five loaves and a tin of tuna

UNFANCIED, UNHERALDED ROTHERHAM HIT THE TOP OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP TABLE LAST WEEKEND; CLEARLY THE AGE OF MIRACLES ISN’T QUITE OVER YET.

What is a shrewd Yorkshireman’s definition of optimism? I will tell you. It’s when your tenth straight win takes you to the top of the table and you suddenly realise that all you need is one more point and you’re mathematically safe from relegation. Hey, this is Rotherham, so you keep your cap on, just in case.

‘Look, we’re delighted to be where we are but we know there’s still a lot of work to be done,’ says Head Coach, Lee Blackett. ‘Maybe people underestimate us but they are starting to talk about us now a little bit, and to be honest, I’d rather they didn’t. I think it’s best we keep going under the radar.’

Head Coach is supposed to be an attritional, god-awful occupation – an endurance, an agony – but eight months in and thirty-one-year-old Lee Blackett looks like he’s shelling peas. Two minutes ago he and his backroom team were fresh out of the wrapper – each new to his job – and the players were still learning each other’s names as twenty-two fresh faces wandered into the dressing room; yet here they are now top of the Championship log on a budget skinnier than a sparrow’s shoelace. Next week Blackett’s feeding the supporters’ club with five loaves and a tin of tuna.

‘It is tempting to think of him as some kind of saviour but we still call him ‘Lee’,’ says second row, Dan Sanderson. ‘I think (Alex) Rieder calls him ‘chopper’ but that’s a Leeds thing. In fact we’ve got half of Leeds playing down here now. Any reject they’ve got, they send him down to us. It’s unbelievable.’

Lee Blackett’s greatest claim to fame – so far at least – actually came in a Leeds shirt six years ago when he scored the fastest try in Premiership history against Newcastle Falcons in just 8.28 seconds. Admittedly it was his first try for Leeds in four years – he was unusually shy for a winger – but, to his credit, he doesn’t drop it into the conversation too often.

‘No, he doesn’t because if you look at it on You Tube, his hair’s atrocious,’ says Dan Sanderson. ‘He looks like a cockatoo. And in fairness, I think most of us were amazed he could run fifty metres in eight seconds, let alone score a try at the end of it. Mind you he’s also the most relegated player in Premiership history. I think he’s gone down four times, so make sure you put that it too.’

For now, though, Rotherham are looking up not down, despite the fact that last weekend’s win against Moseley was a stinker of a performance. For much of this season, though, Blackett’s boys have been piling on the points and if there’s a secret to all this – and journalists love nothing more than one-line secrets that explain everything – it’d probably be man-management, as you might expect from a man tutored at the aforementioned Leeds Carnegie by the no-nonsense Stuart Lancaster.

‘The biggest thing you could probably take from Lanny was the culture,’ says Blackett. ‘What he’s doing now with England he did the same at Leeds. And it is important. I think the main thing about here is that I’ve felt perhaps some players have come in and disrespected the place. No one is bigger than this club and I mean no one. And if you think you are, then, fine, there’s the door. Leave.’

In truth, egos haven’t been a huge problem here down the years and Lee Blackett – who first played at this club as an eighteen-year-old – is simply reinforcing core values. Certainly you don’t come to Rotherham for the climate. Or the water-skiing. Or the money. ‘No, definitely not,’ says prop Colin Quigley. ‘It’s as Lee says, if you were any good you wouldn’t be at Rotherham, would you? At least, that’s what he tells us.’

If brutal honesty is a key ingredient, conditioning is another. No one in the division lasts the unforgiving eighty minutes better than Rotherham and much of that is down to the outstanding Josh Fletcher, who has the team running like butcher’s dogs with a weekly session down the Don at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and with a little help from the fragrant Jessica Ennis.

‘I spoke to Jess’s coach, Tony Minichiello, and asked him to watch some of our guys sprinting,’ recalls Fletcher. ‘He just tore them to shreds. Bit embarrassing for me but he just said, no, you need to do this, this and that and I thought, oh no. But in fact it was great to get some tips and learn a few tricks of the trade.’

Rotherham has always been Sheffield’s little brother but it still boasts some famous names of its own, not least Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, William Hague, and the Chuckle Brothers. The heritage here, though, is heavy metal – after all t’were cannon forged in Rotherham that sank the French at Trafalgar – but these days the town’s moving on from soot and black net curtains; the ‘Rotherham Renaissance’ they call it and while the football team is the one with the shiny new stadium, it’s the rugby team who’re, currently, the talk of the town.

