FEATURE: from tatty shirts and home-made posts to cup finals and oblivion ... the story of rugby league in Rotherham

FEATURE: from tatty shirts and home-made posts to cup finals and oblivion ... the story of rugby league in Rotherham

By David Beddows | 09/02/2021

FEATURE: from tatty shirts and home-made posts to cup finals and oblivion ... the story of rugby league in Rotherham

 

IT all started with an appeal for players in the Advertiser, grew in popularity and then slowly withered and disappeared, possibly forever.

 

Rugby League in Rotherham had more than its fair share of ups and downs in the 35 years it was played until it all came to a sad end nine years ago.

 

Its history is chronicled in a book, The Other Rugby, by Stuart Sheard, a former RL player, administrator and lifelong enthusiast.
He was involved in Rotherham's RL scene in the early years and when he left he followed its fortunes right up to its demise in 2012.

 

In many ways, rugby league was up against it from the get go.

 

“In Rotherham, when you mentioned rugby league, some people wouldn't know what you were talking about,” says Stuart.

 

“They'd say, 'oh, is there another sort of rugby? How many players do you have?' That's why I called the book The Other Rugby.”

 

It was Stuart who placed an appeal in the Advertiser at the start of 1977 asking if anyone would be interested in playing rugby league.

 

Only one man replied, Harry Brooks, a teacher with a lifelong interest in rugby league. In his mid-50s, he got involved but was hardly likely to play so a second appeal was made in the Advertiser a month later.

 

It garnered a much better response, enough to form a team. It was called Rotherham Rangers.

 

A game was arranged against Sheffield Concord but there was a problem. The new team had no shirts so a set were borrowed from a team in Leeds.

 

“They had once been green and gold but were now grey and grey!” recalls Stuart. “It was agreed that once Rotherham had the money together they could buy them for £20.”

Early home ... Thomas Rotherham College.

Backed by a small committee, the town's band of RL pioneers were nothing but resilient.

 

Rotherham Council were reluctant to let them play on Herringthorpe Playing Fields but the local Education Department came to the rescue and allowed matches on the grass in front of Thomas Rotherham College.

 

Slowly, the RL wheels started turning.

 

Rangers joined the West Yorkshire League. New kit was bought with a grant but league converts in a football-mad town and with an established rugby union club were still thin on the ground. 

 

In their first season Rotherham rarely fielded a full compliment of players and had only NINE players for one game and lost it 44-0, one of many defeats.

 

“It's hard to defend your line when the opposition have four more players than you,” said Stuart.

 

“I'm not so sure that in 2021 many newly formed amateur clubs with Rotherham's dismal playing record would have been around for a second season but in 1977 winning didn't seem quite as important as getting 13 players to a game.”

 

Rangers' second season was an improvement but they hit another problem following a switch to the Co-op ground (later Pitches) near The Stag roundabout at the end of 1978. They had no goal posts.

 

Luckily, one of the players Ian Williams, got hold of some steel pipes from a firm in Mexborough that were made into posts. 

 

“It took a team effort to dig holes and erect them,” remembers Stuart.

John Dudley on the charge.

 

Rotherham became a nomad club, continually changing grounds, but they got a bit of wind behind them.

 

RL-playing students who graduated from Sheffield University and remained in the area were encouraged to join Rangers by the likes of clubman Bernie Hunter. 

 

With interest growing, Rangers won their first trophy, the Continuation Cup, in 1985 and started a second team.
In 1988 an U17s side was set up, recruiting players from the recently formed Rotherham Schools U16s and the number of converts to the 13-man code started to accelerate.

 

A side was set up at the Miners Welfare ground at Maltby and another, Sheffield and Kimberworth, got going, albeit with Sheffield roots.

 

Stuart had stepped down by the time Rangers left the Yorkshire League in 1991.
It triggered two years of struggle until a junior team, Rotherham Rams, started up.

 

Darryl Osborne and Kevan Cadman from Rotherham's senior club decided a merger was the best way forward.

 

As a result, in 1993 Rotherham Amateur RL Club was formed and enjoyed a period of sustained growth.

 

A move back to Co-op ground brought juniors and seniors together on one site, complete with a bar and changing rooms.
“It felt like a real rugby club,” said Stuart.

 

Rotherham moved from Sunday morning rugby in the West Yorkshire League to Saturday afternoon rugby in the Pennine League and won back-to-back promotions despite having to again up sticks to Ravenfield and then Parkgate.

 

“That was a problem. The club was never able to lay down any proper roots,” says Stuart. 

 

“Between 1977 and 2012 the club used more than a dozen pubs or clubs as a base.”

First U17s training session on Herringthorpe Fields.

The year 2000 was a game changer for rugby league in Rotherham, at least for a comparatively short time.

 

The club decided to branch out into summer rugby in the Rugby League Conference, a competition for clubs outside traditional RL areas.

 

Because the season clashed with athletics events, it seemed to stop the plan in its tracks. And this is where the Advertiser got involved again.

