Doncaster Knights can mount Championship challenge despite big player turnover

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It must have been strange being a Doncaster Knights’ supporter in recent Championship campaigns with the yearly change of personnel.

As has been the case in the last couple of years, Knights kicked off their 2023-24 campaign with around 50 per cent of the squad being new to the club.

It’s not an ideal situation for director of rugby Steve Boden and his coaching staff.

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Boden may not like the situation he finds himself in at the start of every season, but he has shown during his playing and coaching career that he is the sort of man who isn’t afraid of a challenge and just gets on with the job.

New arrival AJ Cant in action for Doncaster Knights against Bristol in the Premiership Cup. Photo: George Wood/Getty ImagesNew arrival AJ Cant in action for Doncaster Knights against Bristol in the Premiership Cup. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images
New arrival AJ Cant in action for Doncaster Knights against Bristol in the Premiership Cup. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images

During my time covering the Championship club there remained a strong core of players such as Glen Kenworthy, Matt Challinor, Colin Quigley, Richard List, Tyson Lewis and Dougie Flockhart who were at the club for a number of years and who all became firm fan favourites with the knowledgeable Castle Park crowd.

But a drastic reduction in central funding in recent years has brought about significant changes to Championship clubs.

Despite having to contend with the sort of problems none of his predecessors had to tackle, Boden had seen Knights make a decent showing in the new Premiership Cup competition prior to their big defeat at Northampton Saints.

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They will expect to be among the front runners when the Championship campaign kicks off this weekend – especially following the sad loss of last season’s champions Jersey Reds who became the latest club in the top two divisions to fold due to financial problems.

The fact that Knights would have beaten pre-season title favourites Ealing Trailfinders in their cup match at Vallis Way last month had they converted a last-minute penalty, will also have boosted confidence in the camp that they have a realistic prospect of featuring in the promotion play-off final come the end of the season.

Whether it would be in the club’s best interests to go up into the Premiership given the current state of the flagship league is another matter, although I suspect they would take on the challenge.

Knowing Boden he will not be thinking of such matters and will just take it one game at a time when the Championship campaign gets underway with a home game against Hartpury on Saturday.

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Not only are there problems at Premiership level but there are a lot less people playing the game below first and second-team level at a lot of clubs than when I was playing in the 70s – a problem which needs to be urgently tackled.

The recent meeting of Yorkshire clubs held at Castle Park, which Knights’ president Steve Lloyd was instrumental in organising, was a welcome start to addressing some of the problems facing the game.

Fortunately, thanks to the backing of Lloyd and fellow benefactor Tony De Mulder, who have always tempered their ambitions with sound business plans, Knights are better placed than most, if not all, of their Championship rivals.

They boast an excellent stadium capable of being extended to meet Premiership requirements and the 2,000 plus crowd for the recent visit of Bristol Bears in the Premiership Cup underlined their status as the city’s second-best supported club, though that could change next year following the Dons’ promotion.