‘Lee Blackett is doing a brilliant job,’ says one effusive Rotherham aficionado. ’He’s changed the style of play, more attacking more free-flowing rugby, it’s just fantastic.’ Others, though, are more circumspect. ‘Just so long as we finish above Leeds,’ says another Clifton Lane diehard. ‘We’ve got to finish above Leeds.’

‘I think a lot of the success is down to the fact that Lee’s really big on skills,’ says Dan Sanderson. ‘He has props doing passing and handling drills which some seem to think is a waste of time but they seem to be involved in one or two tries. He also get the boys to do the analysis on review and preview plus he makes a very decent cup of tea.’

Certainly you are never too young to help out at Rotherham – Ed Williamson’s kids occasionally stack the tackle bags – or indeed too old. This week, Peter’s job is to retrieve the balls from the roof of the stand, Tony’s doing the laundry, Phil and Colin are looking after the advertising hoardings and Terry’s holding both the short straw and the screwdriver as he gets to grips with the extractor fan in the boys’ powder room; each of them Club Vice-Presidents, most of them ex-players, none of them under seventy and all them turning up every day to attend to the odd-jobs at Clifton Lane.

‘It’s an outlet for retired gentlemen, I suppose,’ says Terry Markham, ‘you know, we get together every week and I still meet up with a lot of my friends from schooldays and from playing in the team, which is nice. And we’re still worth every penny they don’t pay us.’

Socially, the pace here is punishing. Monday night is ‘Salsa Night’, Thursday night is ‘Quiz Night’ and Tuesday night is ‘Titans Tuesday’ – or, this week, ‘Table-Topping Titans Tuesday’ – whereat two players review the game just gone in the company of the supporters. The Moseley video was so horrific it was rated eighteen.

‘It’s something we brought in and everyone seems to love it, players included,’ says Lee Blackett. ‘We just like to be honest, honest with the fans, and to try to improve their knowledge of the game and their understanding of what we’re trying to do on the pitch. And there’s no doubt these fans here just love shouting at the referee. They’ve not got a clue what they’re shouting about half the time given they’ve probably have five to ten pints but they do enjoy abusing touch judges.’

But what the club’s happy to give to the supporters the supporters are equally happy to give back. ‘Fans here pester you to come for lunch or dinner,’ says Blackett. ‘And that happens daily. I’m serious. There’s a couple of stewards who’ve had every single player round for dinner this year. They’re special they really are. In some ways it feels as though this isn’t a professional club; it’s an old school club, the kind of place you started out at when you were a ten-year-old. When I was at Leeds the players were over here, the fans were over there and the place just didn’t feel tight. This place though is very tight and very special.’

As is always the case, a handful of players here have already been pinched by the Premiership for next season following in the well-trodden path of the Strettles, the Steensons, the Fouries, how long have you got? The question now, though, is what happens if the whole club makes the leap into the Big League.

‘I think it’s all about the mindset of the players as a group,’ says Dan Sanderson. ‘The only disadvantage, obviously, is that you wouldn’t find out until, what, June the second, which is a ridiculous position to be in. You’d have eight weeks to find some new players and get the squad together for the season. You’re almost relegated before you start but it is what it is, so I guess you just knuckle down and you say, right; let’s have a crack. ‘

For a team whose pitch is deep square leg for the local cricket club, promotion – if it came – would be a glorious headache. Rotherham, lets’ face it, make London Welsh look prosperous but somehow they reckon they’d find a way. ‘I don’t think promotion would spoil us,’ says Terry Markham. Don’t forget, we’ve been up there before, not very successfully of course, but while we didn’t stay there, the club held together and we battled through at a lower level. I’m sure we’d do the same thing again. As to whether we’d get promoted, I don’t know. I’d like to think so. Mind you, I’d like to think there’s somebody out there who’d give us ten million quid.’

There aren’t many clubs in England who squeeze as much juice from the orange as Rotherham or have quite so much fun doing it; not only that but nowhere in the division will you find better pies, chips and peas. They’re a remarkable bunch and if you do happen to have ten million quid to spare, this is one club who’d guarantee to make every penny count.

06 FEBRUARY 2104

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