They came oh so close to reaching the promised land of the Premiership in 2016, giving big-spending Bristol the fright of their lives in the play-off final.
But last year Doncaster Knights said the Aviva Premiership was out of their reach financially and wouldn’t go up even if they earned that right on the pitch.
So how does the land lie now at Castle Park and what does the future hold for a club that has risen from the Yorkshire League to the brink of the big time?
I spoke to benefactor Steve Lloyd who, along with Tony De Mulder, has been instrumental in putting Doncaster rugby union on the map.
PG: Doncaster, including the Knights, appears to have been priced out of elite level sport. What are your observations?
SL: A Championship club really, realistically, needs an average attendance of 3,000 if it is going to totally wash its own face under the present system.
Other than Bristol, very few are achieving that. Bedford probably get to 2,500, Jersey get into the 2000s.
Whether we go up or down, in basic terms we are a bottom half budget and if we can have a top half finish then we’ve got to celebrate that as a success.
But it is a constant problem, if you just take Doncaster Metropolitan as an entity you’re talking about 300,000 people.
If you say 8,000-ish watching Rovers now sadly, 1,500-ish watching us on a reasonable day, 500 watching the rugby league - 10,000 people out of a third of a million is a poor attendance.
It’s a cultural thing as well. Yes, you want to entertain and have good facilities but it takes decades, if not lots of decades, to build a culture.
Compare Northampton, for example. The tradition there is to go to the rugby on a Saturday afternoon.
If you sell a season ticket, you’re probably selling one to Mr and Mrs, granny and grandad, aunty and uncle, cousins and friends. You’re selling ten to the dozen there for one here, and that’s cultural.
It’s starting to come here, bits of that. You can buy a team on the park. With careful planning and financial input you can create your facilities. What you can’t create overnight, or buy, is the culture.
That’s what we’re working on here, to try and become a place where people want to be on a Saturday.
While that’s going on, Tony De Mulder and I decided to effectively underwrite that. Why? We both played here. What’s the logic of it? Well for us it’s boys’ own stuff. We played here and our hearts and souls are here.
PG: Has the club changed its stance on promotion to the Premiership? Would you take it?
SL: We dropped out of the audit last year. Why did we do that? It costs a lot of money and certainly takes a lot of management time to do it.
You’re talking tens of thousands just to do the audit.
It has to be a more level playing field to go up to the Premiership.
If all that you’re doing is committing financial suicide by going up there then the heart that says ‘let’s make it the tenth and final promotion, after eight promotions through nine leagues’ is still there but the mind says ‘no’. Not until it is a level playing field.
Believe me, there is no decision not to [go up]. There is no stating ‘we won’t’. There is certainly stating that it is difficult to the point of being impossible.
Last season we didn’t go for it because we said it’s just an impossibility here to go up.
In the future we’d assess it on its own merit.
But, and it’s a massive but, the playing field of going up has to be more level.
If we go up and get significantly less money than the guys already up there, if we go up and in ten weeks [over the summer] have to achieve what they’ve had ten years to achieve, if all that pertains and it’s all stacked up against us then it’s a nonsense going up. Yes, you go up, but you know you’d be beaten 70-0 [every week].
We’d say to our guys ‘you got us there, you carry on’. We’d supplement the current squad and if you’re losing 70-0 we’re working hard to lose 30-0 and we’re working hard to get a win. We’re going to dig the ice axe in and try and get a win but sensibility says you come back down.
PG: What are the cost implications of promotion to the Premiership?
SL: I hate to quote figures because they change so dramatically but on our enquiries the year before last, what we would’ve got if we’d gone up was approximately £1.5 million.
Over a third of a million we would’ve had to spend immediately on just renting temporary seating for a season to make Castle Park up to scratch.
We already get £600,000 in the Championship, so you’re talking £700,000 to get up there and stay there with playing stock that aren’t available - because it’s the play-offs and it’s May. The players are all recruited.
In terms of the stadium our current licence is for a capacity of 5,500. When you go up we’d need to double that, of which about 8,000 need to be seats.
We wouldn’t have a problem doing it but we’d be staring at a lot of empty seats every week. It goes back to the culture thing. The rule book is stacked against us going up and that’s what we’re questioning. Everyone is saying ‘this is unfair, this is not correct’.
PG: What is the solution?
SL: The solution is a more level playing field.
The solution is to be able to get [in funding] what everybody else gets up there, and not have to wait two to three years to get your ‘P share’ and so on, and then get bigger chunks of the prize as it were.
I couldn’t totally verify it but in France you go into the Premiership and everyone gets the same. I think that’s still the case although I’m not totally sure.
PG: That seems extraordinary that clubs going up shouldn’t be treated equally.
SL: In France you also get a ‘golden hello’ - a lump of money that helps you bed in.
