On the face of it, Rome to Rotherham would not appear to be the most glamorous career move, but Jason Keyter is not complaining. Indeed, the journey from the Colosseum to Clifton Lane is proving to be a richly rewarding experience. "The club and the people at Rotherham are remind- ing me what rugby is all about," Keyter said. "I've never experienced anything quite like this." On the hard road to professionalism, Keyter's shock-absorbers have taken a hammering.
The 27-year-old wing thought he was a high flier at Harlequins until his most memorable season turned out to be his last. He packed his bags and signed for Roma, and that too ended in tears. "I considered giving the game up, but as I was boarding a plane for London, Rotherham made me an offer. It's one of the best things that's happened to me."
One of the worst interrupted Keyter's career the season before last. He had just received three awards at the Quins' end-of-term dinner at the Stoop when they also presented him with his P45. "I was mortified. I'd put my life and soul into the club. That season I played in every game bar one and I thought I'd made an impression."
With good reason. Keyter, who was sitting on the club sponsors' table that evening, stepped up to receive the supporters' player of the season award, the sponsors' player of the season and, from the club, a long-service award.
"It was a particularly proud moment," he said. "I was only the 23rd player in the history of Quins to gain such an honour. The 21st was Will Carling and the 22nd Chris Sheasby. When I returned to the table, the team kit-man, Chris McCarthy, came over and handed me an envelope which contained my P45. Everyone was gobsmacked. Chris hated doing it but he had no choice. It left a horrible taste."
In the night of the long knives, Zinzan Brooke, Quins' new coach, had decided to release a number of players, and none felt as bitter as Keyter. Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, he came to England when he was 12 after his parents divorced. "My mother was a big rugby fan and she decided that Quins was the club for me. She liked the jersey and she worked out that by the time Will Carling retired I'd be ready to take over.
"I was only 15 when she marched me down to the club and told them, 'My boy has got what it takes'. I started by playing a few games for the colts, became captain and got into the first team when I was 19. I was there for 11 years and never thought about playing for another team."
Last year he left London for Roma, one of the more high-profile clubs in Italy, which had recruited half-a-dozen overseas players, including the American Luke Gross, who is now with Llanelli. "The first three or four months were excellent," Keyter said. "We were in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful city and the team spirit at Roma was good. We were in the Heineken Cup and the club had a focus, but once that finished everything went downhill."
For the last four months of the season Keyter and the other professionals weren't paid. "They kept promising us money but it never arrived. Part of the problem is that the club's share from the Heineken Cup didn't go to Roma but to the Italian Federation. The majority of players in the squad were part- timers who had day jobs, and there was a bit of animosity. The trouble with the Romans is that when the going gets tough the gladiator in them comes out. It became quite uncomfortable.
"Instead of leaving we decided we wanted to do something for Italian rugby. We grafted in adversity, but in the end it was falling apart. I'd put a bit of money away but when that ran out I had no choice but to go. I'm owed about £10,000 and they said they'd pay it by Christmas, but they didn't say which Christmas."
So it was arrivederci Roma and the crossing of another Rubicon for Keyter when Mike Yarlett, the owner of Rotherham, made him a timely offer. "I'm very lucky," Keyter said. "Quins were professional but it wasn't very enjoyable. At Roma it was unprofessional but enjoyable, and now I've gone to a club that have the perfect balance. They want to see players enjoy themselves. There's a nice community here."
Yarlett, a former player, is a chartered surveyor who made his money in a company called Yorkshire Windows. With his father he built the original Rotherham clubhouse in 1973. "I'd never met him before but I owe him big time," Keyter said. "He's opened his arms to us, and his doors. I was in a dreadful financial situation and he just told me to forget what's happened and play rugby."
Keyter and his girlfriend, Sam, who is about to present her own show in Manchester for Granada/Sky, have been living with the Yarlett family for the last month. "While we're looking for a house," Keyter added, "he's taken all the pressure off us. He's our saviour."
Rotherham won promotion to the Premiership last season but went straight back down to National League One, swapping places with Leeds. They and Worcester are the only clubs outside the élite with full-time squads. Both are chasing the one promotion spot this season, and they collide at Sixways next Saturday.
"Everybody describes this league as a two-horse race," Keyter said, "but it's not as simple as that. We haven't had an easy game yet and I've been surprised at how tough it's been. Worcester have got a strong squad with players like Ben Clarke and Kingsley Jones joining them, but we only play them twice. There are other good sides around and we're going to have to graft throughout the season."
Gaining eligibility through a grandfather who came from Milwaukee, Keyter broke into international rugby last winter when he made his debut for the United States Eagles against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Injury prevented him from playing against England in America a few months ago, but he is hoping to reappear for the Eagles against South Africa in December.
He is also looking forward to playing against his step- brother, Mark Venner, who plays openside flanker for Henley.
In the meantime, Keyter is enjoying Yorkshire hospitality. But doesn't he pine just a little bit for the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and Roma's seven-course after- match banquets? "There's been no culture shock. I speak a little Italian, but outside Rome it wasn't easy to communicate. I'm just delighted to be back in England and part of a club that have got their priorities right."Reuse content