Rotherham Titans 22 Doncaster Knights 32: Titans fightback provides hope – tireless Knights eye play-offs
The sides still delivered a wholehearted contest in the third South Yorkshire derby of the season.
A crowd of 1,400 enjoyed a highly competitive game which Doncaster deserved to win at Clifton Lane because of their strong first-half performance in which they scored three tries to set up a half-time lead of 22-3.
Tries by aggressive scrum-half Chris Hallam and full-back Anthony Carter, which sandwiched a penalty try as the referee decided that Rotherham had collapsed a scrum, underlined Doncaster's power and the Titans' inability to turn possession and territory into scores.
Both clubs entered this game with understandably much more important but contrasting Championship priorities on the agenda this weekend. Rotherham must win at Bedford to stand any chance of avoiding the relegation play-offs while Doncaster, facing Plymouth at Castle Park, can confirm what is now almost guaranteed, that they will be participating in the promotion play-offs involving the league's top eight teams.
Therefore, it was essential that Rotherham's weak first half display should improve beyond recognition so that they were well prepared and in form to produce a match-winning performance at Goldington Road to ensure Championship survival beyond doubt.
Demonstrating for the first time passion, purpose and the ability to take chances, Rotherham's second-half display threatened Doncaster's control.
Excellent tries on 50 and 60 minutes by winger Peter Swatkins and flanker Adam Kleeberger, once again a dangerous opponent, cut Doncaster's lead to 22-15.
Rotherham's forwards, playing with growing authority, gained sufficient ball and territory, but lacked ruthlessness and the team continued to make mistakes at the wrong time.
The second penalty by fly-half Ali Warnock stretched Doncaster's lead to 25-15 and, shortly afterwards, another error gave the ball away to Carter, who started the counter-attack which confirmed the Knights' second win this season against their regional rivals.
Carter's break was supported by centre Chris Briers, one of six former Rotherham players in the Doncaster side. His thrilling run to the line established an advantage of 30-15 in the 75th minute.
However, Rotherham's determination to fulfil some of their undoubted potential revealed itself in stoppage-time. Replacement fly-half Michael Whitehead, returning from a lengthy absence, showed the flair that can turn his team into a potent force.
From a penalty behind their posts, Whitehead launched an audacious attack which destroyed Doncaster's defence. After feeding Swatkins, who burst through, Whitehead received the ball back and dashed unopposed to the posts to score a long-range try to give Rotherham the respectability their second half efforts deserved.
Still, Rotherham's mistakes – knock ons, too many penalties losing the ball in positions they ought to have scored from and missed tackles – had nevertheless resulted in a defeat by four tries to three.
"The team is disappointed with the first half performance, and if we turn up again like that at Bedford, we'll come off second best again," admitted Titans coach Craig West.
"We made too many errors and we will work on those this week before the Bedford match. But if we can duplicate our recent performances against Coventry and Nottingham, and repeat much of the good play against Doncaster, we are confident we can go there and compete really well."
Doncaster's revival, eight wins from nine games in 27 days, has transformed their season. Director of rugby Lynn Howellssaid: "It's in our hands which promotion play-off group we play in if we beat Plymouth. Our season started down there in October, it turned around there, so we'd like to do the double on them.
"Plymouth have a big presence up front and two big Tongans in midfield, so they'll be competitive. Our players may be tired but they have to be excited about the play-offs considering where we've come from."
Rotherham Titans: Hunt, Feeley, Maggs, Gidlow, Swatkins, Allen (Whitehead 50), West (Chivers 50), Voisey (Conroy 53), Batty, Prescott (O'Donnell 40), Challinor, Hayter (Barnes 69), Swindall (Du Plessis 33), Kleeberger, Burrows.
Doncaster Knights: Carter, Flockhart, Briers, Tonga'Uiha, Williams, Warnock, Hallam (D'Arcy 73), Davies, Boden (Doughty 72), Cusack (Thiede 60),Kenworthy, Smith (Griffiths 61), Lowcock (Kettle 46) Cochrane, Boyde.
Referee: G Morris (WRU).