Eight years of second-tier rugby come to an end at Castle Park today with one man confident their exile will only be a temporary one.
Matt Challinor believes Doncaster Knights have the ability to bounce back from National One at the first time of asking.
It is not defiant bravado or tub-thumping rhetoric from the Knights captain, more a considered opinion based on evidence that points to a bright future for Doncaster, who this season have lived through one of their darkest periods.
The reason for Challinor’s optimism is two-fold. Firstly, Doncaster will be the only full-time squad in the 16-team National One next season. And secondly, Clive Griffiths is set to stay on, and with a full pre-season under his belt, the Knights’ director of rugby will be able to build a team and restore a winning mentality at Castle Park.
“With Clive in charge the future is healthy,” said Challinor, who fully expects the club and their director of rugby to finalise terms on Griffiths’s tenure in the coming days. A contract is on the table and both parties are willing.
Challinor added: “I’m hoping we’ve taken one step backwards to take two forwards.
“Clive will be really good for us. Once he’s had a full pre-season to stamp his authority on the team then I’m really confident we’ll be going places.
“I want to play a big part in Doncaster getting back up. I came across from Rotherham three years ago because I expected Doncaster to be up there challenging in the top four or five.
“Everything else – the ground, the infrastructure – is all geared towards it being a top Championship team.
“And we’ll be the only full-time team in that league, and I’m hoping that will count for something.”
Challinor put his faith in the club in writing even before they lost the relegation decider with Jersey last Saturday. As did prop Tom Davies, who has committed for another season. Others are set to show their faith in Doncaster over the coming days.
Off the field, the £300,000 of central funding they will lose because of demotion is to be made up by the club’s principal sponsors, two of whom are on the board.
That guarantee ensures relegation will not be the death knell as it has been for clubs like Coventry and Birmingham & Solihull in recent years, who have gone down and shown no signs of returning.
The only uncontrollable about the National One they are heading back to is how much money other clubs will throw at promotion.
Esher, on paper, were favourites to claim the only promotion place this season after losing their Championship status in May, 2012.
But Ealing Trailfinders ploughed money into their playing staff and have won National One at a canter.
“I appreciate it will be a tough league,” said Challinor.
“There’s a lot of good players, a lot of teams are throwing a lot of money at lads and jobs and so forth.
“Being the only full-time outfit should make a big difference in that league.”
If there is cause for optimism then full credit to the club for retaining such a belief, given how bad the season has been.
Doncaster started poorly, never got going, and even when they replaced Brett Davey with Clive Griffiths in November, they were already a long way from safety.
Asked why it was that Doncaster had struggled so much this season, captain Challinor said: “I’ve been racking my brains for a while over that one.
“Maybe it was the massive turnover of players at the start of the season that didn’t help, because they take a while to gel.
“The change of coach as well could have had an impact. Don’t get me wrong, Clive has been a breath of fresh air. He brought a lot of players in and the massive overhaul of players was a factor.
“And once you get into a losing run it becomes a hard habit to break.
“We’d go into games fancying our chances, but not absolutely believing it. If you’re ahead and they score it’s almost a case of ‘here we go again’.
“You don’t expect to lose, but you get that feeling of dejavu.
“I don’t think we can knock the lads’ effort, but once a decision goes against us or a bounce of the ball goes the other way, it got to the stage where we were expecting it. And from there the inevitable happened.”
Doncaster have at least shown fight in the final throes of the season, taking the challenge to Jersey in last week’s vital game and scoring four tries at promotion-chasing Bedford on Wednesday.
Today, they want to prove Challinor’s words prophetic by beating Plymouth and giving fans hope for a brighter future.
“We’ll go out in a blaze of glory, give the supporters something to cheer about,” said Challinor. “This is a knock, it’s set us back but hopefully it will wake us up and we’ll take two steps forward.”
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