 

Thanks to the paper's help, the council agreed to mark out a pitch on Herringthorpe Playing Fields and rope it off for home games.

 

Links were forged with Huddersfield Giants, providing kit and off-field support, and sponsors came in, including the Advertiser.
In their first season, Rotherham reached the Conference play-off semi-final, beating Coventry Bears before 8,000 spectators at a

 

Salford v Warrington Super League game at Wilderspool. Giants lost the grand final to Crawley in front of 635 fans at Coventry, many from Rotherham.

 

Still, the positive vibes continued.

 

In 2001 a club home record crowd of more than 600 saw the Giants play Huddersfield in a pre-season friendly at Herringthorpe Stadium.

 

Gates of a few hundred on summer Saturday afternoons were a regular occurrence.

 

Sadly, fractures were appearing, with committee members losing interest and the stresses of playing in the summer and winter, in which Rotherham went under the name Roosters.

 

That was a mistake, according to Stuart.

 

“Players get fed up, they can't devote time to their families and there's also the risk of burnout,” he said.

 

By 2002, rugby league celebrated 25 years in the town with a special match against Chester Wolves attended by many former players, but only a few weeks after Giants failed to raise a team and had to concede a fixture.

 

An emergency meeting was called at the Masons Arms, the club's former base on Wellgate, and a “fairly acrimonious vote” was taken to concentrate on winter rugby.

 

Darryl Osborne walked away, arguing it was a backward step, and after that the Giants struggled to emulate their achievements of 2000.

 

There were sporadic successes afterwards led by Craig Weston, a former U17 prospect, but after a poor season in 2007/08, the team folded, 30 years after that first appeal in the Advertiser.

 

A re-launch not long after back in the RL Conference was helped by the return of Jon Dudley, a former first team regular with Rotherham rugby union and Gians campaigner.

 

It proved a last hurrah.

 

More than 50 players attended a pre-season get-together at the end of 2009 but many became disillusioned at the lack of first team opportunities and many left and didn't return.

 

By 2010 a move was made to Dinnington RUFC, almost ten miles from Rotherham's heart, in the hope of attracting new recruits and interest, but the end was nigh.

 

The club played just four games in 2012 before folding. Ironically, the final fixture on Saturday, June 16 resulted in a victory over Leeds Akkies.

Guests at RL in Rotherham's 25th anniversary.

 

Stuart, now living in York, still thinks about what might have been. 

 

“Of the hundreds of players who played RL in Rotherham, very few took up off-field roles after retiring,” he said. “We also suffered because the game wasn't widely played in schools so there wasn't a supply line of young talent.

 

“The sad thing, looking back, if we had done certain things, particularly establishing something at the Co-op ground (now Pitches), the club could still have been there. I drive past it and see they've pulled the building down now but you think what could have been. It was a nice, enclosed site.

 

“Chasing short-term success rather than recruiting and encouraging young players became a priority, a priority that, in my view, contributed to the demise of the club.

 

“Although many decisions down the years were taken with the best intentions, in many ways my book is a cautionary tale in how NOT to establish a rugby league club in a non-rugby league club town.”

WRONG TURNS

GETTING a full compliment of Rotherham players to games was a challenge in the days before satellite navigation and mobile phones.

“We couldn't afford to hire a coach for away games and had to travel in cars in a convoy,” says Stuart Sheard.

“It was crucial if you were driving the lead car that you didn't lose anyone. If you lost a car it usually meant starting the game four players shorts.

“Losing a car on the M1 seemed to become a regular occurrence.”

 

THE ROUGH STUFF
FISTICUFFS were common at RL matches, it went with the territory.

However Rotherham were on the wrong end of some particularly rough stuff away to Middleton in Leeds in 1990.

“The match was significant because of the amount of thuggery and violence from the home team,” notes Stuart Sheard.

“There were many off-the-ball incidents resulting in injuries to Rotherham players.”

Following the game three Rotherham players gave up the sport for good.

COULD RL BE REVIVED?
RUGBY League enthusiast and author Stuart Sheard hasn't given up hope that the sport could be revived in Rotherham.

“I personally think it could,” he says.

“The difficulty in Rotherham is finding a group of people who can see a future for it. 

“It's OK a few blokes getting together and saying, 'we'll have a team,' pulling in a few mates and forming a team, but it's not sustainable.

“You need people really committed to keeping it going and building a club, not just a team.

“It's hard because when people think of sport in Rotherham they think of Rotherham United, but rugby league can still be revived.”

NOTABLE 
FIGURES

Darryl OsborneJoined in the mid-1980s. Made a massive contribution to RL in Rotherham on and off the field, making more than 130 appearances and kicking over 280 goals. Later became first team coach, the director of rugby and was instrumental in the club's re-incarnation in the 1990s.

Andy Tyers
His career with Rotherham lasted more than 20 years. Made more than 200 appearances in different spells at the club as well as playing professional rugby league for Doncaster, Sheffield Eagles and Keighley. Was club coach  for a number of seasons and was responsible for recruiting Jordan James, Rotherham’s only Super League player.
 

 

 


 

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