Mike Eccles determined to deliver London vision despite Super League odds being stacked against Broncos

Ben Olawumi
Mike Eccles

London Broncos Director of Rugby & Performance Mike Eccles at the Super League 2024 season launch - Alamy

Born and bred Leigh lad Mike Eccles, London Broncos’ Director of Rugby & Performance, is a self-confessed southern rugby league convert, and has grand plans to harness the club’s Super League opportunity in every possible way.

Having spent more than a decade in the capital with the Broncos, Eccles masterminded their shock promotion up from the Championship last year, overseeing a squad largely built on local southern talent.

After an inconsistent start, the Broncos won nine of their last 12 regular league games last year to earn a place in the play-offs with a 5th-place finish.

Next to nobody outside the camp had given them so much as a prayer, but wins at Sheffield Eagles and runaway league leaders Featherstone Rovers set up a play-off final in the south of France against Toulouse Olympique.

Oncemore, they did it the hard way, scoring 14 unanswered second half points at the Stade Ernest-Wallon to run out 18-14 winners, booking a return to Super League for the first time since 2019, when they were relegated on the final day of the campaign by the virtue of points difference alone.

Eccles was involved that year, then the club’s Head of Performance, and his faith in the ability for the 13-a-side code to succeed in the capital has never wavered.

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London Broncos Director of Performance & Rugby Mike Eccles: The southern rugby league convert

Love Rugby League spoke to the 38-year-old earlier this month at the Super League season launch in Manchester, where all eyes from a Broncos perspective were on their opening game of the campaign – a trip to the reigning World Club champions St Helens tomorrow night (February 16).

Labelling himself an ‘adopted southerner’, Eccles explained just why he had to be converted to see the value London – as a city and a place – could hold for the game.

He said: “I’m a Leyther, and I’m very proud of that, but I’ve been down there (London) for 11/12 years now and my kids have southern accents.

Mike Eccles
London Broncos boss Mike Eccles ahead of a pre-season game – Alamy

“All the family laugh at them when they come back up north, which is quite funny, but London’s my home and I’m just so passionate about London rugby league.

“I wasn’t a believer before I came down. I was kind of in that Leigh bubble – Leigh (then-Centurions), Featherstone and Sheffield in particular were probably the ones that felt most aggrieved about London because of the licensing and promotion/relegation being shut off.

“I think they were probably the three best teams, so being from Leigh, I was always getting told off my dad, ‘London this and London that’, ‘they don’t get crowds’ or ‘it’ll never take off down there’.

“But then when I went down and saw it for myself, you very quickly realise that it’s magic, and this could be huge. I’ve just become engrossed now in trying to make it work.”

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Mike Eccles determined to deliver London vision despite Super League odds being stacked against Broncos

This year, the tables have turned for London, promoted just as the game’s IMG era really begins.

Given a lowly initial grading, the chances of them surviving the cut come the end of the current campaign, regardless of how well they’re able to do on the field, appear very slender.

Owner David Hughes in fact recently released a statement publicly suggesting that IMG should re-consider their criteria for grading clubs, slamming the system that’s been put in place to demote teams with little influence based upon on-field showings.

But regardless of how much they’re up against it, both on and off the field, Eccles insists he will continue to help the club grow organically, with opportunity provided to those who were involved in last year’s success.

Having already revealed to Love Rugby League at the start of pre-season that the club’s top-flight squad would contain part-time players, he re-affirmed: “Last year for London Broncos and London rugby league, there was so many good stories, and I don’t think there was many bigger than that one, us getting promoted with me as the only northerner involved.

“To get promoted on merit with around 70% (of the squad being) homegrown was honestly magic, and I don’t think there’s many teams doing that.

Iliess Macani
Tottenham-born academy product Iliess Macani was London Broncos’ top try-scorer in their 2023 promotion season – Alamy

“What do the best clubs do? Well the best clubs produce a lot of players, and they don’t block their pathway. They clear a pathway for them, help them, develop them, nurture them, and build around them.

“That’s what I want to do with London, so no matter what happens this year, I want to continue that. I want to continue promoting players from within, and hopefully build the club around our own players.

“As a technicality, we don’t have an academy, but we still do in essence. We still have a reserves, and it’s basically an under-19s team with a few overage players in there.

“We’ve improved the way we develop those players, we’ve improved the way we coach development, and that’s key for us down there in the capital with having probably less of a rugby league IQ down south in general.

“It’s important that we get as much rugby league IQ into our coaches as possible to relay onto our players, and that’s still my passion. It’s the club’s passion, we’ll produce our own players, and I don’t just want that to be a throwaway comment.

“I want to promote them, I don’t want to block their pathway, I want to give opportunities and I want to keep it London-centred.”

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Broncos ready to fill final quota spot as Eccles delivers recruitment update following numerous injury blows

Clubs promoted up from the Championship have always found it a struggle to adapt to life in Super League, hence why so many have plummeted straight back down solely based on their performances on the pitch.

But while those challenges are always there, it would appear that for London, the task has become an even steeper uphill battle with the injuries they’ve already had to deal with in pre-season.

Homegrown talents Bill Leyland (ACL) & Lewis Bienek (ankle/fibula) will miss all – or at least the majority of – the campaign, while fellow academy product Alex Walker is sidelined for at least the first month of the season.

Joining them in the treatment room is off-season recruit Josh Rourke, who broke his leg in a pre-season friendly against League 1 outfit Oldham.

Eccles admitted more bodies may well be needed shortly down the line, as he said: “We’re four or five long-termers down at the minute, but the plan was always to do the pre-season trials and have a look at where we’re most efficient before I recruit.

