Rugby Union: Cousins' climbers get ready to party

Rotherham's community spirit has helped push for place among rugby union's elite.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ROTHERHAM LIKE to party, and they will be staging some shindig if they win promotion, though they are sure to guard against beginning their celebrations too early, as they did last May. Then, the south Yorkshire club reached the play-offs by finishing fourth in the inaugural season of Allied Dunbar Premiership Two, and were at home for the first of the two legs against London Irish.

It was a match Rotherham should have won, and most certainly would have but for a moment of triumph which went badly wrong for Dean Lax. Full- back Mike Umaga sent Lax clear, and the winger was running in towards the posts to make the conversion easier, left arm raised in exaltation, when he collided with Justin Bishop and spilled the ball. The groan of disappointment could be heard in Sheffield.

Dick Best, who had just taken over as the London Irish director of rugby, was quick to realise the significance of the moment. "Poor Lax chucked the game away and Rotherham can consider themselves a touch unfortunate. Nobody has opened us up like that. They deserved to win," Best said.

There was no comfort for Rotherham in the solace of Best's generous assertion. So instead of taking a healthy points advantage to Sunbury for the second leg, Rotherham were beaten 16-13, and then lost 26-14 in London.

Disappointed they certainly were, though to be fair Rotherham had hardly been blazing a trail. They had lost eight league games before reaching the play-offs, and promotion would probably have been a step too far. Are they, a year later, ready for the step up? Well, you can be sure of one thing - when Rotherham have set out their promotion stall in previous seasons they have never suffered from vertigo during their rise to the top, which started so modestly in lowly North-East One in 1987.

Six promotions later and Rotherham stand on the brink of the most momentous weekend in their history. They have already improved on last season's achievement to guarantee a top-two finish, although whether they will have to grind through the play-off mill again or be hailed as champions depends on them beating Moseley by a sufficiently large margin tomorrow in the hope that Bristol will not be able to make up the points difference when they face Worcester on Sunday.

Bristol have scored 420 more points than they have conceded, while Rotherham's difference is 393. So Rotherham have to wipe out Bristol's 27-point advantage and then leave Bob Dwyer's team an impossible target for their game with Worcester. If that happens, and Rotherham gain the automatic promotion place, the party begins.

It would have surprised no one had either of the division's big spenders, Leeds or Worcester, made it to the top of the pile. Nor would it had any one of the big names of yesteryear like Coventry, London Welsh or Moseley returned to the big time. But Rotherham? Few people know where it is; and even fewer think of it as a rugby town. Until recently it was not even thought of as a rugby town by the people of Yorkshire.

How have Rotherham done it? Simple. They have grafted for it. No fancy salaries, no glossy titles like director of rugby, no star, no big signings and not a big ego in sight. The heaving clubhouse at their cramped Clifton Lane ground, which they share with the cricket club, is a joy. To go there on match days is to be reminded of what rugby should be all about. The conviviality tastes as genuine as the Tetley's Bitter. The friendship as welcoming as the pies.

Rotherham is a wonderful example of a community club. After home games the players need no encouragement to commune with the supporters, for there is no players' bar any more than there is a committee bar. And this fosters a feeling of the shared experience. Every man jack of them is in it together. In the players rests the soul of the club, just as the club reflects the spirit of the town.

Even those outsiders like the Canadian Mike Schmid - their captain and No 8 - and the Samoan Umaga have been touched by the Rotherham experience. They and the Australian Greg Austin are proud to be part of this heartwarming Yorkshire success story.

Behind it lies the vision of Mike Yarlett and Steve Cousins, respectively the chairman and the team manager. Former players both, together with the long-serving secretary Allan Williams, Yarlett and Cousins have moulded Rotherham in their own image. This pragmatic trio have ensured that the club have kept their feet on the ground, encouraged traditional rugby values and inspired others around them to help with the fund-raising so vital in keeping the Rotherham dream alive. "I had such enjoyment as a player," Yarlett said. "I wanted to put something back by staying involved."

Enjoyment is central to the message conveyed by Cousins. "Rugby here is part of the community. When people come to Clifton Lane we want them to have a good day out," he said. "We expect the players who come here to partake of rugby's spirit. Too many clubs recruit players who are only interested in money. That won't happen here. If we go up, we will need to strengthen the squad, but we shall beware against disturbing the balance of the side. All of the players who got us here will be staying."

That means at least another season for John Dudley, who joined the club as a colt in 1983. Dudley is a testament to all Rotherham's virtues. Not far behind the 32-year-old lock are the others who won't feel out of place in the top division, such as Terry Garnett, Dave Scully, the flanker Ben Wade - with 15 league tries to his credit this term - Lax, who is the division's top try scorer with 17, and his England Under-21 wing partner Matt Walker.

The seminal moment in Rotherham's season came on the Saturday before Christmas. Worcester were the visitors; then sharing top spot with Bristol, who Rotherham had already beaten. The Whiston Brass Band were on the pitch, going through their repertoire of marches and carols. The Worcester coach, Les Cusworth - himself a son of south Yorkshire - must have known something was up. By the time the teams appeared, the Rotherham crowd were in full voice. In that intimidating atmosphere, Worcester never had a chance.

Since that heady afternoon, Rotherham have not looked back. They took 800 supporters down to Six Ways last Saturday for the return match with Worcester. It would have been unfair to have taken the band; and anyway they were not needed as Rotherham notched their 101st Premiership try in recording their 16th consecutive league victory to end Worcester's unbeaten home league record, which stretched back some 18 months.

It may well stretch credulity in some parts to think of Rotherham as a Premiership One club, and the trumpet call for the party to start hasn't been heard yet. But the Whiston Brass Band are on stand-by.