BIG KICK OFF: Dons targeting another top six finish - Cooke

Doncaster RLFC 2014
Doncaster RLFC 2014

At a time of great change for the Dons, Paul Cooke wants some things to stay the same.

For the first time in more recent memory, it seems that the pace of the club’s improvement has eased heading into a new season.

Two blistering seasons are in the history books, campaigns that brought a first league title and promotion to the Championship, then red hot form which catapulted the Dons into ‘best of the rest’ status behind the second tier’s usual suspects.

As he prepares for the kick off of his first season leading a club, new head coach Cooke is keen to play down expectations of something similar.

In fact, he admits he would be happy to see the Dons occupying sixth spot once again at the end of the campaign, which begins with the trip to Workington on Sunday.

“In many ways I think we over-achieved last season,” Cooke told the Free Press.

“Sections of the season were fantastic but it did feel like we were punching above our weight at times.

“There’s been talk of breaking into the top five but that is something which is going to be difficult for any club. We’re competing against clubs with finances and budgets way beyond our own. We missed out on bringing in quality players like Liam Kay and a couple of others but we have managed to bring some quality in.

“One of our jobs as a coaching team is making sure the lads know how much hard work they have got to put in to just match the levels they achieved last season. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that we’ll do that but the target is to match what we did last season.

“We had that really good run of form but then we seemed to run out of steam towards the end of the season. We’ve learned from that and hopefully we can keep fitness levels and performances constant throughout the season. Hopefully, if we achieve that we can cut the gap to the top five if we do finish sixth again.”

The overriding goal for the Dons this season will be guaranteeing a top nine finish with major changes set to be made to the top two tiers of English rugby league in 2015.

The top nine will remain in the Championship for the following season along with the winners of Championship One plus the bottom two sides from this year’s Super League.

In 2015, 12-team top two tiers will commence with promotion and relegation restored.

Being a talismanic player for the last two seasons helped Cooke see where improvement was needed in the side in order to secure Championship status.

And he believes the new arrivals will have a positive impact.

“We’ve definitely added some quality to the side and more importantly we’ve got a bit of steel in the areas that we needed to,” Cooke said.

“There’s a great deal of professionalism in the camp heading in to this season.

“I’ve been really impressed with Danny Nicklas, the half back. He’s someone I knew from Hull but he’s done very well since he came in.”

Change has been the word of the closed season for the Dons. Cooke has stepped up to replace the departed Tony Miller while Doncaster Rovers have settled in as the club’s new owners. An initially less-obvious change has also been instigated by Cooke, coming as part of the dual registration relationship with Hull FC.

The two clubs will operate from the same playbook this season, something which Cooke believes will help loan players make an even bigger impact. He said: “It’s always been the case that dual registration players come into the club and don’t know any of the plays so spend their time learning. With the close relation that we’re going to have with Hull as a club and my close relationship, we wanted to bring down any barriers and work parallel to them.

“I’ve had plenty of meetings with (coaches) Lee Radford and Andy Last since the end of last season and we’ve come up with a playbook that we think will work really well for both clubs.

“It’s not going to be a mirror image because of the different standard of opposition we’ll both be up against plus a playbook always varies from game to game.

“But the dual reg players should be able to slot in with no problems when we get them over here.

Cooke admits there have been a few teething problems with the changes he has decided to make but he expects them to be sorted early in the season. He said: “It’s been a tough process because we’ve changed a lot from last season but I don’t think we were ever under any illusions about that.

“A few of the old plays from last season have crept in but I thing we’ll be where we need to be in no time.

“I was a bit disappointed in the friendly with Hull because I think we should have put the game to bed early. We got a bit slack as it wore on, a few of the old plays appeared out of habit and we let them back into it. We really could have done with the friendly at Dewsbury going ahead so we could work on things but we’ve just had to cope with it.”

Cooke will continue to play for the Dons as long as he feels he is making a positive contribution. He is likely to start the season at stand off and insists he will have no problems taking himself out of the side. The transition from playing has been more smooth than he thought and helped by his work as backs coach for Doncaster Knights since last summer.

Cooke said: “I’ve not found it too bad really.

“Because I work with the Knights I’ve been able to work on my fitness down there at their top quality facilities.

“It’s meant that when we’ve trained at the Dons that I’ve been able to concentrate on the coaching side of things. On the playing side, if I feel someone else would serve us better being in the side then I’d take myself out straight away. But I’ve got plenty of confidence in my coaching staff that they can take care of things when I’m playing. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”