“The issue is that it keeps evolving and moving, the goalposts keep changing because we’re getting injuries in different areas. I’ve just had to step back and say, ‘right, with the injuries taken into consideration and the efficiency in the team, where is that money best used? Where is that final quota spot best used?’ We’re pretty close to making those calls now.”

Emmanuel Waine London Broncos Alamy
Papua New Guinea international Emmanuel Waine is one of London Broncos’ overseas stars – Alamy

Only seven overseas stars are allowed in a Super League squad, with London still having one of their seven spots free after the signings of ex-Hull KR man Rhys Kennedy and Italy international Jack Campagnolo.

Eccles insists it would’ve been a simpler task to use those quota spots for Super League stalwart, but that isn’t the London way, certainly not with their homegrown talent ambitions.

He continued: “We brought in a few lads who would take up quota spots last year, but you obviously don’t really have to have your eye on that side of it in the Championship (the quota).

“But I’ve got quota players now who have never played Super League, and people might say ‘more fool you for doing that’, but those players got us promoted and I want to make sure that those players are with us in Super League.

“Regardless of whether we’re in Super League or the Championship, they’re still with us, because I want to keep developing those players. It’s a bit of a challenge, because naturally for London, it’s almost easier to recruit from overseas than it is northern players.

“The Australians and Kiwis probably embrace coming over to London more for a year or two, whereas I know myself more than anybody when you come down as a northerner, you’ve got one eye on getting back north, and that’s not good.

“Most of the time, you’re not buying into it the same, you’re always thinking about needing a gig back up north in a year or two, so that means you’re not really investing in the team. It has been a slightly different challenge for us to take into consideration, but we’ll get the balance right.”

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‘We have to increase fandom, that’s a matter of fact, it’s what IMG want’

Part of the grand plan to increase rugby league’s success in the capital is a simple thing, at least on paper – to get more eyes on it.

Of course, with the introduction of Super League+ and various international broadcast deals, the simple fact of the matter is that more people will be able to watch the Broncos from afar.

But that isn’t enough for the club, or for Eccles, whose passion to get more bums on seats at Plough Lane, the ground they share with football club AFC Wimbledon, is there for all to see.

So far this football season, Wimbledon – in Sky Bet League Two following relegation last term – are averaging attendances just shy of 8,000.

In comparison, the Broncos’ average home crowd was just over 1,000 in the 2023 season. That wasn’t helped by having to play a handful of games away from Plough Lane due to scheduling issues, with their other venues last year including Ebbsfleet United’s Stonebridge Road Stadium and Rosslyn Park FC’s ‘The Rock’.

London Broncos
London Broncos in action against Widnes Vikings at Plough Lane in 2022 – Alamy

With more stability, the hope is to see that figure of 1,000 – eventually – sky rocket, with the aid of more travelling fans this year, and the ability for locals to watch southern lads they can relate to.

Eccles told us: “It’s massive (for us to have a permanent home). We have to increase fandom, that’s a matter of fact, it’s what IMG have said.

“On field, we got promoted last year which will help fandom naturally, with all the glitz and glamour that comes with being in Super League including the high-profile players that will come down to Wimbledon, that will all help.

“Seeing elite level rugby league in this country back in London is huge, and we have to make sure that we take that opportunity.

“The stadium (Plough Lane) is fantastic and we’ve got Super League rugby at Wimbledon now, it’s just a fantastic opportunity for us as a club.”

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Eccles says ‘not much has changed’ for him since promotion as he opens up on close-knit relationships with Danny Ward & Jamie Langley

While all the talk is on how London’s side will fare this year, there must be some discussion – very much of a positive nature – surrounding Eccles.

Not many men stick with one club for as long as he has, joining back in 2012 as the Strength & Conditioning Coach, being promoted onto the Head of Strength & Conditioning role and eventually Head of Performance in 2016.

Holding similar roles at Salford – then-City Reds – before making the move to the capital, Eccles’ efforts behind the scenes were rewarded with a step into the head coach’s role – albeit not in title – following the departure of Jermaine Coleman in May 2022, when the Broncos sat in the Championship relegation zone.

38-year-old Eccles told us: “My role obviously is head coach, even though I have another layer on that, but at times it’s not something I’ve really thought about too much.

“It’s when you come to events like this that you realise what’s going on, but we’re massively process-driven in terms of what we do, and we try not to put the outcomes in front of what we’re doing, so whether we’re in Super League or the Championship, it won’t affect how we prepare the players.

“We should have the right integrity to prepare the best we can every day, and go and get the best out of ourselves, so not much has changed in that respect.

Mike Eccles, Ryan Sheridan
London Broncos boss Mike Eccles shares a joke with assistant coach Ryan Sheridan ahead of a pre-season game – Alamy

“It’s going to be magic to be at the best grounds in front of big crowds again given all the profile that goes with it, but not much has changed from my side.”

This will be Eccles’ first crack at heading up a team in Super League, but it’s not a competition he’s new too by any stretch of the imagination having twice experienced relegation from the top flight with the capital club.

2019, already mentioned, was the most recent of those when Danny Ward was the man at the helm. And Ward remains a close contact now, as Leyther Eccles detailed: “I make no secret of it, my best mates in the game are Danny Ward & Jamie Langley.

“We had a great relationship with all of the performance staff when we put that together in 2018/19, that era.

“I’m still always on the phone to Langers, he remains a very good friend even though he’s back up here now living in Altrincham, we’re still very close.

Wardy’s now working at Hull KR, so I can’t ring him as much being in the same division! They’re obviously not from my neck of the woods in Leigh, but those are the main two, my adopted Yorkshire friends, they’re the two I lean on the most.”

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