league.
“For now we have put the appeal to one side, we will deal with that at the appropriate time.”
Doncaster stated in their application they could extend their Castle Park ground to meet the criteria but did not yet have planning permission.
Should they win the title, will they step up their appeal?
“We will have reasonable discussions,” said Lloyd. “It’s more to do with principles, what we’d like to see achieved within the new audit rather than saying we’re going to create a fight for no reason.
“We very much hope we’re in this position next year. We’ve already said it’s business as usual next season. If Ealing were to win the league and are successful in their appeal I would be the first to wish them well.”
That scenario, though, would knock Doncaster’s Premiership ambitions back a further year.
The RFU announced last summer that the Premiership would be increasing from 13 to 14 teams in either 2022-23 or 2023-24.
If Ealing or Doncaster win the title and are granted promotion, the new 14-team top tier would stay like that for two years.
If Ealing or Doncaster are champions but the appeal is rejected, 13 teams will play in the Premiership next season and the fight for promotion to make it 14 teams in 2023-24 would be on again next season.
Lloyd explained: “Everyone agreed this, not just for the Premiership, but post-Covid we’ve all got to get our ducks in a row because of how much the pandemic affected us.
“We were happy to give that moratorium. What it means is if Ealing don’t go up this year the Premiership will still be 13 and it can all be achieved next year.
“If we’ve challenged for promotion once we can challenge for it a second time. Whichever year it is, we will fight hard.
“We’ve exceeded expectation. We always thought the philosophy to bring younger guys in would come good but it has perhaps happened quicker than even we thought.”
There could also be a future relaxing of the minimum standards criteria, according to reports this week, meaning the 10,000 minumum capacity stipulation might not be as steep in 12 months time.
Regardless of the outcome on or off the pitch this weekend, it has been a hugely successful campaign for Doncaster.
“It’s been an absolutely super season,” beamed Lloyd. “(Head coach) Steve Boden has done a fantastic job with a young squad, taking seven and a half years off the average age of the squad.
“It’s not just my opinion but that of a number of people that it’s been the best squad atmosphere for a number of years; they work for each other and that’s what it’s all about.
“Credit where it’s due it’s been a great season, there’s no disappointment in coming second versus coming first. For the last few weeks we’ve been saying it’s Ealing’s title to lose.
“Our boys haven’t lost this side of Christmas and after losing two out the first three games we were always playing catch-up and catch up we did.”