Survival key to Ionians hopes of breaking league’s stranglehold

Doncaster Knights director of rugby Clive Griffiths.
Doncaster Knights director of rugby Clive Griffiths.
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While Doncaster aim to make their stay in National One a brief one and Wharfedale hope to prolong their association for a further year, the target in the east is that this new dawn does not prove to be false.

Hull Ionians kick off in the third tier of English rugby for the first time this afternoon, hoping they have what it takes to compete at this level.

Their involvement ensures a geographical and ideological cross-section of the Yorkshire rugby union fraternity is covered with Doncaster retaining their full-time status in a bid to bounce straight back following relegation from the Championship.

Wharfedale, the epitome of a community club punching above their weight, are seeking to continue defying the odds by clinging to the third rung of the ladder for a 19th season.

Then there are Ionians, fighting to establish themselves in a city dominated by rugby league and a Premier League football team, and battling to belong in National One.

“Everyone is tipping us for relegation and our aim is to survive,” said head coach Gary Pearce, who took the reins two years ago when the Brantingham Park club were battling relegation to the fifth tier.

“We want to live at this level. We are built for this level of rugby, as Leeds Carnegie found when they played here last year.

“Hull is predominantly a rugby league city but there are some fine young rugby union players here and we have good links with a number of schools and we are building.

“If we can get a bit of support locally off the field, as well as on it in terms of attendances, then it opens us up to the whole of East Yorkshire. To continue building, though, we need to survive this first season.”

Ionians developed steadily through the divisions, which is a contrast to their cross-city neighbours Hull, who won seven titles in a row to reach National Two North, where they kick off today.

Pearce, who represented Wales at league and union level, led Hull through all of those promotions, and after a break that included a spell refereeing, he was lured back to coaching by Ionians more than 18 months ago.

“With the facilities at Brantingham Park I’d always seen the potential,” he said.

“Last season we started winning a few tight games and the confidence just grew.

“This season is going to be a tough challenge for everybody at the club. When you’re coming up against teams that are full-time it’s a different ball game.

“Hopefully, we can take a little bit of momentum from last year. We have retained a lot of our players, we haven’t gone down the road of buying players.

“We’ll learn a lot about ourselves in the first five or six weeks. We’re up against it and we have to look beyond the first two games.”

Those two openers are against two of the division’s biggest clubs, Coventry today and Doncaster next week. The Knights dropped down from the Championship last season after eight years in the second tier.

Another Welshman, Clive Griffiths, could not stem the tide after taking over in mid-season.

They have retained their full-time status, and Griffiths has recruited heavily, with 16 new players in a squad of 28.

“The guys who have stayed are determined to get Doncaster back to the Championship,” said Griffiths, whose side is strengthened by the return from retirement of veteran Glen Kenworthy.

“It’s going to be a tough ask, though, because history is against us with no relegated team ever going straight back up. But we made history in my first spell here by finishing third, the club’s highest ever finish, so why not?

“If we do it, it will be fantastic.

“We want to play in a certain manner but there are going to be times when we have to kick to the corners.

“We want to entertain but first and foremost we want to win, whether that’s through Plan A, B or C.

“And staying full-time has been vital in my being able to integrate those different tactics throughout pre-season.

“There’s still some things we’re working on, we remain a work in progress.”

Wharfedale go into their 18th season in National One with a new head coach, Jon Feeley, who, at 34, is stepping up to succeed Tommy McGee.

“Wharfedale presented a unique challenge in the current rugby environment,” said Feeley, the Bradford-born former Rotherham, Sedgley Park and Sheffield Tigers winger.

“It’s a team that has retained its National League status while remaining true to its amateur roots and not changing its principles.

“That’s the sort of challenge I wanted and I was really excited to take it on.”

Feeley has been shorn of seven senior members of his squad and has been forced to place his faith in youth.

“In the near short-term, it means players need to step up and fill holes,” said Feeley.

“And that’s my challenge for this year. I’m working with a young group who have not had experience of this level of rugby before.

“But it is a group that is really keen to play and work hard for this club.”