DONCASTER flattered to deceive a classic Championship One play-offs quarter-final against Rochdale Hornets at Spotland.
The Dons looked to be be on course for the semi-finals after racing into an 18-4 lead but Hornets hit back with 22 unanswered points to claim a 26-18 victory and dash their hopes of Championship rugby.
The Dons made the early running but fell behind on four minutes when Rochdale winger Dale Bloomfield intercepted a pass by scrum-half Craig Fawcett - as he looked to capitalise on an overlap - deep inside his half and held off the cover on a 75 metre run to the line.
The Dons hit back on seven minutes. Stand-off Scott Spaven broke the Rochdale line about 15 metres out and slipped out a try-scoring pass to second-rower Craig Robinson. Spaven added the extras to made it 6-4.
The visitors were playing an expansive high-tempo game, with Spaven and Fawcett running the show, and were looking dangerous every time they moved the ball.
They increased their lead on ten minutes when Spaven put big prop Adam Scott in from ten metres out for a second converted try.
It had been a dream start by Tony Miller’s side against a side who had started the game as slight favourites.
There was a let-off for Hornets on 16 minutes when the referee adjudged that the ball had travelled forward when winger Gareth Potts palmed Fawcett’s kick to the corner inside for centre Chris Spurr to touch down.
It merely proved a stay of execution for the home side, however, Spurr touching down for a 21st minute try after Grant Edwards’ grubber-kick had taken a deflection off a defender on the line.
Spaven added the extras from out wide to leave shell-shocked Hornets trailing 18-4.
The Dons defensive qualities proved equally as impressive as their handling skills - particularly in the closing stages of the half - when the home side tried to get back into the game.
Just when it looked as though the Dons would go in 14 points to the good, Bloomfield dived over in the last minute of the half to make it 18-8.
Buoyed by the score, and knowing that the next try could prove crucial, Hornets came out firing on all cylinders, but the Doncaster defence held firm.
It was then the Dons turn to pressure the line and, after denying Spurr on the other flank, Hornets did well to defend an astute grubber kick by Spaven.
Hornets closed to within four points on 54 minutes when full-back Wayne English beat winger Stu Sanderson to Steven Roper’s high kick to the corner and palmed it inside for winger Andy Saywell to score a try converted by Paul Crook.
The momentum had swung in Rochdale’s favour at the midway point of the half and the game was set for an exciting final quarter.
Hornets drew level on 65 minutes when Bloomfield squeezed in at the corner for his hat-trick try.
Hornets got their noses in front when Paul Crook penalised a high tackle by full-back Mick Butterfield on Roper under the post.
The Dons defensive duties looked to be taking its toll and they fell further behind on 74 minutes when former Doncaster half-back Chris Hough touched down after Butterfield failed to hold on to high kick. Crook’s conversion left the Dons needing to score twice to win.
Rochdale: English, Bloomfield, Gorton, Pyke, Saywell, Crook, Roper, Cookson, Hough, Mervill, Ashall, Hobson, Middlehurst. Subs: Donaghue Ekis McDermott, Bowman.
Dons: Butterfield, Sanderson, Morrison, Spurr, Potts, Spaven, Fawcett, Scott, Emmett, Sampson, Robinson, Edwards, C Hughes. Subs: Kesik, Carbutt, Dee, Coady
Referee: C Sharrad