Doncaster Knights have elevated themselves seven times since 1997, starting with promotion from the humble beginnings of Yorkshire Two, but making the final stride into the zenith of the Premiership last night was just – with the emphasis on ‘just’ – out of their reach.
Instead it was Bristol, despite losing 34-32 on the night, who prospered in the Championship Final at an ecstatic Ashton Gate to finally earn their return to the elite after what has been, at times, an agonising seven-year exile.
No one can argue they do not deserve their place; this is, afterall, the third successive campaign Andy Robinson’s side have topped the league table and, though then losing the final in the previous two years and plenty of nerves again here, there was no chaotic collapse versus their bold and exciting South Yorkshire opponents.
Granted, Clive Griffiths’s underdogs – trailing by 15 points from the first leg – did have them on the ropes as they became the first side to defeat Bristol in the league since they did themselves at the same ground in November.
When Callum Sheedy slotted his sixth penalty in the 57th minute, the hosts led 25-10 on the night, seemingly job done.
However, Doncaster stunned them with three tries in nine minutes through Paul Jarvis, Tyson Lewis and the outstanding Ollie Stedman – in his last game before joining Yorkshire Carnegie – to suddenly lead 27-25.
And then they simply kept on coming so, even when James Phillips regained Bristol the lead, up emerged Latu Makaafi, Doncaster’s leading try-scorer, to drive over in the final seconds. Dougie Flockhart converted to seal the win which they richly deserved.
After winning 28-13 at Castle Park a week earlier and, in front of a vociferous 16,084 capacity crowd – a record for the Championship – Bristol had everything in their favour to succeed.
No one had ever over-turned a first-leg deficit to win this lucrative fixture and, despite some brilliant efforts from the likes of Stedman and Will Hurrell, the hosts nervously nudged their way home.
Frustrated Knights, though, will be kicking themselves yet again.
Hurrell, their surging centre, scored a fine try just before half-time, his fourth in four play-off games, which Declan Cusack converted for a 10-9 lead on the night.
In fairness, they should have been further ahead but had lacked a clinical edge just like the previous week, Cusack missing a simple penalty and two other try-scoring chances going begging.
Nevertheless, after Hurrell’s effort – busting the Bristol midfield off a line-out just as he also did at Castle Park last Wednesday – they had silenced the home support and placed real doubt in their minds.
Cruelly, though, scrum-half Michael Heaney saw his clearance kick from the restart charged down by opposite number Will Cliff who duly scored with eight seconds remaining.
Sheedy, who had kicked three penalties, slotted the simple conversion for a 16-10 interval lead – a gargantuan 21 points on aggregate.
To rub it in, centre Mat Clark then had a try chalked off by the television match official just four minutes into the second period after a needless infringement by Stedman.
Doncaster had brought the No 8 into the starting line-up after he had been their most destructive ball-carrier off the bench in the first leg and, aside from that error, he enjoyed plenty of success making yards through the hosts’ middle along with the powerful Hurrell.
The Knights’ line-out operated better, too, and they caused Bristol problems in the scrum but they did not capitalise.
That said, Bristol’s Ian Evans was lucky to avoid a first half yellow card after blatantly spoiling a 5m line-out illegally.
Doncaster’s hopes faded fast when Irish fly-half Cusack limped off on 47 minutes, Sheedy adding another penalty soon after.
Stedman made another break but fumbled when trying to advance further and then prop Richard List was yellow-carded for punching as tempers frayed, Sheedy kicking the points once more.
The fly-half added his sixth penalty soon after but then came the rally.
Doncaster full-back Jarvis darted over for their second try, Heaney improving, and Bristol were reduced to 14 men when Ben Mosses was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on on the hour mark.
After a lengthy hold-up while Bristol’s Olly Robinson received treatment – the hosts also lost Jack Tovey and Jack Lam to serious injuries – winger Lewis produced a fine finish in the corner on 62 minutes to set up the win.
Bristol Rugby: Arscott; Wallace, Tovey (Morgan 28), Mosses, Lemi; Sheedy, Cliff (Roberts 77); O’Connell, McMillan (Brooker 50), Perensie (Cortes 51), Evans, Glynn, Mama, Lam (Robinson 46- Sorenson 61), Phillips.
Doncaster Knights: Jarvis; Bulumakau (Flockhart 61), Clark, Hurrell, Lewis; Cusack (Field 47), Heaney; List, Hunter (Veikoso 51), Quigley (John 57), Challinor, Phelan (Young 51), Shaw (Makaafi 51), Hills, Steadman.
Referee: Matthew Carley (RFU).