Doncaster Knights’ director of rugby Clive Griffiths insisted the surprise announcement they will not bid for Premiership promotion – not even he knew it was coming – played no part in their woeful Championship semi-final first leg defeat to London Irish.
Hopes of reaching a second successive final are already essentially over after yesterday’s sobering 35-3 home defeat to the impressive title favourites at Castle Park.
Doncaster head to the Madejski Stadium for Saturday’s second leg fully accepting it will merely now be chance to rediscover pride after ruthless Irish kept them tryless for a second time in three meetings this term.
However, of course, the build-up to this game was hardly ideal as it was announced by the club on Thursday that, if Knights did go all the way and win the Championship final, they would not accept promotion due to the financial problems it could entail.
Neither the squad, nor Griffiths and his staff, had been aware this would be Doncaster’s stance, though, until shortly before the statement was made.
It seems the RFU revealing the audit report of Championship semi-finalists assessing their eligibility for promotion –Knights and Ealing Trailfinders did not apply – on Thursday hastily prompted the South Yorkshire club to go public.
Yet having come so close to beating Bristol in last year’s final, when striving to earn promotion against all odds, it would be understandable if players were aggrieved and unsettled by the sudden change in tact ahead of yesterday’s crucial contest.
However, Griffiths did not use the development as an excuse – indeed, he only mentioned it when asked – and told The Yorkshire Post: “No, it didn’t affect the result today.
“It has been a tough 72 hours. The news on Thursday came to me and I had to tell the boys. That was hard. It was.
“I wasn’t aware of it until twenty past 12 on Thursday but the decision was made and I had to go tell the players in a meeting.
“But their re-action in training was superb; that training session was on the money so you couldn’t say that had that effect.
“Maybe when they’d sat down and thought about it it did, and the timing wasn’t great, that’s for sure. But we all said it wouldn’t affect the way we were going to play.
“We said we’d go out and try win the competition and win some silverware. But we weren’t good enough today – we squandered possession and made life easy for Irish – and know it’s a massive mountain to climb now.
“We just have to look to put some pride back in the Donny jersey at least.”
Doncaster only trailed 10-3 at the break but, making mistake after mistake with what little opportunity they had, the signs were there that they could eventually be over-run. That was what occurred in a one-sided second period when Irish – who have lost just once all season in the league since being relegated – showed their obvious class.
Alex Lewington skipped over for a classy try after a fine offload from fly-half James Marshall at the start of the second period and when Doncaster No8 Aaron Carpenter was yellow-carded for dragging down a maul in the 50th minute, they pressed on again. Irish scored from the next line-out, former England hooker David Paice gaining his second try after Knights were out-muscled in the subsequent maul.
Tommy Bell added a penalty and, moments before Carpenter returned, the hosts lost another man with full-back Paul Jarvis yellow-carded for a dangerous clear-out at a ruck. From that indiscretion, South African lock Sebastien De Chaves capitalised with a third driving maul try while the potent Fijian centre Aseli Tikoirotuma crossed for his second try in injury-time.
Doncaster had been limited to a Dougie Flockhart penalty at the end of the first half but he had also earlier criminally missed one from in front just 22m out, the sort of rudimentary error that blighted any hope of Knights staying in contention. Veteran lock Matt Challinor produced a fine performance, though, and centre Mat Clark returned from injury.
However, Doncaster struggled to break down a dominant Irish side who so confidently refuse to commit great numbers to the ruck limiting space for attackers.
They seem certain to meet Yorkshire Carnegie in the final.
Doncaster Knights: Jarvis; Flockhart (Clark 56), Bulumakau, Hayes, Lewis; Humberstone (Cusack 51), Heaney (Edgerley 65); List (Bergmanas 57), Hunter (Nelson 56), Quigley (John 45) John , Challinor, Young (Williams 43), Shaw, Hills, Carpenter.
London Irish: Bell; Lewington, Tikoirotuma, Mulchrone (Tonks 69), Cokanasiga; Marshall, McKibbin (Steele 61); Hobbs-Awoyemi (Court 57), Paice (Porecki 69), Franks (De Chaves 74), De Chaves (Hoskins 63), Sinclair, Coman (Gilsenan 57), Cowan, Treviranus.
Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)