Rotherham TITANs’ confident start to the British and Irish Cup has taken them to the top of Pool 2 and, with consecutive victories against Yorkshire Carnegie and Aberavon, they will be optimistic of a third success on Friday evening at Ulster Ravens.
Following this win by six tries to one at Clifton Lane, the Titans have accumulated nine points which puts them five clear of their Headingley rivals and seven in front of the Ravens, who have surprisingly lost both their opening matches.
Rotherham relish this cup competition and such is their steel-like determination, the ambition is to make further progress than last season when they reached the quarter-finals.
After a careless first-half performance in which they failed to take advantage of dominant possession against a Welsh side that was losing by only 8-6, Rotherham improved gradually and then accelerated to produce four excellent tries on in the 63rd, 70th and 75th minutes, before another deep into injury time.
The Welsh Premiership club, whose indiscipline resulted in three yellow cards, had earlier been competitive, and on 45 minutes had fought back to 15-13 with a converted try.
But after coach Lee Blackett had had more than enough of Rotherham’s dithering and had sent on experienced replacements such as centre Jack Roberts and back row forward Alex Rieder, Aberavon were demolished.
Rotherham’s speed and quick handling, now fluid and more reliable, delivered tries for forwards Ali Birch and Tom Holmes and for full-back Lloyd Hayes, running in from more than 30 metres, and fly-half Tom Barrett, whose late try compensated to some extent for an unhappy game generally in which he missed 12 points as a goal kicker.
One squad player, though, who did make the most of his starting opportunity, was South African scrum-half Zylon McGaffin who scored Rotherham’s opening try on his debut.
The 24-year-old from Pretoria, a small bundle of dynamism, energy and commitment, was signed from Darlington Mowden Park. His angles of running are intelligent and McGaffin’s potential is such that he may go on to make an impact in the Championship once the league campaign resumes next month.
“There’s a lot of competition here for the No 9 slot and you wonder if you are good enough. But I went out there full of confidence and enjoyed it,” said McGaffin. “It’s different here at Rotherham to what I have been used to in the past. It’s a professional environment and the training has been tough.
“It was nice to get a start for a change, but as to the future, I take one step at a time. You never know what’s going to happen in rugby and you never know if it could be your last game.”
However, McGaffin is likely to keep his place against Ulster Ravens as is prop Toby Williams, whose try at the beginning of the second half hinted at the improvement that was to unfold.
Smashing into opponents without any apparent concern for his own safety, the 28-year-old, in his second season at Rotherham, typifies the graft and spirit that flourishes at Clifton Lane.
“When I was at Otley we were semi-professional, so it wasn’t as serious as it is here,” said Williams. “Getting a regular place is not something I think about. I take each week as it comes and try to improve every week and try to make the most of my ability.
“I love it down here and when you reflect on what we did against Aberavon, it came together in the end, did well in the scrums, stuck to our task and got the job done.”
The consecutive wins in the B&I Cup have restored Rotherham’s confidence which was dented by the recent heavy defeat by Worcester in the league, and with Yorkshire Carnegie next up in the Championship in a fortnight, it is essential for a club that is fifth in the table to build on this momentum.
“During the last 20 minutes, we had the killer edge,” said Blackett. “We played with a quick tempo and in that period we went up a gear and it’s the best we have played since we beat Bedford last month. McGaffin is a live wire and dangerous and I was happy with the way James Mitchell, our on-loan scrum-half from Sale Sharks, came on and did well.”
Rotherham Titans: Hayes, Keating, Gill (Roberts 51), Davies, Dowsett, Barrett, McGaffin (Mitchell 64), Williams (Gadd 64), Matthews, Macklin (Tampin 55), Parker (Parkinson 72), Holmes, Argyle (Rieder 51), Birch, Ryan (Preece 55).
Aberavon: M Williams, Grabham, Gage (Jenkins 58), D Evans, Andrews, C Thomas, Pritchard, White, I Davies (Harvey 58), Harford (M.Davies 54), Moore, S Williams (Beard 62), Dudley-Jones (Gwynne 42), Brown (L Evans 68), B Thomas.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland).