So near yet so far: What next for Doncaster RLFC?

Photo: Rob Terrace
Photo: Rob Terrace

With Swinton Lions beating Workington Town in Sunday’s promotion decider, Doncaster RLFC now know who they will be up against in their 2019 Betfred League One campaign.

But they could be forgiven for casting an envious look at the Championship fixtures when they come out given how close they got to a return to the second tier of British rugby league.

Photo: Rob Terrace

Photo: Rob Terrace

And the fact that Town, who were in contention until the last couple of minutes at Heywood Road, will still be in League One next season doesn’t make things any easier for Richard Horne’s side who were beaten by the Cumbrians in the play-off semi-final at the Keepmoat Stadium.

Having seen their promotion hopes dashed by having to travel to face Barrow with a much-depleted side in their 2016 semi-final, the situation the Dons found themselves in this season ahead of the Town game could hardly have been better.

Unbeaten in ten games, virtually at full-strength and with home advantage, the odds looked to be in their favour of at least reaching the final where they would have two bites of the cherry as a result of the extra play-off game to facilitate an increase in the number of teams in the Championship in 2019.

Having watched Bradford beat Town - who lost two key forwards due to injury in the first half and had another sent-off in the second - in the final at Odsal Stadium, I’m not sure that the Dons would have been able to avenge two comprehensive league defeats had they been facing the Bulls.

Richard Horne

Richard Horne

But I do think that had they won the toss that they would have had every chance of beating Swinton, who finished bottom of the Championship, at the Keepmoat Stadium or even at Heywood Road.

The quality of League One last season was very high and I think that all of the sides involved in the play-offs would have at least held their own against the lower Championship teams.

Had the Dons been promoted they could have looked forward to a number of exciting Yorkshire derbies and much-increased crowds – especially if they acquitted themselves well.

The Dons are fortunate to play in a stadium which is the envy of most of the sides outside the top flight and several in it, boasting as it does easy access and ample parking.

Photo: Rob Terrace

Photo: Rob Terrace

They are also fortunate to be part of the Club Doncaster project which has brought them many benefits including financial stability.

But both parties will be disappointed at the lack of progress on the field and the failure to significantly boost the Dons’ fan base since the takeover four years ago.

Despite the club enjoying their best season for four years, and playing an exciting brand of attacking rugby under Richard Horne and Pete Green, attendances were generally very disappointing - especially considering the ‘give-away’ price of season tickets.

More needs to be done to persuade former rugby league supporters to come back into the fold as well as encouraging new supporters.

Could more be done to encourage Rovers’ fans to support the Dons given they are part of Club Doncaster?

Could Rovers not show footage of Dons’ games during home games? Or arrange the odd social function at the stadium where players and officials of the two clubs would be able to mix with fans of both clubs as well as be interviewed by media staff?

I’m sure that quite a few football supporters, particularly if they were to be given a brief description of the rules and various competitions, would enjoy watching the Dons if they were to give it a try over two or three weeks.

The club certainly needs to do more to promote the game in what is predominantly a football town and could learn lessons from Doncaster Rugby Union Club.

More local players would certainly help in that respect and more support could be given to the local amateur sides, although that has already started.

One of the problems in attracting football supporters in the summer is the fact that no sooner has the football season finished than work starts on the ground and the Dons spend the bulk of the next couple of months on the road.

Although there are several clubs who share grounds with other sports who are similarly affected, any scenario which disrupts the home-away structure doesn’t help either the players or the supporters.

But the Dons will have to come to terms with the same situation next season when they must be aiming for the automatic promotion spot rather than chancing their luck again in the play-offs which will feature clubs finishing second-to-fifth.

On paper the 2019 campaign, which will only feature 12 clubs, looks easier than either of the last three seasons when at best only a play-off spot was up for grabs due to the quality of the likes of Toulouse, Toronto and Bradford and York last season.

But the two Cumbrian sides, ambitious Newcastle, Oldham, Hunslet and Keighley will all represent formidable opposition.

The good news as far as Dons’ fans are concerned is that the bulk of last season’s side will be there next season and will have benefited from a full season working under head coach Horne, who is looking to bring in several players to strengthen the squad.

Part of the reason for the Dons’ success last season was the way the dual-registration arrangement worked with Hull FC.

Horne’s role as assistant coach at the Super League club gave him direct access to head coach Lee Radford and resulted in more promising young prospects being available to the Dons than would otherwise have been the case.

The big concern is that Horne will have less access to Hull players next season as a result of their plans to revive their reserve side.

What is not in doubt is that under Horne, who is proving to have all the attributes needed to coach at the top level one day, the Dons will look play a game based on good defence and enterprising attacking play.