ANNIVERSARY FEATURE: the night Rotherham's rugby team ruled in France

ANNIVERSARY FEATURE: the night Rotherham's rugby team ruled in France

By David Beddows | 14/10/2020

ANNIVERSARY FEATURE: the night Rotherham's rugby team ruled in France

 

THE rugby club that went on an amazing rise from the backwaters of the domestic game to the Premiership has left many abiding memories for its supporters.


Promotion after promotion, record scores, crowds stood five deep at Clifton Lane and raucous nights of celebration were common place during the glory years of the club.


But even though Rotherham got to play at Leicester, Bath, Saracens and even Twickenham, arguably the stand-out day of their golden years came not on British soil but nearly 1,000 miles away in southern France.


Twenty years ago to the month, skipper Mike Schmid, the coaching staff and players put a stream of Premiership defeats behind them and flew down to Perpignan for their very first game in Europe.


Taking on a strong French team in their own back yard in front of a hostile home crowd caged behind 12ft high security fences, it was a huge and unenviable task.


Back then victories by British clubs in France were rare. Victories by Premiership newcomers were unheard of.


Be as it may, Rotherham produced a mix of grit, skill and nerve to win that European Shield tie 20-19 on the best night in the club's history.

Ben Wade...scored one of Rotherham's two tries.

I was lucky enough to be sent by the Advertiser to cover the match. 


From getting on the plane at Stansted to arriving home, bleary eyed, two days later, it was an amazing experience and the 130 supporters who made the trip will echo that.


The French can be an aloof bunch at times but there was no evidence of that as the Rotherham players, clad in their club tracksuits, took in the sights of the town before the game. They were besieged by well wishers.


Of course, that hospitality was never guaranteed to last. 


The Saturday night fixture was Perpignan's first at home for four months due to a ban for crowd trouble against their bitter rivals Colomiers and Stade de France.


Thirsty to see some action, the home supporters were happy enough when Perpignan pulled out a 12-6 lead by the break.


What followed was a startling 40 minutes described in my report as “the best any Rotherham side has produced”.

Dave Scully...kicked all Rotherham's goal points.

Perched in an echoey press box situated halfway down the standing terrace in front of the main stand at the Stade Aime Giral, I watched in disbelief at not only how the underdogs worked the positions for Yorkshireman Ben Wade and then Schmid to breach the home try line, but the way the team defended their one-point lead.


“It was blood and guts stuff, played into a biting wind and against a set of players prepared to rake, stamp, punch and do anything to prevent what they hate most — losing at home,” I wrote at the time.

Simon Bunting...great memories of a landmark victory.

Then, with seconds left, came the bravest call of the night.


Perpignan's centre Didier Plana scorched down the wing and over for an apparently match winning try only for Scottish referee, Chuck Muir, to pull play back for raking in the ruck on Dave Scully, the man who kicked all Rotherham's goal points that night.


“The crowd erupted. They went mad,” remembers prop Simon Bunting. “They were throwing things on the pitch and everything.”


Bunting and his team-mates had to run the gauntlet of the home fans at the final whistle, the jeers laced by the cheers of more than 100 South Yorkshire voices.


In the sanctuary of the away dressing room, I can remember Scully taking his shirt off to reveal a 12in scar across his chest from the size ten boot of Perpignan flanker Josh Heke.


“It smarts a bit, but who cares after a victory like this,” he said.


Scully, like Wade and Bunting, was a Yorkshireman, one of many who made up that strong Rotherham team.

They mixed in with the supporters, drank with them, socialised with them and the togetherness was apparent through that weekend.

“That was the best match of those Premiership years,” says Bunting. “You have to remember we were playing against Thierry Lacroix and some really good players. We had two good wins that season in the league but everything about that trip was brilliant.”

Schmid, now teaching at a school in London, can scarcely believe it is 20 years ago.
“I think at the time we were the first English club team to win in France for a number of years,” he says. “What a memory.”

Rotherham were to win again in France later that season, getting the better of Grenoble, but nothing could match that first European conquest in Perpignan.

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WITH its picturesque squares and views of the snow-capped Pyrenees, Perpignan was one of the grandest places Rotherham has ever played a game of rugby.

Not wanting to miss out on a slice of history, scores of Clifton Lane regulars made the trip by air, sea and rail.

Some turned it into an extended break, staying in the surrounding French coastal resorts and across the nearby Spanish border in Barcelona.

As one of the travelling party, Jack Smith from East Dene told the Advertiser: “We've followed this team everywhere up and down the country. We've earned the right to ex