RUGBY UNION: Rotherham ready to rumble

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The Independent Online
IF NO ONE disputes Leicester's claim to the Allied Dunbar Premiership title - their nearest and dearest from Northampton have more chance of signing Martin Johnson on a free transfer than snatching the spoils in the last month of the campaign - the race for the Second Division crown looks like going to the wire on the pitch and overspilling into the Twickenham committee rooms. The scrap at the top bears all the hallmarks of a rumpus waiting to happen.

Bristol, fallen aristocrats of the English game, and Rotherham, the blue- collar upstarts from the back end of rugby league country, are locked in a life-or-death struggle for the one automatic promotion place: both have 38 points from 23 matches with three to play. However, the balance of an enthralling season-long contest will shift towards the Yorkshiremen if they succeed in getting last autumn's derby with Leeds replayed and go on to win the rescheduled fixture.

While Leeds won the 31 October match at Headingley 15-10, they did so with the help of Wendell Sailor, the Australian rugby league international, who had been deemed ineligible. Leeds were docked four points by the English Rugby Partnership, the body charged with administering the Premiership, but Rotherham were not content with seeing their neighbours given a dressing- down. They called for the game to be replayed at a neutral venue.

That went on the back burner when Leeds issued a writ against ERP, but the writ has been withdrawn, leaving ERP and Rugby Football Union officials juggling with the hot potato hurled at them by Rotherham. "The situation was placed on hold when Leeds decided to take legal action, but we understand there is now an RFU ruling pending," said a Rotherham spokesman, Allan Williams, yesterday. "Our view hasn't changed: we want the game replayed. The original match bordered on the farcical; there were press people in our dressing-room before the game, asking players what they felt about the Sailor issue."

Rotherham have defeated Bristol both home and away this season and their 14-game winning streak suggests they would have the beating of Leeds in any re-match. That would give them two priceless extra points and, as likely as not, secure promotion to the big time. It would also leave Bristol, who have spent a fortune on luring Bob Dwyer and Dean Ryan to the Memorial Ground coaching staff and recruiting a plane-load of southern hemisphere talent, contemplating the uncomfortable prospect of a play-off against either Bedford or West Hartlepool.

Meanwhile, Bristol are pushing ahead with their team-building. Garath Archer, the England lock who spent two years with the West Countrymen before returning to his native Newcastle in 1996, is being tempted by the offer of a two-year contract. "I need to think things over for a few days," he said before last night's Newcastle-Richmond match at Kingston Park. "It's a close decision and not one based on money; I'm torn between staying here with Rob Andrew and rejoining Dean Ryan at Bristol."

Bristol have also taken a liking to Chris Wyatt, the Llanelli lock who performed so competitively for Wales in this season's Five Nations' Championship. Wyatt is one of the hottest properties in the game - Cardiff are desperate for his signature, just as Llanelli are desperate to keep him at Stradey Park - but the idea of forming a complementary partnership with the abrasive Archer might tickle his fancy. Rotherham willing, of course.