Rotherham keep feet on ground in promised land

Yorkshire's pugnacious pioneers are ready for long haul
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The Independent Online

Seven promotions in the 13-year history of leagues in England have brought Rotherham to the threshold of their first season in the top division. Bristol will provide the opposition at the 6,800-capacity Clifton Lane next Sunday, with Leicester, Bath and the rest to follow in due course. Yet the club at the centre of the most romantic story in the domestic game are the least likely to get carried away by it all.

Seven promotions in the 13-year history of leagues in England have brought Rotherham to the threshold of their first season in the top division. Bristol will provide the opposition at the 6,800-capacity Clifton Lane next Sunday, with Leicester, Bath and the rest to follow in due course. Yet the club at the centre of the most romantic story in the domestic game are the least likely to get carried away by it all.

Make no mistake, Rotherham are revelling in the kudos of being Yorkshire's first-ever representatives at this level. This season will be a celebration, a far cry from the pre-professional days of 1987-88, when they vanquished the likes of Gateshead Fell and Old Crossleyans to take the initial step up the league ladder from North-East Division One.

Yet Rotherham are hardened veterans of England's tortured rugby politics. The dramatic victory over Bedford in last May's promotion play-off may prove to be the equivalent of jumping across the moat before the drawbridge is pulled up, given the seemingly inexorable move towards a ring-fencing of the lucky few in the newly styled Zurich Premiership. But Clifton Lane, with its single grandstand on one side and cricket pitch on the other, would almost certainly fall short if minimum ground standards are introduced, and the club have already lined up nearby Millmoor, the home of Rotherham United FC, as an alternative venue for the more popular matches this season.

Promotion and relegation remains a vexed issue, with more talks between the Rugby Football Union and the clubs due in the next few days. It is a year ago almost to the day that Mike Yarlett, Rotherham's chief executive and principal benefactor, emerged from the High Court in London £200,000 out of pocket after losing an acrimonious case against the First Division clubs, who were backed by the RFU.

Rotherham had finished runners-up to Bristol in the Second Division and lost the subsequent play-off to Bedford, but Yarlett was eyeing one of the First Division places vacated by the demise of Richmond and London Scottish. The top division was about to be summarily reduced from 14 to 12, despite the much-lauded Mayfair Agreement stipulating 12 months' notice for such a change. Yet Mr Justice Ferris ruled that the earlier Leicester Agreement took precedence, and Rotherham had to settle for another season of Second Division toil.

It ended with a rematch against Bedford, and this time Rotherham survived two pen-alty tries in a nerve-racking second leg to emerge victorious. They may have finally reached the promised land, but the newcomers are by no means afraid of failure.

"Any one of five or six clubs could finish bottom this season," says the team manager Jim Kilfoyle, who shares the coaching duties with Samoan international full-back Mike Umaga and Canadian World Cup forward Mike Schmid. "That will probably mean a play-off to stay up, although no one can be sure. For those who havegambled everything on being in the First Division, relegation could destroy them. That wouldn't be the case for us."

Kilfoyle joined Rotherham two years ago after nine seasons at Wakefield, bringing the influential scrum-half Dave Scully with him. Scully, 35 last Tuesday and the first player to make 200 national-league appearances, has negotiated a secondment from the South Yorkshire Fire Service to maintain his place in Rotherham's full-time squad. John Dudley, a stalwart since the start of Rotherham's league adventures, is also back for more. "John looked 50 when I first met him 12 years ago, and still does," says Kilfoyle.

The club have made a dozen new signings, including the classy Samoan No 8 Isaac Fea'unati, and have not been beaten at home since January 1998. "We proved we had an all-round game by averaging 40 points a match last season, and we have no intention of adopting a negative style," says Kilfoyle. "We have set a realistic target, which is to finish eighth, but we know that the first defeat will come sooner or later. It is up to us how we handle it."

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