"I have the distinct impression that we are not wanted," Steve Cousins, the Rotherham manager, said. "Even if we are promoted to the Premiership, and it's a big `if', will we be allowed to play?"
Cousins believes that Rotherham, and not Bristol, should have been automatically promoted from the second division. Back in November they reluctantly played against Leeds who fielded the rugby league international Wendell Sailor, despite the fact that he was not registered. Rotherham lost the game - one of only four defeats all season - and although Leeds were subsequently docked four points, there was no consolation for their opponents.
"As far as we are concerned this matter has still not been resolved," Cousins said. "Leeds knew and we knew that they were breaking the rules by picking Sailor, but we were told by the Rugby Football Union that if we hadn't fulfilled the fixture we would be penalised. It has been dragging on for six months. Our argument is that we should not have lost those two league points, but we have never been allowed to present our case to the RFU. It's disgraceful the way we've been treated."
Bristol and Rotherham finished with 44 points each, the West Country club gaining the sole automatic promotion place on points difference: Bristol's total was 848 for, 418 against, a difference of 430; Rotherham's was 756 to 336, a difference of 420. Thus Rotherham, who beat Bristol home and away, are involved in a play-off for the second successive season and on Thursday night, at their modest Clifton Lane sports ground in Badsley Moor Lane (not an address that slips readily off Premiership tongues) they beat Bedford 19-11 in the first leg.
Mike Umaga, who played for Western Samoa in the last World Cup before joining Halifax rugby league club, scored what could be a crucial try 11 minutes from time. The previous night the town's football club, Rotherham United, won a Third Division play-off.
It isn't just the Sailor episode that has left Rotherham with a persecution complex. On the last league weekend a fortnight ago, Rotherham played on the Saturday, Bristol on the Sunday. "They had a distinct advantage because they knew what they had to do," Cousins said. "We should have played on the same day, but again the authorities ignored our protest. What's going on?"
Bedford, minus the support of Frank Warren, their one-time owner who has cut his losses, have problems of their own. Last Sunday, fielding a seriously weakened side, the Blues conceded 106 points to Richmond whilst attempting to keep their ammo dry for the play-off.
This time last year Rotherham (their nickname is Roth or, if Cousins is to be believed, Wrath) lost a play-off to London Irish after two close, hard encounters and it was London Scottish who were promoted to the Premiership.
Roth, founded in 1923, have flourished since the advent of leagues in 1987, progressing via seven promotions from a junior club to the brink of the elite. With a Sports Council grant they were able to develop their clubhouse from a wooden hut, but there is no press box, no corporate hospitality and just one telephone. If they get the feeling that the likes of Leicester and Bath would rather not have Badsley Moor Lane on their fixture list, they are almost certainly right.
Despite going into administration and despite selling their half-backs Guy Easterby and Simon Binns to London Scottish, Rotherham's part-time players have delivered a huge Harvey Smith to professional rugby in England.
"We have a small number of creditors and every single one of them is still with us," Cousins said. He refused to comment on rumours of a merger with Leeds or any other northern club. "I understand that if we get promotion we could be blocked because others would argue that our facilities aren't up to scratch. We want to stay where we are and we will continue to enjoy our rugby. This is a community effort."Reuse content