Doncaster RLFC kick off their new season today desperate to secure promotion back to the Championship at the third time of asking. In the first of a series of interviews with key figures at Doncaster’s leading sports clubs, PAUL GOODWIN talks to chief executive Carl Hall about Super League ambitions, trying to get out League One, the prospect of going full time and the lessons learned since relegation in 2015.
When I wrote late last year that the dynamic of professional sport in Doncaster had changed, it got me thinking and it got me worrying...
Be it football or rugby, or even something else, will Doncaster have a top flight team EVER again?
Money has moved the goalposts and the town’s top sides appear to be getting left behind.
Doncaster Knights said last year they could not afford to play in the Premiership and Doncaster Rovers Belles recently said the same about a new full-time women’s Super League to be launched later this year.
Moving things forward I wanted to get the lowdown on each of the town’s major clubs - their short and long term aspirations - and you can read my findings in the Free Press over the next four weeks.
First up is Doncaster RLFC chief executive Carl Hall and central to the interview is the League One club’s ambitious plan to reach the Super League by 2022.
Is it just a pipe dream? Well, Carl clearly thinks not...
PG: Doncaster has effectively been priced out of competing at the top level in rugby union and women’s football, and you could argue that the same applies to rugby league and football. Do you agree with those sentiments?
CH: The whole game of rugby league is all about money at the moment.
There’s a big piece of work going on now about the finances. There’s not enough money in the game, so I suppose that does trickle down to Donny.
There’s a lot going on with the Super League clubs and the distribution of funds from Sky Sports. They could end up breaking away so that’s something we have to deal with.
I don’t think you can blame the clubs in Doncaster for living within their means. The town needs to have a look at itself and come and support the teams.
If they come and support the teams we have more money. It’s not just a full focus on the clubs, I don’t think.
What do the clubs have to do to get the spectators to come and watch? I don’t know.
If we get promoted are they going to come? If we get to Super League are they going to come? Who knows?
The public of Doncaster has to support the teams if they want them to do anything. You can’t just keep relying on owners to make up shortfalls.
You run with the restraints you’ve got. You can only spend what you’ve got. The most successful clubs are the ones with big gates.
PG: Hypothetically speaking, if Dons were to win League One this season and then the Championship next season, would the club be in a position to apply for a Super League licence and would you meet RFL criteria?
CH: We wouldn’t have to apply. We’d be in. We’d be in there on merit.
I wouldn’t be afraid of the finances either because I’m sure if we got into Super League we would have the support coming through the gates, and then there are sponsors, contributions from the owners and RFL contributions.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation but we would gladly take the chance of playing in the Super League, if that chance came about.
PG: The club currently finds itself in League One. Do you regard that status as ‘below par’?
CH: Yes. One hundred per cent.
We have to be honest and say we’re a little bit behind the goals we’ve set ourselves. We would have liked to have got ourselves out of this league by now.
But this is sport. You can’t dwell on it and you can’t worry about it. You need to try and learn the best you can from your mistakes and rectify where you’ve gone wrong.
Sitting here, I can do everything in my power but I don’t take to the field. You don’t really know how it’s going to go until the games start, whether you get a little luck with injuries and so on.
We can’t guarantee getting promoted. We’d all like to get promoted but the answer to the question is we’re a little off the targets we have set ourselves.
PG: The Dons’ well-documented target is to reach Super League by 2022? How realistic is that?
CH: We had a five-year plan and I think we were only one or two years into it last year and everyone thought we were into year four.
I don’t know where they got that from. It was a five-year plan that hadn’t really started, we were talking about it internally.
But we’d love to be there in 2022.
We want to be as close as possible before the 2021 World Cup.
Now that all depends on winning.
If we can get out of this league it’s definitely a realistic target.
The biggest stumbling block for Doncaster Rugby League Club is getting out of League One and it has been for a couple of years now.
If we could’ve got out in year one then I think we’re two years ahead of where we are today.
