RFU pull drawbridge up by denying Doncaster Knights promotion to the Premiership

Three days after one of the most significant results in their history, Doncaster Knights suffered a huge loss off the pitch yesterday.

By Nick Westby
Wednesday, 2nd March 2022, 6:00 am
Steve Boden: Doncaster Knights' head coach had put his team in a position to win promotion. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Steve Boden: Doncaster Knights' head coach had put his team in a position to win promotion. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

They moved to within potentially two victories of winning the Championship title by beating closest rivals Ealing Trailfinders on their own patch on Saturday.

But the reward of promotion to the Premiership that comes with winning the second-tier title was robbed of the Knights – and of Ealing – yesterday by the game’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union.

Both clubs had applied to the RFU for promotion to the elite division, but were informed by the authorities that they had not met the ‘Minimum Standards Criteria’ for promotion.

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Doncaster and Ealing both failed because they do not have a ground capacity of 10,000.

It is particularly galling for Doncaster who can currently accommodate a crowd of 5,183 fans in their Castle Park ground, 1,926 of those on seats.

The venue is one that has been deemed good enough to host a number of England Red Roses internationals in the last few years, and as recently as last week, an England Under-20s Six Nations fixture – but not adequate enough to stage Premiership rugby.

Doncaster had stressed to the RFU when they came to audit the ground as part of the promotion bid, that they would erect temporary seating to get up to 10,000.

However, as the RFU pointed out yesterday, they do not have planning permission in place to confirm that.

It means that whether Doncaster win the Championship title or not, Yorkshire will be without a presence in the top flight of English rugby union for a 12th successive season since Leeds Carnegie’s last spell ended in relegation in 2011.

Knights benefactors Steve Lloyd and Tony de Mulder elected not to comment yesterday, choosing to speak with coaches, players and staff members before revealing their feelings publically.

This is the second time Doncaster have been close to earning a seat at the top table by rights on the pitch.

Six years ago they reached the play-off final with Bristol. This time, they felt they were in a much stronger position.

In a short statement on their website yesterday, the club said: “Doncaster Knights failed to meet the criteria that a stadium must hold a minimum of 10,001 fans – the Knights currently have a capacity of 5,183 with 1,926 seats.

“(We) proposed to seek planning permission to expand the facilities however, the permission is not yet in place for this to happen.”

The decision, which comes six months before the 2022/23 season is due to start, is another kick in the teeth for Championship clubs.

In the last 15 years only Worcester Warriors, Exeter Chiefs and Bristol have gone up to the Premiership and stayed there, with the ‘13th club’ often being relegated and winning promotion back to the Premiership the following year.

This season’s Premiership involves all 13 of those clubs but the Covid recovery measures agreed by the RFU Council in June last year allowed for the Premiership to be expanded to 14 clubs at the end of the 2021/22 season, and opened the door for a Doncaster, an Ealing or a Cornish Pirates to reach the top flight.

Privately, Doncaster were confident they would be allowed in this time given their relationship with the RFU for hosting international matches, their geography, and the fact they have a strong academy producing young players.

But yesterday’s news will feel like the drawbridge being pulled up yet again.