FEATURE: marking 20 years since Rotherham Rugby Club made its historic Premiership debut

FEATURE: marking 20 years since Rotherham Rugby Club made its historic Premiership debut

By | 13/08/2020

FEATURE: marking 20 years since Rotherham Rugby Club made its historic Premiership debut

 

THE sun shone, the ground was packed and hope and expectation was thick in the Rotherham air the day the town's rugby team played its first game in the best league in the world.


The club's dizzying rise up the pyramid reached a climax the day 2,747 people crammed into Clifton Lane to see Rotherham make their Premiership debut against Bristol 20 years ago this month.


Rotherham and their generous benefactor Mike Yarlett had grafted long and hard to get there, sometimes having to take on the authorities as well as steely opponents to earn a place at rugby union's privileged top table.


The team from a northern working class town with barren facilities weren't, in club legend John Dudley's own words, “everybody's cup of tea”, but no-one could deny they didn't deserve it.


Rotherham lost 23-20 to Bristol that day and would have grabbed a draw had Mike Umaga, one of the huge figures of the side, managed to land a late penalty from all of 35 metres.


I'd just started at the Advertiser back then, squinting out at the action from the Clifton Lane conservatory.


“Not many beaten teams walk off the field to a standing ovation from their own supporters, but then again this was no ordinary afternoon at Clifton Lane,” I wrote at the time.

Big moment...Isaac Fe'aunati goes over for Rotherham's first ever Premiership try.

The roar could be heard as far away as Millmoor when Isaac Fe’aunati, a big Samoan signed to beef up the Rotherham pack, went over for the club's only try of the game in the second half.


It was a hard luck story, the first of many that season delivered by a club whose resources were dwarfed by the rugby giants they shared the league with.


On top of that, by the time Rotherham had come through their play-off with Bedford to win promotion barely two months earlier, most of the best players had been picked off. 


It left the team to trade not so much on skill but on the old characters of resilience and togetherness that had got them to the Premiership in the first place.


Two decades on, team skipper Mike Schmid remembers: “The Premiership was very difficult because you were playing against established teams who had been there and done it. There were lots of internationals and lots of money floating around. We were the poorer cousins going into it, both in terms of experience and where we were as a club at the time.”


An example of that came a couple of years later when Rotherham, back in the Premiership after relegation, hosted Harlequins at their temporary home at Millmoor.


“They turned up with something like 15 off-field personnel,” remembers Schmid.


“In comparison, Mike Umaga and I were playing and coaching, Jim Kilfoyle was managing on the sideline and we had a physio and a doctor, so we had four off-field staff.

Mike Schmid with the Premiership Two trophy.

 

“I remember thinking 'oh, we might be in trouble here.'”


Despite the odds being stacked against them, Rotherham pushed teams close in their first season up, especially in the early months before the defeats and the unrelenting physical churn of the division started to take its toll.


“It was always about trying to find that first win and growing in confidence,” says Mike. “We had that opportunity against Bristol and soon after against Gloucester we had them on the ropes. Early in the second half we had an opportunity to score from a five-metre lineout but we didn't and they went on to score quickly after it and take the game away from us.


“There were a few ifs and buts there. If we had got a few early wins in September and October then that would have set the platform to grow and play with a bit more freedom rather than being nervous.”


The Canadian added: “One of our great strengths when we won the league below was that we played with so much freedom and confidence and to try and find that you need one or two early wins to show what you're doing is right and give you belief in what you're doing. The longer that win doesn't come, the longer the pressure builds and the harder it gets because doubt creeps in.”


Finally, eight games in, Rotherham bagged their first top-flight win on a mad afternoon against London Irish at Clifton Lane.


Nigel Simpson went over for a late try to pull the match out of the fire just when another defeat loomed. That 19-18 was a throwback to the spirit of old for a team still containing many of the players who had helped the drive to the top league.

Mike Umaga drives on against Saracens.

 

Schmid acknowledges: “We felt the pressure at times when we went up but we also had a confidence about us and even a little bit of arrogance in the way we were playing the game that we could pull stuff out.”


Sadly, the good days were too few and far between.


Rotherham pulled a rabbit out of the hat in their first ever game in Europe that October, beating Perpignan 20-19 on an emotional night in southern France that everyone who made the journey will never forget.


The following January they did something similar, winning in France again, this time in the shadow of the Alps against Grenoble in the European Shield.


That same month Rotherham carded their second and last Premiership win, seeing off Saracens 19-8 at Clifton Lane, but were to eventually finish the season 26 points adrift at the bottom.


That record couldn't dent the pride of Schmid and his team-mates.


“We still played some really good games that first season and with a touch more nous and a bit of luck at times we would probably have won the two or three or more games we would have needed that year to stay up,” he adds. “That would have changed the team's history forever had we managed to do that.”


Perhaps the most poignant comment about those times comes from Simon Bunting, the tough, home-grown prop and stalwart of so many Rotherham battles from an era at Clifton Lane that will never be repeated.


“For a kid who came from Maltby, I have met people from all over the world through rugby,” he says.
“When I take my son, Morgan, to places, I see people who I forgot I've played against.


“They say 'you must have had a great time at Rotherham.' And we did.”