Coventry v Doncaster Knights: Realistic coach Steve Boden happy with Knights’ ambition

Having impressed so vividly in his first campaign as Doncaster Knights head coach, Steve Boden will today begin his bid to prove he – and his squad – are no one-season wonders.

By Dave Craven
Saturday, 18th September 2021, 10:38 am
Sam Graham is Knights' new captain. Picture: Tony Johnson
Sam Graham is Knights' new captain. Picture: Tony Johnson

They start the Championship campaign at Coventry, looking to build on their excellent truncated 2020-21 when the unfancied South Yorkshire club won eight of their ten league outings.

The competition is almost back to normal now, with a full list of home and away fixtures planned and, crucially for clubs like Doncaster, a more realistic aim of promotion to the Premiership.

With no club relegated from the top-flight last season, there will not be the usual heavily-backed favourite expected to make an immediate return as occurred with Saracens last term and has happened 14 times in the last 17 years.

Moreover, the Premiership will expand to 14 clubs at the end of this forthcoming season, giving Doncaster - who finished third last term - a chance, at least, of making that crucial last push.

Clearly, ambitious Ealing Trailfinders will be the favourites having finished top last time around and only missing out to star-studded Sarries in the play-off final.

Knights, who pushed Bristol close in their only Championship final in 2016, want to be in contention but ex-Yorkshire Carnegie chief Boden remains realistic.

“It’s really encouraging that the owners want to put the club forward for the Premiership audit,” he said.

“I think we’ll probably apply for that and it’s the right thing for the club.

“As a player, that’s just what you want to hear; people have the ambition to go for it and it does give us a chance.

“I think the big issue for whoever gets up still remains, though, and that’s that financially it’s not a level playing field. That needs to change.

“Where realism is needed also is that we know Ealing spends about five times as much as we do on playing budget.

“But what hasn’t altered for us is we want to go out and win every game. That doesn’t alter whether Sarries are in here or Ealing or whoever.

“And we’re looking forward to the start of the season at Coventry.”

Boden oversaw a significant overhaul of the squad after stepping up from forwards coach to replace director of rugby Clive Griffiths in March 2020.

Back then, he targeted young, ambitious players with plenty of improvement in them and, as results showed, the tactic clearly worked.

The Yorkshireman has had to alter his squad considerably again this time given the likes of long-serving stalwarts such as club captain Matt Challinor – more than 250 Knights games – and hooker Ben Hunter plus lock Matt Smith and Wasps-bound loosehead Robin Hislop all departed.

Nine of last year’s new arrivals also left Castle Park with lock Will Britton earning a Premiership deal at Gloucester, Joe Jones moving to Coventry and James Mitchell joining Jersey Reds.

It has meant more recruitment has been needed but Boden is pleased with what he has assembled.

“With the budget we’ve got, I’d say we have lost experience with the likes of Chall’ and Ben Hunter but Charlie Foley and Jerry Sexton, too,” he said.

“But what we have got this year is an unbelievable amount of enthusiasm and better athletes as well. The players are far better conditioning-wise and that’s left us in a better place than last year.”

Highly-rated flanker Sam Hudson arrives from Ampthill, where he was captain, while lock Danny Drake comes in from Scarlets, Bedford Blues props Joe Wrafter and Henry Paul have both joined and so has Bath front-row Will Vaughan.

Former Bristol blindside Sam Graham has been installed as captain in place of Challinor, who joined Rotherham Titans with Smith and Sam Pocklington.

Boden is expecting his squad to improve on last term but warned; “The main thing for us is that we don’t get carried away.

“The club was in a bit of a mess when I took over; we’d been spending a lot of money but finishing ninth, tenth and 11th.

“We finished third last time but I think four of our eight wins were only by one score.

“What we have talked about for this season is turning those seven point wins into more dominant ones; in some of those we were ahead by big scores but in the last 20 minutes we saw our discipline go and we made errors so we’d end up in a dogfight.

“We want to eliminate those dogfights this season and I do think we have more depth to do that. It’s exciting.”