PG: Surely if the RFU wanted to grow the game they would welcome new clubs into the top flight?
SL: Absolutely, and also bring premier rugby not just to Doncaster but Yorkshire, a county that has more rugby clubs than any other in the UK.
Bringing premier rugby here would be brilliant for the town. I see total symbiosis between a sport in a town and the town’s commercial growth. I have no doubt the two are inextricably linked.
If we’re pushing Doncaster the place, we’re pushing the sport. If we’re pushing the sport, we’re pushing Doncaster the place.
Aspirationally, yes, we’d like to go up there. We’ve not put Castle Park up for nothing. Tony and I put this up as a gift, if you like, to the club to give it the gravitas and it certainly isn’t egotism to say we have probably the best ground in the Championship.
PG: Would the Knights have to play at the Keepmoat Stadium if promoted?
SL: It might have to be a very short term temporary option while we get this ground together.
We’ve worked well with Gavin [Baldwin] and others at the Keepmoat and they would’ve helped us in that situation. It wouldn’t be a long term thing.
Every beer we sell here is our beer. Every pie we sell here is our pie. It wouldn’t make sense for us to rent into a place long term.
I know we’re focusing on professional sport but if you go back to when we got the biggest lottery grant ever given to a rugby club, £1.8 million, we built the clubhouse and our real interest was building a rugby centre and providing ‘rugby for all’.
We’ve now got Doncaster Phoenix playing at level five, three levels below us. If we get them up one level we’ve got dual registration possibilities, allowing players to play for Phoenix or Knights.
Phoenix are running three or four teams, we’ve got growth in the ladies’ rugby and our academy is getting stronger and stronger.
It’s a production line, and it also makes a big hole in sustainability.
PG: What do you think of the Championship as a competition?
SL: I think it’s very inadequate and I think it’s just become even more inadequate.
The majority would like to see the Championship become 14 sides and not 12, to give a better competition and to give better commerciality to the whole thing.
The RFU are totally laid back whether we go to 14 but they want to share the pot for 12 clubs among 14.
And clubs are genuinely struggling. So to ask them to share a pot for 12 among 14 and take a reduction, I’m afraid the hands go down and say ‘no, we won’t take that’.
PG: What do you make of the decision to scrap the Championship play-offs?
SL: We didn’t want to scrap them and we felt we were bullied, as a Championship, into scrapping them.
Other than getting a bit more money, there was no other reason for it.
Once you scrap them forget bringing them back. There’ll be no play-offs brought back. It won’t happen, ever.
What you’ve got now is the Championship back to being naughty boys’ corner. One comes down from the Premiership, they bring a parachute payment, they bring riches we haven’t got and then they go back up again. And then the next naughty boy comes down.
The debate going on is whether they lock it off [ring fence the Premiership], or don’t they? Financially you’ve already locked it off, guys.
If they try to formalise that I fear for the Premiership competition. The Championship would diminish because where’s the aspiration? But already we’ve got a situation where each year, even with 12 clubs, two at most want to go up. Ten are battling not to go down. Where is the aspiration?
That’s where we sit in the whole thing and we have to accept that unless you have real competition, why is the guy going to pay his hard earned money to sit in these seats, buy a burger, buy a pint?
And why is he going to bring his kids along, because this is exciting, isn’t it? ‘They’re not going up, they’re not going down, yes, it’s all right.’ What you do is foster the same attitude you got from people towards the British & Irish Cup, where you drop from a crowd of 1,400 to say 700.
PG: As a club how do you deal with that and counteract it?
SL: You try hard to make it a good experience being here.
We have tried hard to provide all types of matchday experience, including special events like Farmers Day.
PG: What are Knights’ short term and long term aims?
SL: Short term certainly is to hold our position in the league and fight unfairness [in terms of going up to the Premiership and poor funding].
We’ll continue to have a do-able budget.
There are some big negotiations coming up in 2019 for the Championship and PRL (Premiership Rugby Limited).
You can’t run a full time rugby side on less than a million. There’s guys on very modest wages there.
The funding from RFU is about £600,000 so that gap has to be filled. It’s all right the RFU telling us that’s as much as they can afford, they’re the ones telling us they want full time professional rugby in the second tier.
Longer term, and it starts now, is developing ‘the club’. That’s our strap line: ‘the club’. That will embrace professional rugby, amateur rugby, the academy, social rugby, the mini junior set-up, and developing this site so it becomes a real centre for rugby not just in Doncaster but in the region.
We want it to be a place that educates kids and encourages healthy living.
My background is in education obviously and therefore has resonance with me.
I want that to be my legacy - not that we got into the play-offs against Bristol.
I want it to be something that you’ve left for the people of the town.
It might take five-plus years but I’m determined that’s where we are going. It won’t be ‘Steve Lloyd’s legacy’, it will be ‘a rugby legacy’ to the town that will be educative and so on.