RFU denies conspiracy after slamming door on Rotherham

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The Independent Online

Rotheram can expect the sympathy of the rugby public at large following the collapse of their bid to join the Premiership next season, but precious few tears were being shed on their behalf at Twickenham yesterday. National League champions by a distance but fatally challenged in the stadium department, the club were roundly dismissed as lightweight applicants by senior board members of England Rugby Ltd charged with justifying a unanimous decision to slam the door in their faces.

The Premiership grandees mounted a fierce defence of their position. Graeme Cattermole, the chairman of both ERL and the Rugby Football Union, rejected accusations that the élite clubs had acted as a cartel, claiming that no organisation could have done more to assist Rotherham. "People will read into this what they want, but I can give this assurance: there has been no conspiracy and there is no closed shop," he insisted.

Francis Baron, the chief executive of ERL and the RFU, said Rotherham's Premiership lifeline – a ground-share agreement with Rotherham United FC – was not an agreement at all. "The club faxed me the 'Heads of Terms' of the agreement on 2 May, but I can only describe it as as a fairly woolly statement of intent. There was nothing in the half-page document I received that suggested it could be treated as an agreement of any kind – there really was nothing there – and that opinion was supported by legal advice."

Once the move to Millmoor was declared a non-starter, so in effect were Rotherham: their Clifton Lane venue could not begin to meet the criteria laid down by ERL at the start of the campaign, and their administrative set-up failed to impress a team of independent auditors. "To this day, we still do not know where Rotherham intend to play next season," Baron added. "I don't accept that we have been operating under false pretences here. It is highly disappointing – indeed, very distressing for the players and supporters of Rotherham – but the criteria were known to everyone from day one. We simply could not take a positive decision in support of Rotherham's application."

As no team will lose their Premiership status this term, the so-called parachute payment designed to ease the pain of relegation will go to Rotherham as compensation. Around £720,000 will be deposited in their bank account, two-thirds to be spent on ground development – always assuming they find themselves a ground worth developing. If this failed to satisfy the players – Mike Schmid, their Canadian player-coach, called the situation "a joke" – their chairman and financier-in-chief, Mike Yarlett, took a more sanguine line.

"While we are saddened and disappointed by the decision, it is nevertheless one the club accepts," Yarlett said. "There will be no appeal. We were fully consulted throughout the process and believe ERL conducted the matter in a thorough and professional manner. We remain committed to winning our league next season and to ensuring that we satisfy the entry criteria then." Not the words of a man surprised, or even particularly annoyed, at developments.

Neither Cattermole nor Baron would comment on suggestions that Yarlett was unconcerned about promotion this season – that he was more interested in winning Premiership status for the 2003-04 campaign, when automatic promotion and relegation is likely to be scrapped in favour of a play-off system. "It is not for me to speculate on what may or may not be in Mike Yarlett's mind, or the mind of anyone else connected with the Rotherham club," Cattermole said.

He did, however, react sharply to accusations that ERL had delayed their decision to maximise interest in matches involving Harlequins, Saracens, Bath and Leeds – the teams involved in the relegation struggle that never was. "We have not duped anyone and nobody has been conned," he pronounced at the end of another tortuous day of rugby politics, hoping against hope that the long-suffering public would take him at his word.