Rotherham ready for revolution

Owen Slot visits a club for whom promotion has become a way of life
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The Independent Online
WHEN the revolution finally swept rugby union, its reaction was a little perverse. All year the game has cried out to turn professional; last Sunday the game did turn professional; throughout last week clubs around England shrugged their shoulders and said: "Well what on earth do we do now?" At Rotherham RUFC, however, the response has been a little different. There they like to move faster than the rest of the game - after all, a club which has been promoted in five out of the eight years that there has been league rugby has to be doing something right.

When the news broke from Paris that the International Board had embraced a full professional game, Paul Jones, the Rotherham president, was in his caravan in the Derbyshire Dales with his family. Jones was shocked; like the vast majority he did not expect such a sweeping decision. When he returned from the bank holiday, however, the phones started ringing as he and the rest of the club's five-man executive committee started planning for their new future. As Steve Cousins, the club manager who was one of the five, put it: "There has to be a way for an ambitious club like ourselves to capitalise on this. And we will do."

On Tuesday, Cousins was at training, gauging the reaction of the players. The most common jocular line of enquiry was to ask him how much they were worth, how much they would earn. "It was all tongue in cheek," Cousins said. On Thursday night, Jones was down at training for the same reason, and afterwards in the clubhouse, he, Cousins and Michael Yarlett, who is the business manager on the executive, convened for the first time.

The following morning, Jones was on the phone to Twickenham with some queries. If players were contracted to a club, would the club - rather than the RFU, as at present - be obliged to pay their insurance? In the new professional world, have the registration rules changed, and would they therefore be able to play their New Zealander who is at present having to sit through a 180-day waiting period?

The RFU cannot, yet, give answers, and in the murky world of the professional future, Rotherham's executive cannot, yet, frame the club's destiny. However, they have two alternatives: "We can carry on with what we have been doing, because we've been successful in doing that," Jones said, "but contracts have got to be an option."

The unlikely scenario of Third Division players being paid to play suggests that small clubs could spend their way to success. Rotherham insist they cannot afford to - "Nobody is thinking that we could do a Blackburn Rovers," Cousins said - but money, and spending it within the old amateur regulations, has in fact powered the club's astonishing climb through the Courage League. As Cousins said: "Success will never be possible without good, sound business leadership."

Take last season in League Four, for instance, the division which, comprising Redruth, Plymouth, Havant, Askeans (Kent) and Aspatria (Cumbria), required more travelling than any other. "In that division," Cousins said, "you had to be ready to spend thousands and thousands on just travelling to fixtures. We weren't going to go into the games on a wing and a prayer. I said that we needed to go two nights on these trips. We would never have been able to sustain our performance otherwise."

So while Askeans, for instance, arrived for their fixture at Rotherham with an early rise, a drive to London, a train and a coach trip behind them, Rotherham would have driven south for the return fixture on the Friday, spent a night in a nearby hotel and had time for training and a team meeting before kick-off. "I'm not saying that we were much better than Askeans," Cousins said, "we were just better prepared."

It is the "sound business leadership" to which Cousins refers that has helped Rotherham stay ahead of the game. Three years ago, at the back of the clubhouse, they built a gym with the best facilities in town. This is used as a private health club which, together with takings from the bar, had a turnover last year of pounds 180,000. Last season, they also won a pounds 100,000 Sports Council grant to build a stand and they accrued some pounds 60,000 through their 25 sponsors, one of which is Yorkshire Windows, the local company of which Yarlett is managing director and which employs Cousins, the club's coach and two of its players.

It is a far cry from the days when Yarlett, Cousins and Jones all played for Rotherham, when the clubhouse was a wooden shack and when night-time training took place in the glare of the headlights of their cars which they parked around the pitch. During their eight-year rise through the leagues they have lost only nine games. Now rugby union has lost its amateur status, "business leadership" will be able to exert a still greater influence in a club's success. Expect the fantastic rise of Rotherham to continue.