DONCASTER KNIGHTS were today clearly reminded by leaders London Irish the size of the task lying ahead of them in the Championship play-offs.
Having lost at the relegated Premiership side 19-0 on the opening day of the season, they were almost kept pointless again in the final round of the regular campaign, winger Tyson Lewis only scoring in the final play of the game.
Clive Griffiths’ side, who finished fourth, will host Irish again in the semi-final first leg on Sunday April 30 before making the away trip on Saturday May 6.
They saw captain Michael Hills limp off in the second period, though, and Andy Bulumakau was also stretchered off after an illegal tackle from Tommy Bell in the 66th minute that saw the Irish full-back yellow-carded.
The Knights player required lengthy on-field treatment and, indeed, Bell was fortunate not to see red after using his shoulder but not his arms on the centre.
By that point, Doncaster were already 22-0 down but even when Irish were reduced to 13 men five minutes later when centre Aseli Tikoirotuma was sin-binned for a late hit on Dougie Flockhart, they still could not score.
Lewis blew a three-man overlap when going himself and being tackled and the Exiles - who showed great resilience and spirit - rallied further to protect their line until the dying moments.
They finished the regular campaign with 19 wins from 20 games; it would be a brave man to bet against them now securing promotion via the play-offs.
Nevertheless, the Knights - who can play much better than this and did reach the final last term - will have rested full-back Paul Jarvis and in-form flanker Jack Ram to come back into the mix.
Furthermore, they will rue missed opportunities in an error-ridden first half that saw them trail just 8-0.
More composure there and they could have made life more difficult for the visitors.
Both sides struggled to gain any momentum or fluency in the opening 40 minutes.
Doncaster wasted two line-out chances close to the Irish line before Bell gave the visitors the lead with a 15th minute penalty.
He missed another simple one, though, in the 27th minute and likewise the conversion when his side did score the only try of the half in injury-time.
Doncaster centre Lloyd Hayes dropped scrum-half Michael Heaney’s awkward pass on halfway - the pair both had a half to forget - and that gifted position for Irish to counter.
Eventually, winger Alex Lewington scythed through on a nice angle but it was a rare moment of quality.
However, the Championship favourites took firm control early in the second period with two tries in four minutes as their scrum twice dismantled the hosts.
The first led to a penalty from which Irish’s driving maul was eventually hauled down by Ben Hunter, the hooker not only conceding a penalty try but being yellow carded, too.
Bell added the extras and then, in the 48th minute, Irish shoved Doncaster’s seven-man scrum off their own ball for Tikoirotuna to break clear from 40m out, Brendan McKibbin supporting for the try again converted.
Suddenly, trailing 22-0, the game was already as good as gone.
In the other semi-final, Yorkshire Carnegie head to Ealing for their first leg on Friday April 28 before welcoming their opponents to Headingley on Friday May 5.
The two-legged Championship final - the last before the competition returns to first-past-the-post next season - takes place on Wednesday May 17 and Wednesday May 24.
Doncaster Knights: Scanlon; Flockhart, Bulumakau (Humberstone 64), Hayes, Lewis; Cusack, Heaney (Edgerley 60); List (Bergmanas 52), Hunter, Sprotson (Quigley 52), Challinor (Williams 54), Young, Shaw (Nelson 46), Hills (Makaafi 57), Carpenter.
London Irish: Bell; Lewington, Tikoirotuma, Brophy (Ojo 66), Cokanasiga; Tonks (Court 57), McKibbin (Steele 56); Hobbs-Awoyemi (Court 57), Paice (Porecki 61), Franks (Hoskins 68), De Chaves, Sinclair (Lloyd 66), Coman, Cowan (Gilsenan 61), Treviranus.
Referee: Andrew Jackson