Rotherham ready to try, try again

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It should come as a significant relief to the inhabitants of Suffolk that theirs is not the only county where play-off is a dirty word.

It should come as a significant relief to the inhabitants of Suffolk that theirs is not the only county where play-off is a dirty word.

Just ask the people of South Yorkshire. Rotherham rugby union club have not had to suffer Ipswich Town's torment of missing out on automatic promotion to the football Premiership in four consecutive seasons, but they have endured a frustrating 12 months of their own. Different sports, same problems.

This time last year, just as Ipswich were being knocked out in the First Division play-off semi-finals on away goals by Bolton, Rotherham were getting just as close to a place in the Allied Dunbar Premiership One.

First, they were edged out of the Premiership Two title by Bristol on points difference. Then, in the play-offs against Bedford, they lost out by the number of tries scored. The double blow was all the more painfully felt by Rotherham's rugby players because they, unlike the well-regarded footballers of Ipswich, are so often treated with contempt.

In fact, the town as a whole has received less than flattering comments in recent years. Rotherham is viewed by many as a crumbling industrial centre with a typical Yorkshire community. It is not.

True, the coal and steel industries, which were once synonymous with Rotherham and employed the majority of its population, are gone. But all is not doom and gloom.

Two weeks ago, the football team gained automatic promotion from the Nationwide Third Division. Then, a week later, their rugby counterparts won the Premiership Two title, no mean feat when you compare their resources to theirrivals in the division, such as Worcester and Coventry. Even the decision by the rugby authorities not to grant the champions automatic promotion to the top flight, therefore condemning Rotherham to their second consecutive play-off against Bedford, has not dampened local spirits.

For a start, the town has a new mayor. And what is more, one who likes his sport. But then what else would you expect from a man called Iain St John? He is not the famous former Liverpool and Scotland forward, but a former PE teacher, who played amateur football until he was 38 and has plenty of other strengths.

"It's been an exceptional year for Rotherham, whether it be in football, rugby union or even rugby league [the town's amateur team won promotion from their regional division]. I often like to contrast our fantastic recent sporting achievements with the depressing cut-backs in the steel and coal industries over the last 20 years," St John, who was sworn in on Friday, says. "Sport has given Rotherham a new lease of life."

He adds: "Sport can provide incentives to our youngsters and encourage others to move here. Slowly but surely, I believe that we are rebuilding a stronger community." St John believes much of that strength has developed as a result of Rotherham's continuous mistreatment.

Apart from the decision to move the goal-posts and deny them access to Premiership One, there have been numerous other incidents when individuals have stuck the knife in. Jeremy Clarkson, that charmer extraordinaire, once famously asserted that Rotherham was the worst place in England.

"Some of the derogatory remarks that have been made about Rotherham are totally unnecessary and offensive," St John says. "Making silly remarks about thousands of decent people is not particularly clever. Rotherham is not just about flat-caps and whippets. True, this is a green place, but the greenery symbolises our sporting fields."

With the footballers away on their summer holidays, all eyes are turned to the rugbymen and their two-leg play-off against Bedford. The club have come a long way since leagues were first introduced in the 1987-88 season. Those 13 years have seen Roth win six promotions and six titles on their climb from the North East First Division Championship to the gates of the Premiership.

Much of the club's recent success can be attributed to their captain and coach, Mike Schmid. The big Canadian No 8, who has been capped 20 times by his country, has been an inspiration.

Three summers ago, Schmid was teaching in Vancouver and playing amateur rugby for a local team. Then came the call from an agent asking him whether he would consider turning professional and plying his trade in England. "I'd never even envisaged playing any sport on a full-time basis, so rugby certainly wasn't top of the list," he says. Schmid took the plunge, though, and accepted not only to become a professional sportsman but also to sign for a club he had never heard of, in a town he had never visited.

His first impressions of Rotherham were, he recalls, predictable for someone who had been living in a large, cosmopolitan city. "I thought, 'Wow, this is a little different'. But then I soon realised that Rotherham was a good town, with a wonderful tradition and fantastically warm people."

Rotherham have needed all the community spirit they could muster, especially after the disappointments of the play-offs last year. "That was really tough on the players," Schmid admits. "It took us six months to recover and then, just before Christmas, we got together and asked, 'do we want to get promoted or lounge around feeling sorry for ourselves?' I think we've answered that."

In finishing four points clear of their Yorkshire rivals, Leeds Tykes, and 10 ahead of big-spending Worcester, Rotherham have exceeded all expectations. They are now 160 minutes away from proving that fairy tales can happen, although all tales are not always fair.

"Let's face it," Schmid says, "the RFU have hardly been very honest with us. Then again, they don't want us in the Premiership One because we are a small club and don't fit into their plans. But if we get there, we will have deserved it. If the RFU checked their stats, they would see Rotherham have the best winning percentage in the history of the leagues."

With Ipswich winning in dramatic fashion on Wednesday, and exacting revenge on Bolton for last season's heart-ache, there is a feeling that this could be the year of the nearly teams. The whole of Rotherham will be hoping so.