Broncos stampede into a new era

Harlequins Rugby League announced the rebranding of the club back to London Broncos this week.

The club’s second rebrand in the space of six years will not sit well with many of the sport’s fans who believe a club in London adds nothing to Super League and the sport in general. A brief look at the club’s history may persuade many to join in with the deluded flat cappers ideology.

It is the fourth transformation the club has gone through since it was formed as Fulham Rugby League back in 1980. Fulham Football Club pulled their funding a few seasons after, but the club survived and eventually changed their name to London Crusaders in 1991. However they had no permanent home and played in locations such as Crystal Palace, Chiswick Polytechnic and Barnet Copthall.

Brisbane Broncos bought the club in 1994, and the club’s nickname changed along with the take over. However for many critics in the traditional heartlands, this is where developments turned for the worst.

With no long term permanent base to call home, the original London Broncos travelled across the capital. They played at The Valley, home to Charlton Athletic. After one season they moved to The Stoop, home to Harlequins Rugby Union. Eventually they settled for Griffin Park in 2002, but financial misfortune in 2005 meant the club could no longer be sustainable by itself.

The following year the club entered into a deal with Harlequins Rugby Union, and was eventually run as a separate business to the rugby union club. The rugby league team were to become merely tenants at the Twickenham Stoop with no financial support from the rugby union club. 

It was revealed at the end of the 2010 season that Harlequins were losing £1.5 million a year, and that the club had begged the RFL for a lifeline. Chief executive Paul Blanchard left the club in December 2010 and was replaced by Gus Mackay.

After a promising start in 2011 on the field, winning four of their first five games of the season, the club finished 12th. They were only able to post two more wins after round five, and attendances averaged at around 3,313 dropping as low as 1,766 for their opening home game of the year.

But it was clear changes were being brainstormed between the backroom staff as a result of Mackay’s appointment. The club were on the cusp of regenerating into their fifth reincarnation and consultations began with fans on a potential name change during the middle of 2011.Chairman David Hughes confirmed in June of this year that the Broncos name was being considered as a possible name change, a vision that came to reality earlier this week.

The concern for rugby league in London now, is that the club does not make the same mistakes of the past. Further financial difficulties and more regenerations than Doctor Who a decade down the line is not what the club needs. They need an increased stable fan base, as very few professional clubs can survive on average crowds of 3,000. This is especially true for one that has to travel to the other end of the country every two weeks during the season.

A key issue for the new Broncos side is what time of the week should they play their home games on a regular basis. Being tenants of Harlequins Rugby Union could cause problems, and the club may be forced to fit around the rugby union agenda. But the new Broncos should try to secure a regular kick off time for home games on a Sunday afternoon with a 3pm kick off. This will see amateur players from across the capital given the opportunity to see their nearest Super League side, and avoid the mass football pilgrimage that would happen on a Saturday afternoon. Attendances will increase and more revenue will be pocketed by the club. It will also keep heartland traditionalists happy keeping with their weekly Sunday afternoon rugby league fix.

From marketing point of view, it is very difficult to think of promotions the club hasn’t already tried with limited resources. But as the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd, and on field success is the vital key to attracting more fans and committed supporters. The club’s only noticeable success is reaching the Challenge Cup final in 1999, the final rugby league match at the old Wembley under the twin towers.

Nobody can question Rob Powell’s commitment, and evidence based upon the first five games of the season show he is well tactically minded and possesses an excellent rugby league brain. But his man management and knowledge of how to motivate a team came into question after his side were thumped 82-6 away to Warrington, and went onto win only two more games during the rest of the regular league season.

There is little doubt that the squad needs a revamp. Deadwood needs to be cast aside, and a glitter of high quality names need to be sprinkled in the side providing the club has the funds. Its wonderful to see Londoners playing at the highest domestic level, but adding the odd experienced high profile Australian can motivate the rest of the squad to live up to his standards. Players can learn off experienced heads both on the field and in training, and they themselves develop into better players that can mature into legends of the game themselves.

There is little doubt amongst the corridors of Red Hall that the spread of the game in the southern regions has come about thanks to the presence of a London based Super League team. The long term success of amateur clubs such as Hemel Stags and South London Storm echo the hard work the club has put into developing the sport at grassroots level. The foundations being built helped secure the £29.4 million funding from Sport England in 2008 based on participation figures.

But the journey from the M25 to the M62 is a long one, and not all noticeable achievements in the capital reach the ears of those who continually question the presence of rugby league in London. If it wasn’t for Super League in the capital, St Helens would not be graced with the presence of Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook. A player who has pulled on an England shirt and represented his country, LMS is a product of the Harlequins academy system having been born in Lewisham.

Gus Mackay could well turn out to be the saviour of professional rugby league in London. His fresh approach of engaging with fans and listening to their views will prove popular among the present set of die hard supporters. The hope will be that more Londoners will be attracted to the new Broncos brand, and a fresh dawn will shine upon Rob Powell’s men. More importantly, it will silence the northern flat cappers who strongly believe rugby league should be confined to the M62.


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