Battered, bruised and exhausted but immensely proud and respected by their opponents, Rotherham’s players left Abbeydale with their reputations intact, indeed enhanced, after two fighting performances in the semi- finals of the promotion play-offs.
In the two games, at the Memorial Stadium and then at their temporary home in Sheffield, Rotherham lost each by an unconvincing margin, and Bristol prevailed overall by only 14 points.
Considering the size of the finalists’ squad, its expense and quality, the fact that Rotherham led at half-time in both legs demonstrates how far they stretched, and put under pressure, the club with seemingly unlimited resources.
Bristol, entering the second leg with a narrow lead of only three points, secured a place in the final thanks to accurate goal kicking from Welsh fly-half Nick Robinson, whose four second-half penalties, plus one before the interval, punished Rotherham’s mistakes.
The Titans also suffered in the scrums where Bristol dominated, but Rotherham had the satisfaction of preventing Ryan Jones, the former Wales captain and British Lion, form producing anything special on his debut.
Jones’s experience (75 caps) certainly mattered as his side overcame a mediocre first half to control the second, but in his hour on the battlefield, one forward to stand out was the Rotherham No 8 Alfie To’oala.
The Samoan absorbed as much punishment as he gave.
Rotherham deservedly led at half-time by 11-3 which meant an overall advantage of 25-20. Their attacking flair hinted at a major upset as Bristol’s defence was broken on 38 minutes by winger Michael Keating, scoring his 11th Championship try.
His score followed excellent approach work by flanker Jack Preece; fly-half Juan Pablo Socino, in his last game after a distinguished season at Rotherham, was unable to convert.
Indeed, surprisingly for such an accurate goal kicker, the Championship’s best, the Argentinean also missed two penalties in contrast to Robinson’s individual match-winning performance which saw him contribute 17 points.
Rotherham’s eagerness to run the ball, with centre Jack Roberts a constant threat, created more promising positions on Bristol’s line towards the end of the first period, but they survived and were relieved to have conceded only one try.
The favourites also prospered during the 10 minutes they were without flanker Marco Mamma, who received a yellow card.
For the first time, Rotherham’s solid defence was broken on 50 minutes as centre Ben Mosses shot through to score between the posts and with Robinson converting, Bristol led – only just – by 27-25 overall.
Now controlling possession and territory, and exploiting Rotherham’s frailties in the scrum, Bristol gradually increased their authority.
Penalties on 61, 73, 80 and 85 minutes by Robinson prevented the Titans following Rotherham United’s example of reaching a final, but substantial credit must be given to the South Yorkshire club who forced Bristol to change their game plan.
All season, they have run the ball rather than kick penalties, but at Abbeydale, they knew from the experience of the first leg that if Rotherham’s resistance was to be overcome, it made sense to take the points on offer in such an important match for the club’s future.
Roared on by the majority of the crowd of more than 3,000, Rotherham left Abbeydale to loud applause and cheers, particularly those players who are departing: Socino, Charlie Mulchrone, Dan Sanderson and Dallan Murphy.
Coach Lee Blackett, whose approach has transformed the club in his first season in charge, can look ahead with confidence to the next campaign, not least because 20 players have been retained and talented recruits have been signed, importantly in the front row.
Stability and continuity persuaded back-row forward Alex Rieder to sign another contract which means he will be playing for another two years at Rotherham. “We have kept exceptional players like Sean Scanlon, Ali Birch, Tom Cruse, Michael Keating and Robin Hislop,” he said.
“Lee is building something rather than chopping and changing and is trying to create a squad that will compete regularly at the top and challenge for promotion.
“In the play-offs, our aim was to give a good account of ourselves and to leave the field with our heads held high, and we did.
“It is a bitter pill to swallow to lose after going in at half-time with a lead in both games, so it is frustrating that we let that slip.
“I think the season took its toll on us. Bristol have a big squad and we don’t have the same resources.”
Rotherham Titans: Scanlon, Broadley (Davies 80), Gill (Murphy 62), Roberts, Keating, Socino, Mulchrone (White 70), Williams (Hislop 58), Cruse, Quigley (Tampin 58), Holmes, Thomas-Brown, Rieder, Preece (Birch 40), To’oala (Sanderson 61).
Bristol: Wallace, Watkins, Tovey, Mosses (Hughes 70), Short, Robinson, Tipuna (Baldwin 40), Lawrence (Johnston 40), Hall (Hobson 51), Glynn, Townson, Mamma, Rennie (Eadie 56), Jones.
Referee: Matt Carley (RFU).