Doncaster Knights 13 Bristol 28: Clive Griffiths hoping his Knights can stage fightback

AT the start of this season, you could get odds of 100-1 for Doncaster Knights securing promotion to the Premiership.

TOUGH NIGHT: Doncaster Knights' Declan Cusack finds his path blocked by the Bristol line. Pictures: Scott Merrylees

It was hardly the 5,000-1 Leicester City were afforded for winning the Premier League but Clive Griffiths’s side were still rank outsiders, nonetheless.

You would certainly find much shorter odds this morning given they are now halfway through a Championship play-offs final with Bristol and still fighting.

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However, having lost 28-13 at Castle Park last night, you sense overcoming that 15 point deficit – essentially three scores – in next Wednesday’s second leg at Ashton Gate is as likely as Leicester retaining their title in 2017.

OVER THE LINE: Doncaster's Will Hurrell goes in for a try against Bristol. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Refreshing Doncaster have lived the dream all season and rightly so given their fine mix of flair and determination but last night they hit a cold reality – Bristol, who topped the league by 16 points, were too good.

That said, the illustrious visitors should be given the millions they have spent but, where they have spluttered at this stage in the previous two campaigns, they showed all their nous, experience and class here to garner a healthy advantage, a quickfire two-try blast at the start of the second period overturning Knights’ 13-11 interval advantage.

Even Bristol, who have finished top in five of the last seven seasons and still not gone, can surely not self-implode from this position next week.

Granted, Doncaster are the last team to win at Bristol – prospering 39-27 last November – but they have no hope if they offer as much of a helping hand as they did here, producing arguably their most error-ridden display of the season.

HOPEFUL: Doncaster Knights' Director of Rugby Clive Griffiths. Picture: Scott Merrylees.

Asked how big a mountain it is now to climb if they are are earn a first-ever promotion to the elite, a frustrated Griffiths admitted: “It is a big one. But we’ve got to stand there, be counted and put that behind us. Some of the errors were unacceptable. The boys know that.

“We’ve been pretty good with the ball all season but tonight we were very poor. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am with our attacking play. We know we’ll need to look after the ball better. If we do that, then we can have a real dig at them. We’re still in the game but we have to put it right.”

Doncaster led 13-11 at the interval and few could argue with that.

Granted, Bristol dominated possession and territory but the Knights were largely untroubled defensively until captain David Lemi, the Samoa winger, slid over in the 34th minute.

Doncaster's Villiame Viekoso tries to burst through the Bristol ranks at Castle Park on Thursday night. Picture: Scott Merrylees.

Ironically, the visitors were down to 14 men at that point after his fellow winger, Tom Varndell,, had been sin-binned for a second tackle in the air.

The first on Declan Cusack was foolish enough but to do so again soon after, this time on Michael Heaney, was just beyond comprehension for someone who represented England but looked like he had never read a rule book.

It was from Varndell’s first moment of madness in the 22nd minute that Doncaster scored. And what a fine try it was.

A line-out drive edged close before scrum-half Heaney darted from the back and sent Will Hurrell hurtling through untouched on a brilliant line for Cusack to make it 10-3.

OVER THE LINE: Doncaster's Will Hurrell goes in for a try against Bristol. Picture: Scott Merrylees

He had slotted an early penalty earned at the first scrum by his pack but Mat Clark spilled at the re-start and gave Lemi an early chance to attack.

The hosts held firm, however, and, after No8 James Phillips was held up over the Doncaster goalline, it was no surprise when Bristol’s Callum Sheedy instead took three points on 20 minutes.

After Hurrell’s classic, Sheedy added another penalty when the Knights could not legally stop a strong rolling maul and then came Lemi’s try but the hosts countered once more with a thrilling raid down the right side from Clark that led to another Cusack penalty.

However, when Doncaster winger Andy Bulumakau tackled Lemi illegally in the air, they scored via hooker Ross McMillan’s slick short line-out.

Almost immediately, Knights’ usually reliable lock Jon Phelan dragged down Phillips in a line-out and, from another set-piece move, Will Cliff darted through for Benjamin Glynn to score, Sheedy improving both and suddenly it was 25-13 on 50 minutes.

It is credit to Doncaster they did not succumb much further, another Sheedy penalty the only other score. Yet, still, it will nag at them, that they did not give a true reflection of themselves due to so many unforced mistakes.

HOPEFUL: Doncaster Knights' Director of Rugby Clive Griffiths. Picture: Scott Merrylees.

Doncaster Knights: Jarvis; Bulumakau (Flockhart 67), Clark, Hurrell, Lewis; Cusack, Heaney (Field 67); List (Brugnara 65), Hunter (Viekoso 70), Quigley (John 67), Challinor, Phelan (Young 51), Makaafi (Steadman 51) Hills, Shaw.

Bristol Rugby: Arscott; Varndell, Tovery, Mosses, Lemi (Morgan 45); Sheedy, Cliff (Roberts 71); O’Connell (Traynor 56), McMillan (Brooker 61), Perensie (Cortes 56), Evans (Sorenson 63), Glynn, Mama, Lam, Phillips (Robinson 58).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).

Lewis Minikin scored 23 points as Harrogate retained the Yorkshire Cup over Sheffield Tigers 38-3 at Pontefract.

Doncaster's Villiame Viekoso tries to burst through the Bristol ranks at Castle Park on Thursday night. Picture: Scott Merrylees.