ALTHOUGH the disbandment of Championship play-offs has upset some, Yorkshire Carnegie No 8 Ollie Stedman believes it has one major positive – making their derby with Doncaster Knights all the more important.
They meet at Headingley tomorrow in an early season encounter between the fierce Broad Acres rivals.
There has been some classic contests in recent years not least Doncaster overcoming Carnegie in a two-legged semi-final to reach the 2015-16 showpiece against Bristol.
However, after eight campaigns of play-offs determining the champions, the competition has now reverted to the traditional format of whoever finishes top being crowned victorious.
Stedman explained: “We are massively looking forward to Sunday as with that new format, it means these games are all the more special.
“Because there are no big, end-of-season matches, like the semis and final, to look forward to, games such as our derbies are more and more important.
“Doncaster look strong, as always, and you always know what you will get from them.
“They still have some of those old heads up front, the big forwards, and they have some pace out wide as well and we’re expecting a really good game against them; we always have competitive matches versus Doncaster.”
The South Yorkshire club have started impressively, winning on the opening day in Jersey and then eviscerating another derby rival – Rotherham Titans – 44-0 a week ago.
Carnegie, beaten in last season’s final by London Irish, took more time to get going, losing at London Scottish before improving to beat Nottingham.
Under the command again of Jimmy Lowes after Bryan Redpath’s departure in May, they know they have to find consistency if they are to have any chance of beating Bristol – relegated but still spending millions – to top.
With a reduced budget and smaller squad compared to last term, few see Carnegie being able to rival the West Country side arguing their biggest challenge will be beating off teams such as Doncaster to claim runners-up spot.
However, the 26-year-old, in his second season back at Headingley after re-joining from the Knights, maintains that is not how they see it.
“Obviously with Bristol coming down and spending as much as they are it looks like everyone else is chasing,” he conceded.
“But we need to be forcing the pressure and forcing the error in them.
“At the same time, there’s no real margin for error from us, either; every week counts and that’s another reason why Sunday is so important.”
The explosive former Newcastle Falcons and London Welsh forward feels former Bradford Bulls coach Lowes is having a positive impact already.
“He’s been really, really good and I can’t fault him,” said Stedman, about the rugby league legend who was last in charge at Carnegie in 2013-2014.
“His coaching is superb as is his attention to detail but he’s also had us trying to do things with smiles on our faces.
“The club is constantly changing around us for whatever reasons whether that be budget or numbers but he won’t let us look at that as an excuse and he works well at creating us as a team.”
The coach makes just one change to the side that defeated Nottingham with winger Harry Davies, who has joined on loan from Premiership side Bath, replacing youngster Louie Brown.
On the bench, Mike Mayhew and Richard Beck return from injury to replace Ross Graham and Lewis Wilson while prop Elliot Millar-Mills, who has joined on loan from Caldy, could debut after replacing James Thraves.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Doncaster do not make any changes to their squad that defeated Rotherham so impressively.
Titans, meanwhile, hope to get off the mark against promoted Hartpury at Clifton Lance today.
Head coach Andy Key makes just a solitary change with Adam Peters coming in for the injured back-row Ifereimi Boladau against opponents who have already pushed Bristol close.
He said: “For us, it’s about getting on with some honest work and understanding for some how tough this league is and how hard you have to work to get success.”