Matt Challinor interview - One last Championship hurrah for Doncaster Knights’ evergreen lock

You know he means it when Doncaster Knights’ Matt Challinor says he wants to play on into his 50s.

Sunday, 7th March 2021, 11:42 am
Updated Sunday, 7th March 2021, 12:00 pm
Doncaster Knights' Matt Challinor back in January (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Given the way the legendary Doncaster Knights lock has looked after himself throughout a fine career, you sense he could do so as well.

Admittedly, not at the level he has been accustomed to but certainly with all the same drive, determination and grit, nonetheless.

Challinor turned 37 last week and the club captain has confirmed this Championship season – which starts somewhat belatedly at Ampthill today – will be his last as a full-time professional player.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Matt Challinor pictured playing for Doncaster Knights against Hartpury in 2017 (Picture: Marie Caley)

Having long since qualified as a project manager at Leeds Beckett Univeristy, the former Rotherham Titans forward already has irons in the fire for life after rugby.

“This year is definitely going to be my last at Doncaster,” Challinor said.

“In the last few weeks, I’ve had a few job interviews, had a look down some avenues for work and I’m quite happy with it all as well.

“I’ve had a few job offers so I’m in a good place really.

Matt Challinor started out in Leeds Tykes. Here he is in 2003 (Picture: Steve Riding)

“We used to always get Wednesdays off at Knights so, for a few years, I’d go in and do a voluntary day’s work at various different firms.

“But then I got involved with coaching the Academy here as well and when that’s up and running that takes up every week day from 4pm until 6pm so I put the work side on the back burner a little bit.

“Now, though, by starting looking for a real job, it has put me in good stead.

“After this season, I will still play at some level – I do think I’ll be one of those who’s still playing into their 50s hopefully!

“But in terms of professional, I think it will be time to join the real world after this season.”

It will be hard imagining Doncaster without Challinor in the middle of their pack, commanding line-outs, driving mauls or putting his unmistakable and considerable frame in the way of opponents.

He has been with them ever since leaving Rotherham in 2010 and amassed more than 250 appearances, playing more games for Knights than any other player in the professional era.

Challinor will look to make the most of this final hit, not just because it is his final campaign at Castle Park but also because of the what has happened over the previous year.

When they head to Bedfordshire this weekend, it will be almost 12 months to the day since the Championship was halted due to coronavirus.

Does he feel he has lost a year of his career, then, or like some players suggest, seen it as a way of extending it by benefitting from the enforced rest?

“It’s tricky,” said Challinor.

“With us, we’ve been back training 16 weeks. But in all that time the goalposts have changed; there’s been three different date changes for the season to start and we weren’t really 100 per cent certain this season was even going to happen at all.

“So we feel really fortunate it is. The club has been really good to us and (Doncaster chairman) Steve Lloyd has fought for the league to go ahead.

“Now it is finally happening, the lads are really appreciative of that. There were quite a few stages when I thought it might not happen.

“With our league being small, everybody knows a few players on each side and, so, you hear whispers from each. Jersey were saying they might not be allowed to go off the island so they were going to drop out and sometimes it didn’t feel like it made any sense to go ahead.

“London Scottish didn’t want to take the loan and they did drop out. At one point, it looked like it might even be a four or five club league, so it’s great that we are here now. It’s been in our sights so long and hopefully all the work we’ve done means it will be a special time for us.

“As for me, I know I am getting on a bit now – I have been for the last few years – but I feel really fit and as strong as I’ve ever been.

“It might be different tomorrow, next week, next year but at the moment, I feel really good. With my rugby on the pitch I have been performing as well as I ever have done and I am looking forward to it.”

Another reason for optimism is that this is the first season under new head coach Steve Boden, a former pack colleague of Challinor’s at Doncaster who was also his forwards coach before stepping up to replace Clive Griffiths last April.

“I’ve known Steve for nearly 20 years so I know him really well – I knew him before he was responsible!” he joked.

“He’s a little bit older than me but we were in the Leeds Tykes Academy together as it was known at the time and then obviously played together at Doncaster in my first couple of seasons here.

“I’m probably a little biased but I think he’s really good. His technical knowledge is great and I know the way he envisages Doncaster going forward.

“He’s recruited really young lads who are hungry with a point to prove.

“A lot have come from Premiership clubs having been released and they have a point to prove to try and get back there.

“That’s not always been the case here; he’s selling it as ‘come to Doncaster, have a good year or two and get back into the Premiership’ instead of come here and stay forever.

“I do think that’s really healthy.”

As well as coaching the Knights Academy with former team-mates Tyson Lewis and Richard List, headed up by Glen Kenworthy, Rotherham-born Challinor also coaches at Dinnington RUFC.

“I do enjoy coaching,” he said.

“But I couldn’t see myself doing it as a profession. Being in rugby as long as I have, you’re signing year-to-year contracts and every year after Christmas I’m thinking ‘will I have a job next year?’

“There’s no security whatsoever. I do enjoy it but don’t want to pursue it as a career.”

Challinor’s decade with the South Yorkshire club has coincided with its greatest era including reaching the play-offs for the first time under Griffiths and memorably playing in a Championship final.

They came so close to overhauling Bristol in 2016 and earning their dream of promotion to the Premiership, actually winning 34-32 in the second leg at Ashton Gate but falling 60-47 on aggregate.

In this truncated 2020-21 season, where clubs will play each other only once, Saracens are the Premierhsip giants in the second tier this time around.

It would be some story and a fitting end to Challinor’s Knights career if Doncaster could reach another such final.

But, for now, after such a long wait, the prospect of running out in meaningful league action against Ampthill is more than enough.

Yorkshire rugby union in need of change of fortune

Matt Challinor cannot hide his disappointment at what has happened to the state of professional rugby union in the Broad Acres.

The Doncaster Knights lock has played for the county’s three biggest clubs in the professional era having started out briefly at Leeds Tykes and spent a long period with Rotherham Titans before moving to Castle Park in 2010.

Although Doncaster are still going strong in the Championship, erstwhile Premiership clubs Leeds and Rotherham have now tumbled into National One and National Two North respectively.

Challinor said: “At one point, Leeds were flying the flag, Rotherham were knocking on the door and Doncaster underneath: three professional sides all going forward.

“Now, realistically, Doncaster are the only professional side in the county, for young lads coming through.

“When I was at Leeds, it was an England academy and there was a pathway; you didn’t have to move around.

“I’m sure I’m not speaking out of turn, but for young lads today to reach the top they are probably going to have to move out of the county to Newcastle, Sale or down south which I feel is really sad.”

Challinor is on the bench at Ampthill today with head coach Steve Boden awarding ten competitive debuts to the likes of Mark Best, Jack Spittle and Tom Bacon.