10th May 2019, 11:04 | ChallengeCup
It doesn’t get much bigger than playing the current champions in the Coral Challenge Cup, but it will mean even more for Doncaster RLFC who are now the lowest-ranked side left in the competition.
League One side Doncaster progressed to Round Six with a comeback upset over Championship Batley in Round Five and their battling performance has handed them a trip to Perpignan to take on 2018 winners Catalans Dragons.
While the Dragons will begin the defence of their crown at Doncaster, the Dons have already toughed out three wins in this year’s tournament also beating Coventry Bears and Featherstone Lions before their spirited victory over the Bulldogs.
Doncaster could well have been involved in Challenge Cup history previously albeit in a much different capacity had a proposed merger with Sheffield Eagles – to create a South Yorkshire club – gone through. The Eagles would go on to win at Wembley in 1998.
However, the Dons have done it their own way and - despite the difficulties on and off the field over the years – they are now very much an established side in League One with ambitions of a place in the Championship in the future.
In 1995, they went one better. Doncaster competed in the old Premier Division for the first time in their history but unfortunately their relegation coincided with a league restructure which would see them begin the 1996-97 season in Division Two. Since 1997 they have moved between the Championship and League One.
Between 1998 and 2004 the club were known as the Doncaster Dragons before a two-year stint as the Doncaster Lakers followed. In 2007, they reverted to the more traditional Doncaster RLFC which is the form we see the current club under to this day.
It was during their spell under the pseudonym of the ‘Dragons’ that Doncaster enjoyed their most successful Challenge Cup campaign to date. In 2002, Doncaster made the last eight of the famous competition winning three games and, even more interestingly, dispatching of a French side on route.
Their cup run began in rather nervy fashion as they saw off amateur outfit Castleford Lock Lane 14-26 in late January. It was a much more impressive performance in Round Four however as they beat Huddersfield – who would go on to earn promotion to Super League later that season – at home 30-10.
The Fifth-Round draw saw Doncaster pitted against Villeneuve Leopards, who just one prior had progressed all the way to the Quarter-Final stage. The Dons raced into a 20-6 lead but had to hold off a late Villeneuve fightback in order to book their place in the final eight.
Doncaster’s immense cup run would come to an end at the hands of Super League opposition Castleford Tigers. Doncaster trailed 22-0 after just 16 minutes, but the visitors managed to cut the lead down to 22-14 in the early stages of the second half. Unfortunately, for the Dons, they couldn’t quite complete a famous comeback.
There are already stark similarities between their 2002 run and this year’s route to the Sixth Round and if they were to overcome a French side again, they would manage to knock out the current holders and claim one of the biggest Challenge Cup upsets in history.
In Head Coach Richard Horne they have someone who has very much been there and done it when it comes to the Challenge Cup. Horne played in the halves for Hull FC’s 25-24 2005 Challenge Cup triumph over Leeds Rhinos at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Alongside eventual match winner Danny Brough, Horne helped guide Hull FC to victory in a game which many view as the most exciting Challenge Cup final ever.
Since taking the reins at the Keepmoat Stadium in 2017, Horne has helped Doncaster to 6th and 3rd place finishes in League One with a play-off semi-final defeat to Workington Town denying them a shot at promotion last season.
While promotion will be the main objective for the Dons, there is no doubting the potential of one of the biggest cup victories in history will serve as a worthy distraction this weekend.
It may be the longest of shots, but should Doncaster somehow overcome the current holders in their own back yard they would forever etch their name in Challenge Cup folklore.
But, as their opponents Catalans Dragons proved last season, it is the Challenge Cup, and it is where history is made.