"They know absolutely everything about us," Jim Kilfoyle said this week, "from the size of our shoes to the size of our IQs." The chief executive of Rotherham RUFC is suffering from inquiry fatigue. He and his colleagues have been audited to the back teeth, examined to distraction, investigated to within an inch of their sanity and questioned more often than the dodgy Major on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", generally by people from the higher echelons of the English club game who would rather believe the Major any day. It has been a long road, and Kilfoyle is a tired man.
Yet he is also a stronger man. They all are, up there at Clifton Lane – Mike Schmid, Mike Umaga, Chris Johnson, the kitchen staff, the lot of them. Mike Yarlett, too. The club's principle investor must have skin like an armadillo by now. Rotherham may not be the sexiest professional rugby club in the country – they are probably the least sexy, which goes to the very root of their problem – but they have a cussed streak the width of the Pennines and a sense of grievance to match. They will not win the Premiership next season, that's for sure. But will they finish bottom? Mmm.
"We have set only two targets for ourselves," Kilfoyle explained, 72 hours after learning from Schmid, the Canadian player-coach, that the board of England Rugby Ltd had finally accepted the validity of Rotherham's move to Millmoor, the local football stadium, and confirmed their promotion as champions of National Division One. (One of life's natural persuaders, the formidable Schmid had obtained the information from one of the board members some time before the official announcement.) "Firstly, we intend to be competitive. There have been times this season when we've gasped at some of the rugby played by the Gloucesters, the Sales, the Wasps. But there have been other times when we've watched some Premiership stuff and said to ourselves 'Hang on a moment, we can do that. We can do better than that'."
And the second target? "Survival, pure and simple. We intend to stay up and prove our point. This last year or so has hardened us, definitely. There were no great celebrations when our promotion was formally agreed – a sense of relief, yes, and a sense that justice had been done, but no elation – and I think the subdued response was an accurate reflection of our state of mind. No one in rugby has been put through the mill as we have these last 12 months, and without being too chippy about all this, we are realistic enough to know there will still be some prejudice out there next season. But we believe our achievements demand respect, and we are confident that our common experience has toughened us as a group of people. We will cope better this time."
Kilfoyle accepts that the way ahead is not yet entirely clear. Rotherham are still awaiting the outcome of a five-month inquiry into allegations that they plotted to forfeit their Premiership status in return for hundreds of thousands of pounds of dirty money from top-flight clubs petrified at the thought of relegation. Yarlett, the owner, found himself at the centre of the investigation, and Kilfoyle described him as "drained" by the experience. "He's still an aggressive, belligerent individual, but I've seen a change in him over the last few months," said the chief executive. "It's been rough on us all, but we've retained our integrity, maintained our dignity and we're looking forward to our public exoneration. We've been double-checked, and triple-checked; we've opened our books and laid ourselves bare. When we start playing Premiership rugby in September, we'll have a choir of angels behind us."
More problematically in rugby terms, ERL's flawed promotion procedure has seen them lapped by their rivals in the race for new signings. Even without the departure of Ramiro Pez, Italy's new Six Nations outside-half and a very considerable talent, they would have needed strengthening in critical areas. Now that Pez has pushed off to Leicester, the situation has become urgent, bordering on the dire. Promoted sides will always be at an unfair disadvantage while the sport's governing and administrative bodies adhere to a process that leaves the ND1 champions in limbo until mid-May. Kilfoyle is behind the eight-ball, and he knows it.
"I can't deny that we could have done with a few more weeks to get ourselves organised," he said. "Had our promotion been confirmed when we became champions back in April, Pez might not have left. As it was, he wanted answers we were in no position to offer him. The same goes for a couple of excellent players who were keen on joining us. There again, we won't be holding back now we know where we stand. Quality players are not scared of coming here: we already have the likes of Jacob Rauluni, a Test-class scrum-half in anyone's book, and the fact that he can be fulfilled at Rotherham makes an important statement to capable people who can handle the rigours of Premiership rugby."
It will be rigorous in the extreme, especially as the enormously influential Schmid intends to concentrate on coaching and will play only in times of severe personnel shortages. Rotherham start with a nice easy one on 13 September – away at Gloucester, thanks for asking – and then host Harlequins in the first Premiership match at Millmoor. They also have Northampton and Wasps, two of this season's top three, at home in the opening tranche of fixtures. Kilfoyle knows his side must strike, and strike early. The first 11 games of the campaign will be played before and during the World Cup, when Northampton will be without the likes of Cohen, Dawson, Smith and Thompson, and Wasps denied the services of Dallaglio, Lewsey and Leota at the very least.
"Can we front up? Yes, I believe we can," Kilfoyle insisted. "When people ask me what lessons we have learned since our relegation from the Premiership in 2001, I tell them it is not a matter of 'since'. We were learning the lessons during the second half of that Premiership season, and have spent the last two years responding to them. If I'm being honest, I would have to admit that some of the rugby we've played since September has not been as expansive or attractive as it could have been. It was a conscious decision on our part, a deliberate strategy. We knew we had the players to win the ND1 title. What we needed to do was develop a style that would serve us in the Premiership – a hard, physical approach, based on a secure defence. I believe you'll see a different Rotherham this time."Reuse content