FOR MANY, the news Doncaster Knights will not accept promotion to the Premiership if they do cause a shock in the Championship play-offs has diluted somewhat Sunday’s semi-final first leg with London Irish.
The South Yorkshire club announced on Thursday it was just too financially risky to contemplate if they did, against all odds, emerge as champions.
You can understand the need for pragmatism; the lack of central funding in the second tier has been a recurring bone of contention this season and the fiscal chasm between the competitions seems to be greater than ever.
Quite rightly, Doncaster insist they will not “cripple” themselves chasing that dream at this stage even if, in the short term, it has made Sunday’s game against favourites Irish slightly surreal.
Of course Bristol, one of British rugby’s great names and heavily bankrolled by private backers, were promoted 12 months ago despite losing the home leg of their final to Doncaster following a thrilling chase from Clive Griffiths’s ebullient side.
However, even with so many internationals in their ranks, they have been unable to bridge the gap either and, like so many before them, have suffered an immediate relegation.
Whenever you play a team as good as them you need to take your chances whenever you create them. We didn’t do that and came away with nothing.Doncaster Knights’ scrum half, Michael Heaney
This said, if either Doncaster or third-placed Ealing Trailfinders – who also do not want to be considered for promotion and hosted Yorkshire Carnegie last night – were to stun the competition and win next month’s final, the West Country club would earn a reprieve.
If Doncaster had won last season, they planned to play some games at Doncaster Rovers’ ground while their Castle Park stadium was upgraded.
However, clearly, when the sums have been looked at again and, no doubt, having also seen financially-stricken Championship rivals London Welsh go bust in January following two recent yo-yo doomed top-flight seasons, the powers-that-be opted against following their hearts.
Knights, who despite such a modest playing budget came so close last year in their first play-offs appearance, will not make any further comment on the matter and so, instead, simply concentrate on the game tomorrow.
Of course, regardless of the ultimate prize now being out of their grasp, they can still aspire to be Championship champions, which would be their finest hour.
This remains their goal before the play-offs are replaced by automatic promotion next term.
Admittedly, few fancy them given they only managed to score five points against relegated but star-studded Irish in their two league games, losing 19-0 away on the opening day and then 22-5 in their final outing a fortnight ago.
Nevertheless, the Knights will point to the raft of chances that came and went in a tight first half during the latter fixture before a costly sin-binning at the start of the second period saw the game eventually slip away. Ahead of the first leg, again at Castle Park, scrum-half Michael Heaney admitted: “It was disappointing as we had so many chances in that first half against Irish.
“We went toe-to-toe with them, but just didn’t come out on the right side of a few things.
“Whenever you play a team as good as them you need to take your chances whenever you create them. We didn’t do that and came away with nothing.
“That’s something we’ve talked about ahead of these play-offs.
“Obviously, it’s no surprise Irish are the best team in the league at the minute. They’ve shown it with their league form, only losing once. They deserve to be where they are now at the end of the regular season. But we know if we hit our straps we’re perfectly capable of a result.”
They are strengthened, too, by the return of Paul Jarvis, the daring full-back who this week was named in the Championship Dream Team.
A second Dream Team representative – the Tongan flanker Jack Ram, who has earned the club’s player of the year award in his first season and re-signed for 2017-18 – has not recovered from injury for the first leg but could feature in next Saturday’s return.
Furthermore, classy centre Mat Clark is fit for the first time since early February and on the bench along with prop WillGriff John, who is also back after an enforced lay-off.
“It’s nice to have the first leg at home,” added Heaney, “and that play-offs experience last year will hopefully hold us in good stead.
“There’s plenty in the team who featured then and it is play-off rugby; anything goes so we will see what happens.
“We’ve a couple of people back since that last game and we rested up after that before turning our attention to this one, preparing to do everything we can.
“We’re excited by the challenge and know we can cause Irish problems.”