I would like to think you’re talking to someone who thinks we’re going to be in the top eight of the Championship. The stumbling block is League One.
PG: Can the Dons afford to play and sustain Super League rugby?
CH: If we get there, yes.
The pain we’re taking now in League One, we’re putting all the blocks in place so when we do get there we can sustain it. We’ve said that all along.
We may have taken a little bit of a hit in terms of getting the promotion.
It sounds like I’m contradicting myself but I’m not.
Off the field we’re probably running as a Super League club.
PG: In the past you have talked about the Dons going full time and also having a reserve team. What’s the latest there?
CH: Get out of this league and we accelerate everything we do.
So, I would like to think if we get out of this league, within one year of being in the Championship we would be full time.
That’s what I would recommend to the board.
And like everyone thinks in the game at the moment, everyone needs a reserve team.
It’s not just something we’re talking about. For the future of the sport, the game needs reserve teams.
PG: Do you personally feel under pressure to deliver promotion this season?
CH: Good question. I don’t feel under pressure about promotion.
The pressure I put on myself is trying to give this town a rugby league team in a division that they deserve. That’s the pressure. I have no fear or pressure on me if we don’t achieve that.
But the pressure I put on myself is that I want to achieve that for everyone in the town and the club and Club Doncaster, for everything that we stand for.
That’s the pressure. There’s no pressure from any outside influences or what people think or what people say.
I know I do a good job so I don’t feel the pressure in that sense.
What people must realise is that we’ve still got a rugby league club in the town, which ten years ago was very doubtful.
So I’m more proud than anything. As long as the club is still here, there’s no money troubles, so it’s determining what you mean by ‘pressure’?
The pressure I put on myself is about doing it not for me but for the town. There’s pressure in that way.
But, as everyone who knows me outside of this club knows, things don’t worry me or pressure me. I don’t fear I’m going to get the sack or anything like that if we don’t do it.
If we all thought it was the right thing for the club to do, to go in a different direction, then we’re all man enough to accept that. But I think we’ll do a good job here.
PG: Since dropping into League One what are the biggest lessons you have learned and how are you looking to use that knowledge to your advantage this year?
CH: It’s just the squads. What I’ve learned is the longer you’re in it, the harder it is to get out of it.
The league’s got a lot better, but then you look at the Championship and it’s a mile away from League One.
Super League then is another jump.
As much as the game is in a bit of difficulty it gets stronger and stronger every year.
Is that because you haven’t got the pool of players? I don’t know. Maybe.
With having no reserves we seem to have lost a really good crop of young players who used to play in League One.
A lot of teams in League One are going for more experienced players now, and trying that angle.
We tried it, we tried youth and got hammered for it, the next year we tried more experience and we got hammered for signing over-age players.
So the secret in the learning is the balance of the squad and I think we’ve nearly got it about right. I hope so.
You might come up against a team full of experienced players and get beat up. You don’t know.
A lot of outside people thought League One was just a bash and barge league but that perception has gone now.
The league is tough, a lot harder and we just hope we’ve got the right mix. We’ve got the right coach and it all comes down to when we start playing.
The partnership with Hull FC is good. We have to embrace that.
They haven’t got a reserves and we haven’t got a reserves. They’re a Super League club and the only outlet for their players to play is here. We need to take that on board and if that contributes to us getting promoted, so be it.
PG: What are your hopes and aspirations, on and off the pitch, for the forthcoming season?
CH: Off the pitch the club is in a great place. Commercially it’s doing well and the media and marketing side we do well.
We’re running as a Super League club off the field, or close to it. Top end Championship.
It’s the on field stuff we need to get right.
My aspiration is that we need to get out of this league as quickly as we can.
I say it and say it again but my number one remit, for me, is to make sure we’ve got a rugby league club here that is financially sound and running well.
That’s what I control.
The coaching department controls what happens out there on the field.
I know I talk a lot about the team but that’s just to try and generate interest. I have no influence on the team.
What I do is I have influence on us having a rugby league club in Donny.