AFTER savouring the high of a famous win over Yorkshire Carnegie in September, Doncaster Knights assistant Paul Cooke admits no one could ever imagine the re-match would come around and they would still be awaiting another Championship scalp.
However, that is the strange situation in which desperate Doncaster – having lost nine successive league games – find themselves today ahead of a derby fixture which is more crucial than perhaps ever before.
Back in the early autumn, fresh from their return to the second tier as National One champions, it all seemed so comfortable, the 32-23 success at Headingley signalling a third victory from their opening four games.
Indeed, they would have been forgiven for having Bristol and Worcester in their sights rather than contemplating a second relegation battle in two years.
Yet this morning they are just three points ahead of bottom-placed Plymouth Albion and in dire need of a victory. Of any sorts.
“It is surreal,” Cooke told The Yorkshire Post, “especially when in between we’ve had some really good performances and wins in the British & Irish Cup and got ourselves a home semi-final in that competition.
“We’d swap any one of those for a win in the Championship, though. We’ve been very, very close. Just one individual error has tended to cost us.
“We’ve lost so many games like that and not lost many by a major margin.
“Last week we were only five-nil down at half-time at Worcester and some would say possibly capable of pulling off a real shock.
“But then we had a man sin-binned and we conceded four tries in 25 minutes.
“Before, in other games, we’ve thrown an intercept pass or just had some sort of brain explosion.
“We know we have to eradicate these moments to get a win, but the spirit remains good here.
“We stick by our processes and move on to Leeds (Yorkshire).”
But Cooke, the former Hull FC star who is also player-coach at Doncaster RLFC, understands the importance of this contest.
Plymouth have occupied the solitary relegation spot all season, but saw their hopes of escape buoyed by last week’s 22-8 success over Rotherham Titans, only their second this campaign.
Furthermore, ninth-placed Carnegie, intent on avenging that Headingley loss, finally got their first home win of the season by defeating Moseley on Sunday and have made real strides under Tommy McGee in recent weeks.
“This is a huge game for us,” admitted Cooke.
“The players are all aware of how big it is.
“Whenever two teams from Yorkshire go head-to-head – us and Rotherham or us and Leeds – we know how much it means to the people of the county.
“We’ve been reminding them of the intensity we need to create and the atmosphere we are after to get the fans on our side on Saturday to help get the result.”
Carnegie winger David Doherty, who has scored tries in each of their last two games, concurred about the contest’s enormity.
The ex-Wasps and Sale flier added: “Doncaster started really well and it’s difficult to say what went wrong.
“They have been really unlucky when you look at some of their results and that takes its toll, but momentum is a big thing, something they did have early on.
“They have some great players and, from what I’m told, they enjoy it there and have a great coaching set-up so we know they are dangerous.
“And we realise from all the derbies that teams really raise their game for us while our name change adds a bit more spice to it all as well.
“It’s a massive game for both teams as Doncaster don’t want to be where they are. But neither do we.”
One statistic which may be in the hosts’ favour, however, is the fact Carnegie have not won at Castle Park since 2007 – when current England chief Stuart Lancaster was in charge of the Leeds-based club.
The Knights will cling on to that and everything else as they go into battle once more looking to gain the points they feel their continued endeavours merit.
Doncaster chief Clive Griffiths makes numerous changes for today’s game. Paul Jarvis has recovered from a calf strain and slots back in to the squad at full-back.
Former Carnegie man Mat Clark makes his first start since October, having successfully returned from a shoulder operation, replacing Bevon Armitage.
Tongan international duo Tomasi Palu and Ume Fosita link in the half-backs.
For Carnegie, McGee has made two changes, the first of them enforced with Phil Nilsen coming in at hooker for Jack Walker, who is on England Under-20s duty.
Lee Imiolek comes in at prop for Ben Harris on a rotation basis. Joe Joyce is set for his debut having signed on loan from Bristol a fortnight ago.