ROTHERHAM Rugby Club’s rise from the regional leagues to the Premiership remains one of the town’s all-time sporting highlights.
Twenty years ago this week, the team that had racked up seven promotions in a heady rise up the league pyramid made the final step into the promised world of the English game’s top division.
Never has a defeat been cheered so loudly than after a 14-0 loss on a sunny Sunday afternoon on May 28 2000 at Bedford.
That’s because, four days before, Rotherham had done the spadework by winning the first leg of the two-legged play-off 40-20 at a packed Clifton Lane.
The 40-34 aggregate win secured a promotion ticket to the top flight and the chance to rub shoulders with Leicester, Bath, Saracens and the other juggernauts of English club rugby.
It’s the back-story to the battles against Bedford that give the tale extra sparkle.
Jubilant...Terry Garnett and Dave Scully after overcoming Bedford to reach the top flight.
In the previous two years Rotherham had suffered promotion play-off heartbreak against London Irish and then Bedford, losing on a try count after the teams finished level on points after two legs.
The fact that Rotherham, the second-tier champions, should have to play off in 2000 against the Premiership’s bottom side for the chance to go up was harsh in itself.
That’s why there was a bit of that “us against them” mentality and a desire to ensure justice was finally done that fuelled their determination to win the league and then finally get over the line on that fateful day at Goldington Road.
“It was a bigger compliment to win that division than we thought at the time,” remembers team skipper Mike Schmid.
“It was very competitive and a lot of the teams were very similar. A few had spent more money than us so we were fighting uphill to be one of the non-established clubs trying to get up to rock the Premiership. That was a different challenge for us.
“We had a tremendous group of players and great support around them including from Michael Yarlett, the owner. It was a great environment and the players thrived in it.”
Rewind eight months and promotion had looked a long way off.
Shorn of Schmid and another key man, Mike Umaga, on international duty, Rotherham lost two of their opening four matches, at London Welsh and Worcester.
The response was the stuff of champions, the team reeling off a club-record 22 straight victories, including a last-gasp 17-16 Friday-night win at Leeds, to take the title and set up the deciders against Bedford. Bedford had won only once in the top flight all season.
A crowd of 4,500 packed into Clifton Lane for the first leg. Most pundits said Rotherham would need a 20-point advantage as “security” for the second match and that’s what a fired-up home side delivered, running in four tries.
“We were exceptionally pleased with how we played in the first game,” says Schmid, one of the try-scorers that night along with Doug Trivella, Carlos Hassan and Alan Buzza. “We caught Bedford cold because I don’t they expected us to be as good as we were.
“But as much as our place was a home-field advantage for us, their place was a big fortress for them. I think we felt the pressure more for the second game than the first. We had a great crowd behind us for the first leg, Clifton Lane was really rocking and I think we went down there feeling a little nervous and intimidated.”
Rotherham supporters at Bedford.
The headline in Friday’s Advertiser’s before the second meeting read “80 minutes from glory.”
Around 3,000 supporters, the sort of away following normally associated with the town’s football team, made the trip south for the big game.
And for Maltby’s Simon Bunting, one of a group of local players who had formed the core of the side for several seasons, the occasion was just as huge as the match.
“It compared with the night we beat Leeds,” he says.
“There were more Yorkshire people down there than from Bedford. I had mates who went down in vans because they couldn’t get on coaches and the atmosphere was fantastic.”
Schmid agrees: “When we ran out, just to hear the noise from the Rotherham supporters was something really special. It is something I will never forget.”
Many of the capacity crowd of 5,750 were stood four and five deep around the pitch and the air was thick with tension.
It showed among the players of both sides in a nervy, cagey first half which ended 0-0.
Schmid remembers: “It was hard to repeat our first performance at Clifton Lane because we had played so well and, rather than being confident, we made some uncharacteristic mistakes which kept them in the game and that just built the pressure.”
In the second half Bedford had the advantage of playing down the infamous Goldington Road slope they knew so well.
They pinned Rotherham back and two penalty tries in the space of 12 minutes, both disputed but both converted, left them needing just one more converted score to take the contest and retain their Premiership place.
The closing minutes were unbearable. Rotherham were reduced to 14 men for the second time in the half and, as they defended their line for their lives, were pinned down at the bottom end. Referee Ed Morrison made it harder by somehow finding several minutes of stoppage time.
Morrison also had “history” with the men from Clifton Lane having made some harsh decisions in the 1999 play-off.
Team skipper Mike Schmid with the champions' trophy.
After drive after drive after drive was repelled by an impenetrable line of white shirts, Bedford’s tank was empty and Rotherham, exhausted from long stints of tackling, finally had ball in hand when the final whistle blew.
It was met by a roar of relief and elation from the visiting supporters and a few tears.
“There was a belief among the players that, no matter what, they would come through,” says team manager Steve Cousins. “Every one of our lads was prepared to put his body in the line for the other — you don’t get that from guys on £50,000 a year.”
Those sentiments were echoed by coach Jim Kilfoyle, the proud Liverpudlian and another big figure in the camp.
“It was by far the best day of my life. It rewarded people who deserved to be rewarded,” he said. “The whole lot of them deserved it.”
Backed all the way by local businessman Yarlett, Rotherham had always prided themselves on being a community club and there was plenty of evidence of that as players and supporters rubbed shoulders in celebrations that began in the bar at Bedford and ended many hours later back at Clifton Lane.
Rotherham would play on the bigger stages in their two subsequent seasons in the Premiership but no day could really match the one when they earned their long-awaited place there.
THREE OF THE BEST FROM 99/00
Oct 2 1999: West Hartlepool (home), won 93-8
Thirteen tries, a club-record victory and the launchpad for a glory run to the title.
Jan 22 2000: Exeter (away), won 34-0
Near-perfect rugby from Rotherham put paid to Exeter’s 100 per cent home record
Feb 2 2000: Leeds (away), won 17-16
Mike Umaga’s late penalty dealt a blow to Rotherham’s fiercest rivals before a 5,000-plus crowd at Headingley
HOW THE TITLE WAS WON
Total points scored: 1,045
FOR THE RECORD
The Rotherham team that clinched promotion at Bedford: Mike Umaga; Martin Dawson, Carlos Hassan, Doug Trivella, Alan Buzza; Simon Binns, Dave Scully; Mike Schmid (capt), Neil Spence, Ben Wade; Glen Kenworthy, Dan Cook; Stuart Turner, Mark Pinder, Simon Bunting. Replacements: Jon Shepherd, John Dudley, Terry Garnett, Jim Thorp. Richard White and Paul Manley featured in the first leg.