Paul Stephens celebrates the rise of a new northern force in the game
Rotherham need no advice on how to organise a promotion party. They have turned celebration into something of an art form. The South Yorkshire club's seemingly unstoppable rise to become the most successful team in the Courage leagues will be marked by more jubilations on 29 April when their Clifton Lane clubhouse will once again be packed with revellers until the early hours.
In the eight seasons since they started out in North East One, Rotherham have lost just nine league matches, four fewer than Bath, for instance, and, as they stride confidently into the Third Division, they are now being talked of as the north of England's next Orrell. Since they were defeated by Morpeth in their first league game in September 1987, their remarkable climb to join the country's top 40 clubs culminated in their fifth promotion, when they beat Reading to win the Fourth Division title last Saturday.
Rotherham were unsung, unloved and virtually unknown until, in 1972 - almost 50 years after the club was formed - they beat Selby in the Yorkshire Shield final. In the county's steelmaking heartland where football dominates, Rotherham spent another 10 years languishing in one of rugby's deepest backwaters before a group of members led by the former captain, Mike Yarlett, decided the time had come to raise the club's horizons.
First, they recruited the Roundhay and Yorkshire second row Paul Jones, followed in 1984 by the former Wakefield outside-half Barry Forster, who remained with the club as coach until February last year when Jon Curry took up the reins with Ged Glynn as his assistant alongside the decathlete Mike Cordon, who advises on fitness.
The Morley outside-half Kevin Plant was the next significant arrival at Clifton Lane, with the RAF and Lancashire scrum-half Steve Worrall soon joining him. However, Forster's masterstroke was to persuade the Yorkshire No 8 Richard Selkirk to leave Headingley and take over the captaincy. With Selkirk and Forster at the helm, Rotherham swept through the Northern League, winning promotion three times - twice after unbeaten campaigns and each time as champions - to lift the Whitbread Junior Club of the Year trophy in 1992.
A schoolteacher at Wath, Selkirk is on a two-year secondment as a youth development officer. Contained in a region with a greater population of almost one million, 10 schools in Rotherham now play competitive rugby on a Saturday - where until recently none did - while in neighbouring Sheffield only three schools do so.
Rotherham's success undoubtedly has had a beneficial effect on the playing of rugby union by the town's schoolchildren, which in turn has brought benefits to the club who now have a thriving youth section. "So many clubs when they get promoted," Curry said, "start recruiting as fast as they can. But this can destroy team spirit. We've had so many injuries this season that we have called on almost 40 players for the first team. The youngsters who have come through our junior sides have done a grand job. Rotherham is a community-based club. We're building on that: it's our future."
At some time Rotherham will have to contemplate a future without the talismanic Selkirk who, before last weekend, had never missed a league match. Selkirk was unable to extend this extraordinary sequence beyond 89 consecutive games in order that he could attend a friend's marriage in the Caribbean.
While Selkirk has been scoring tries with unerring frequency in his nine years at the club, Plant has amassed more than 700 points in 81 matches. This season Rotherham have outscored the best of the other National League teams by almost 200 points.
Their free-running style has earned them admirers everywhere. At their compact, hilltop ground, league matches regularly attract crowds in excess of 1,000. Only at Redruth and Reading have home supporters outnumbered the travelling hardcore of 150 or more Rotherham devotees.
With the Fourth Division title already secured Rotherham, believes Curry, can continue to progress: "I don't think there is a great deal of difference between the Third and Fourth Divisions. But we love a challenge. We're very well organised behind the scenes and the players are up for it."
Before then, there is the small matter of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup final against Harrogate at Kirkstall on 23 April. In their semi-final, Rotherham defeated Third Division promotion challengers Otley 23-12, and are confident of taking the 118-year-old trophy back to Clifton Lane, in time for Selkirk's return and a very special end-of-season party.
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