IT SHOULD be no real surprise that Doncaster Knights have come such a long way in such a short space of time.
Given their director of rugby Clive Griffiths makes a daily 180 mile commute from his St Helens home to the South Yorkshire club, it is understandable why they are always ready for arduous challenges and hard work.
Not so long ago, the passionate coach also combined his Doncaster duties by leading North Wales Crusaders’ rugby league team, too, clocking up a few extra hundred miles a week by heading in the other direction from Merseyside to Wrexham.
“My wife kicks me out five times a week,” he jokes.
“I know where every single speed camera is, where every speed restriction comes in on that (Doncaster) route...”
It is the veteran’s ceaseless energy and infectious desire, in many ways, that underpins Doncaster’s remarkable tale this season.
They were operating in the part-time National One division just two years ago but, if they deal with Yorkshire Carnegie in tomorrow’s Championship semi-final second leg, will be just one step away from the rarefied glory of the Premiership.
They diced with another relegation at one point last term so there is an obvious parallel with Leicester City’s incredible journey in football that this week saw them crowned as Premier League champions.
Griffiths says: “There are signs of it – but we’ve a few million pounds less in budget!
“I don’t like talking about that (promotion). It’s dangerous. You can get bit on your backside.
“It would be the best thing I’ve ever been involved in given where we’ve come from but we’ve got 80 minutes on Sunday first and, if we do that, another 160 minutes against Bristol.
“We’ve not achieved anything yet. It’s just a dream. Without hard work it stays a dream.”
He is aged 62 now or, as he puts it, “50 plus a bit of VAT”, and he has achieved so much in such a varied career.
From starting out as a talented full-back with the great Llanelli club and representing Wales plus the Barbarians, to switching codes with St Helens in 1979 and representing his country in rugby league, too, it is a fascinating odyssey. And that is just his playing days.
Griffiths, of course, moved on to earned high acclaim in the coaching world as well leading Wales rugby league side to a World Cup semi-final where they famously gave the revered Kangaroos the fright of their lives in 2000 and then working as defence coach when Wales’ 15-man side secured a triumphant Grand Slam in 2005.
“I’ve had some great highlights,” he continued,
“Being part of that great team – coaching and playing staff – that won that Grand Slam, winning a championship with Swansea, winning a first European Championship in 57 years with the Wales rugby league side and winning in France with them for the first time in ages, too. There’s been a lot of firsts. I’ve had a fantastic career. That’s why I’m probably still about. I’m greedy!”
As it stands, Doncaster take a 13-point lead into tomorrow’s second-leg at their Castle Park home having won 30-17 at Headingley last Sunday.
Given they finished second, behind only leaders Bristol, have lost just twice at home in the league all season and have now defeated third-placed Carnegie twice this term, there is good reason to believe they will push on and secure a place in the Championship final.
Doncaster have played some wonderful rugby in getting to this point, largely with the same players who helped them return to the Championship after relegation in 2013.
So, what is it about Griffiths that has created such alchemy? What’s his coaching philosophies?
“You have got to have some wit,” he explains. “You can’t be dry and grey all the time, you have to have some wit about you.
“But also you have to have WIT in terms of Whatever It Takes.
“You have to be able to do that; do anything to get the job done.
“If that means driving from here down to Penzance to watch one game live or just to pick someone’s brains, so be it.
“I always want to increase my knowledge and do whatever I can to benefit the team and I impart that on the players.
“It’s important to take other people’s viewpoints as well but you have got to make the final decision. That’s something I’ve learned over the years.”
Swansea-born Griffiths describes himself as “a cross between Jekyll and Hyde and Peter Pan” whose main objective is simple.
“To offer guidance and to allow players to express themselves,” he adds. “We play to a gameplan and pattern here but within that they can express themselves.
“I could tell my full-back Paul Jarvis to kick the ball all the time as a lot of full-backs do but he has licence to find a gap and go for it.
“He’s successful at that more often than not and, if it goes wrong, I will bang the table.
“But I say to myself ‘You let him do that, that’s your philosophy’ so I can’t blame him for it.”
In terms of mentors, aside from his dad Ron, there was the legendary Carwyn James – still the only Lions coach to win a Test series in New Zealand – and Graham Henry, who gave him his shot with the Wales national side, while he played with the great and good of Wales rugby folklore.
“The player I really looked up to had to be Phil Bennett,” admitted Griffiths.
“He used to call me ‘Shadow’ at Llanelli as I used to follow him everywhere. He’d make a break and I’d be on his shoulder. One time he said I was on his back!
“I never actually played with JPR (Williams) but was his understudy and he was a great guy and a brilliant player.
“In ’79 I decided to go north. It was a tough decision. I’d turned it down and turned it down and one of my few regrets – I’m not even sure if it is – is that a lot of Welsh players were picked for the Lions in 1980.
“But I moved to St Helens and I loved it. I’m still here 37 years later so…!
“It was sad to hear about Roger Millward passing this week. Roger was a real legend. What a player. When I first came up everyone wanted to smash me as I was this soft rugby union player. But I remember tackling Roger once at Craven Park and he turned around and said ‘good tackle, son.’
“That was great for me. I’d watched the BBC Floodlit Trophy on telly on Tuesday nights before I switched, mainly to see the Welsh boys.
“But then there was Hepworth, Hardisty, John Atkinson guys like that. And Roger. Real greats.
“Roger in rugby league with Hull KR was probably similar to Phil Bennett in union with Llanelli and Wales – an outstanding ball player who commanded respect because of both the player and man he was.
“His skills were remarkable.”