Griffiths cautious despite deal with Leicester

Doncaster Knights coach Clive Griffiths.
Doncaster Knights coach Clive Griffiths.
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The smoke signals emerging from the top turret of the De Mulder Lloyd stand at Castle Park this week have been mixed.

In midweek, Clive Griffiths, Doncaster Knights’ director of rugby, cautioned against any sort of wild optimism when forecasting his team’s prospects on their return to the Greene King IPA Championship after a 12-month exile.

Consolidation is his modest ambition for the season, an achievement that were it to be met should not be under-valued.

But then yesterday, the smoke that billowed from the metaphoric chimney brought news of a major dual-registration deal signed with the biggest name in English rugby union.

A link-up with Leicester Tigers that will see six players parachuted into the squad at various times through the season – as and when suits the two clubs – is news that has the potential to get tongues wagging excitedly among punters as they file into Castle Park for the first game of Championship rugby in the town for a year.

Dual registration deals have their pitfalls, and their critics. Players aren’t often made available until late Thursday, giving them barely a day to get up to speed with set-pieces and patterns etc.

The sceptics are the more self-sufficient clubs, who view such transactions as a helping hand.

But they are the reality of life in the second tier, and an under-resourced outfit like Doncaster crave the input at some stage or another from the Tigers sextet of Italian props Riccardo Brugnara and Tiziano Pasquali, hooker Harry Thackar, flanker Will Owen, centre Rhys Davis Williams and scrum-half George Tressider.

What the mixed messages illustrate, though, is that as they return to a 12-team division that gets more competitive by the year, Griffiths and the Knights are not quite sure what to expect, or where they stand.

“I really don’t know how good the team is,” mused Griffiths. “I think it will be a struggle this season, but not in terms of a battle for points.

“It’s just going to generally be a struggle from game to game because the division is so competitive.

“We just want to consolidate. That can sometimes sound like a negative, but in this case it isn’t.

“You don’t know what to expect until you dip your toe into the water and see whether the water’s hot or the water’s cold. Then we’ll dive in.

“Let’s see where we are after the first month. We’ll know then whether we have to up the ante or if we’re in good shape.”

In that first month of fixtures Doncaster go from hosting an established club in Plymouth today, to visiting potential relegation rivals Jersey, to welcoming promotion favourites Worcester and then heading up the A1 to meet county rivals Yorkshire Carnegie.

It is a daunting opening quartet, but one they would gladly have taken 12 months ago when they began life in the third tier following their relegation the previous April.

Doncaster were overwhelming favourites to win promotion in a 16-team division in which, as a full-time outfit, they faced part-time opponents on a regular basis.

And although they managed to regain their Championship status, Griffiths knows full-well how hard that 30 game slog was.

“Everybody wanted to shoot us down because we stayed predominantly full-time,” said Griffiths, who still combines his head coaching role at Doncaster with a similar position at rugby league’s North Wales Crusaders.

“We had a target on our heads whoever we played. We were shot down five times and well beaten on a couple of those occasions.

“We had no divine right to win promotion back up to the Championship.

“We had to earn that right and I think we did because we had to overcome horrendous injuries.

“Nobody can accuse us of being lucky to be here, we have earned the right to be back in the Championship.

“It was a really nerve-wracking finish to the season.

“They call football’s Championship play-off final to get into the Premier League the £90m game, well our final league game against Blackheath was our £360,000 (central funding) game and that money means just as much.

“I told the players, if you have strong hearts and clear minds you can’t fail. The heart was there and the vision was clear and we came through that pressure.

“That was the biggest mental challenge they could have come through.”

As they embark on their second coming in the Championship, Griffiths will remind his players of all they achieved last year and the mental resolve they showed.

They will need it this season as they go from being the team everyone wants to beat to the ones everyone expects to beat.