DESPITE being up to third in the Championship, Yorkshire Carnegie realise promotion remains a seriously unlikely prospect but it does not mean they cannot challenge those who are bidding for the Premiership.
James Lowes’ side rounded off 2017 with Friday’s dramatic 32-30 win at derby rivals Doncaster Knights, a sixth consecutive victory in all competitions that saw them rise up the table again.
Granted, put into context, they do still remain a gargantuan 24 points behind unbeaten leaders Bristol and are even 15 adrift of Ealing Trailfinders in second.
Nevertheless, Carnegie hooker Joe Buckle – who claimed the crucial injury-time try to help deliver Friday’s rare success at Castle Park – believes it is imperative his side continue making improvements even if hopes of elevation are already all but gone due to the return of first-past-the-post this term.
“We’re a hungry side,” he said.
“We know there’s no (top-four) play-offs now but to be where we are at the new year in third after the problems we’ve had, such as no pre-season game, struggling with numbers and things like that, is really pleasing.
We know there’s no (top-four) play-offs now but to be where we are at the new year in third after the problems we’ve had, such as no pre-season game, struggling with numbers and things like that, is really pleasing.Joe Buckle
“What we want in 2018 is to go on and challenge sides like Ealing and Bristol where we’ve lost quite heavily beforehand.”
Carnegie did, indeed, suffer big defeats to the leading duo on back-to-back weekends in November, falling 44-19 at Ealing before succumbing 44-14 at home to big-spending Bristol.
Improving on that when they meet them twice in six days in March will be a major target for a side who lost the Championship final to London Irish last term but have generally struggled for consistency since.
They flattered to deceive again at Doncaster, dogged opponents who had lock Nick Civetta sent off before half-time yet still led after 80 minutes.
It needed a rolling maul in added time for Carnegie to rescue the game, Alex Davies converting Buckle’s eighth try of the campaign.
It was the 24-year-old’s fifth in the last three games alone having also scored a hat-trick against Rotherham Titans.
“I don’t think at any point we were panicking,” insisted the Plymouth-born player, who joined from Jersey in the summer.
“I knew we had the numerical advantage and at some point we’d get that skill right and be able to win.
“Our maul is really good and the boys put us in that position towards the end.
“I’m just the one on the back who flops over but that’s a good team win.
“We’ve spoken a lot about character the last few weeks and that result shows it; I know they had a red card and we didn’t defend well at times but our character shone through.”
The ex-Bath player has flourished of late, especially since rival hooker Mike Mayhew joined Harlequins on loan at the end of October.
In total, he has made 13 appearances for Carnegie, starting 11 times.
He added: “With Mike going down there it’s great for him but great for me too.
“It gave me a chance to start a lot of games and the chance to learn more. That’s what I came to the club to do - learn and get better.
“I’m really enjoying Yorkshire. I came from the little Chanel Island last year and I’d spent five years there.
“Jersey’s quite a small place and to come to a city like Leeds is refreshing and a new challenge I’ve enjoyed.
“I couldn’t tell you what will happen next season.
It’s all up in the air a little bit at the minute but I’d love to stay at Carnegie.”
Despite a brave late fightback, Rotherham Titans ended a miserable 2017 with a 13th successive Championship defeat.
Playing under new head coach Nic Rouse for the first time, Rotherham lost 27-18 at Hartpury College, a result that leaves them 22 points adrift at the foot of the table and staring relegation to the third tier in the face.
They trailed 10-3 at the break following a closely-fought first half, but once they fell 27-8 behind it looked all over as a contest.
However, Rotherham showed the kind of fight that belies their position to score two late tries and reduce the deficit to nine points. The fact that none of their three tries were converted prevented them securing what would have been only a fourth bonus point of the season.
Ben Foley’s try for Rotherham kept them in touch at 13-8, but Caolan Ryan missed the conversion having earlier kicked a penalty.
Drew Cheshire then scored a try out wide as Rotherham began fighting back from 27-8 down, but Ryan missed that conversion and the one to a final score by fly-half Lee Millar as the chance of some consolation in Rouse’s first game in charge evaporated.
Hartpury climbed above Jersey into 10th with the win.