Challenge for Titans to compete again gladly taken on by Blackett

Rotherham Titans took a lot of people by surprise last year.

Rotherham Titans head coach Lee Blackett.

Lee Blackett privately thought they had the potential to break into the top four, but realistically, a rookie head coach, aged just 31, was never going to shout it from the rooftops.

Even when they did accomplish it, comfortably embedding themselves in the top four for the entire season before pushing big-spending Bristol in the play-offs, it was still seen as an over-achievement.

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And, even now, Blackett acknowledges that a team that had finished no higher than seventh in the last six seasons, punched above its weight for the whole campaign.

The challenge now is to repeat the trick. Teams that might have been taken by surprise by the style of play Blackett instilled in his team – a free-flowing backs game that made a mockery of their previous reliance on pack power – will not be fooled again.

One year wiser, Blackett is well aware that to defy the odds again, Rotherham have to evolve before they can even contemplate answering the obvious question that looms over them as the new season dawns with a tricky trip to London Scottish today: Can they repeat, or do even better?

“Without doubt, this is a bigger test of our squad than last year because people now know the style of game we are capable of taking,” is Blackett’s response.

“We’d like to think we’ve developed our game in the off-season and that we’ll be better.

“You’ve got to learn the lessons from last year and whenever we came up against a big strong force in the game, the teams that had plenty of depth and spent a lot of money, they were the ones we generally struggled against.

“We have tried to learn lessons from that, but it’s going to be hard work.

“For our club, and everyone always says this, we probably did overachieve last year.

“Did people expect us to be in the top four? I did, but top six would still have been a massive achievement considering seventh was our best in the six years before then.

“A top-half finish remains a great success for this club, but as we do all the time we take it game by game. I’m not playing it up or down – I’m just being realistic.”

As ever with Rotherham, there was a large overhaul of the playing squad with people like the Championship’s player of the year last term, Juan Pablo Socino, heading up to the Premiership with Newcastle, and forwards Ben Sowrey and Dan Sanderson strengthening an already formidable looking Worcester, who are favourites to win promotion.

In their place have come a raft of replacements, including new fly-half James McKinney from Ulster, a No 10 who club insiders say will allow Rotherham to play a more patient attacking game as he stands further off the pack than previous incumbents.

That slight modification to an attack that ripped into teams last season, is just one of the areas Blackett has addressed.

“We’ve had to look at our game management, particularly in those games against the top three,” says Blackett, whose side beat everyone from fifth to 12th last year, but lost every time they faced the three sides above them.

“There was only London Welsh away when we were blown apart, but every other defeat was a really close game and could have gone either way. We weren’t a million miles away so it was the little details we’ve had to look at.

“The big question is have we replaced the players that have moved on?

“When you talk about the heart of your team you talk about your hooker, and we’ve lost Ben Sowrey. We’ve lost our starting tighthead, who started 23 of 25 games, lost our two lineout-calling second rows in Josh Brown and Dan Sanderson, lost our No 8s, Alfie To’oala, Laurence Pearce, Ed Williamson.

“Then we’ve lost our No 9 in Charlie Mulchrone, both 10s have gone, one of them Juan Socino, the best player in the division.

“The only other in the heartbeat of a team would be your 15 and we’ve at least kept Sean Scanlon. So can we replace them? That’s the question mark about whether we are a top-half team.

“You cannot lose that nucleus and think you’re going to be the same as last year. Everyone else will have improved.”

On top of the recruitment, Blackett has also beefed up his pack, a unit he felt were under-rated last year purely on the basis of a weak scrum.

All the changes in faces and tactics could have disrupted a unit that prospered last term because of a tremendous team spirit, fostered in no small part by Blackett’s determination upon taking the job to reconnect the players with the club and the shirt.

But at the Titans’ media day on Tuesday, there looked no doubt as to how strong that bond remains.

For that, Blackett deserves enormous credit, no matter how successful he is in his second season as a head coach.

“I personally think I’ve developed a lot,” he says of his progression as a leader.

“I maybe didn’t know how things worked or didn’t work 12 months ago and now I know some of those answers.

“I’d like to think this time next year I’ll be better again, and if I’m not then that’s because I don’t want it enough. And I can assure you, I do.”