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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aaron Bower

Broncos pin London’s rugby league future on move to leafy Wimbledon

Jude Ferreira of London Broncos scores a try against Widnes Vikings at Plough Lane, Wimbledon
Jude Ferreira of London Broncos scores a try against Widnes Vikings at Plough Lane, Wimbledon. Photograph: Prime Media Images/Alamy

Times move fast in professional sport and no club understands that more going into the new season than London Broncos. The lingering question of how rugby league captures the attention of many in the capital almost had the answer nobody wanted last summer with London’s flagship club flirting with relegation to the third tier, League 1, for the first time.

A Super League without London? Not ideal. But no London club in the top two tiers? Unthinkable.

Thankfully, the Broncos secured safety in the Championship and no sooner had that happened than IMG suddenly declared London as a major player in the global media company’s vision for the sport as it embarks on a 12-year plan to redefine rugby league.

“We’re not saying London for the sake of it because it’s London,” IMG vice-president, Matt Dwyer, said in December. “We’re saying it because there’s a future here and what we’ve seen suggests it. When we looked at the data, you took the names off the cities and looked at participation, interest and a few other metrics, London was at the top. There’s a sleeping giant here.”

Few people share that belief as fervently as Mike Eccles, who took over London midway through last year and steered them to safety. Eccles is, by his own admission, an accidental coach. He joined London as a fitness trainer a decade ago, rising to director of rugby and first-team coach. He is now keen to do the one thing London Broncos have never quite managed: lay some foundations for long-term stability.

“I was only meant to do the job on an interim basis for four weeks but I’m excited to be leading this rebuild and rebirth of the club,” Eccles says. “I’ve heard all the things about London’s potential from IMG but nobody has a divine right to have a seat at any table. They’re saying the game would be better with a strong London in the top flight and I agree with that. But we’ve got to get people excited about London rugby league again.”

After a nomadic existence since their formation in 1980, Broncos hope they can finally settle in their latest base. Their list of grounds reads like a London cabbie’s night shift: Fulham, Crystal Palace, Chiswick, Barnet, Twickenham, Charlton, Brentford and Ealing have all been home. Next stop to lay down some roots is the somewhat unlikely leafy suburb of Wimbledon – better know for tennis’s grand summer affair – after moving into AFC Wimbledon’s Plough Lane.

“It’s an outstanding stadium for rugby league,” Eccles says. “I’m not sure there’s many better in Super League, and certainly not in the Championship. We had great infrastructure at Ealing but you could never top a crowd above 3,000 because of the size of the ground. Now we’ve got a facility to push for a big future and we’re surrounded by boroughs and areas where we can tap into junior rugby and boost our growth.”

Plough Lane in Wimbledon
Plough Lane is an ‘outstanding stadium for rugby league’, says Mike Eccles. Photograph: Tom Pearson/ProSports/Shutterstock

The facilities at Wimbledon will play into London’s favour when IMG awards its initial gradings for club licences later this year. That will replace conventional promotion and relegation, but on-field success will also play a part. Eccles has assembled a squad with a core of London-produced talent as Broncos aim to recover from the financial implications of the pandemic, which hit them hard.

“When we were relegated from Super League in 2019, the parachute payment was swallowed up completely by Covid a few months later,” Eccles says. “Then the following year, you don’t get another parachute payment so you’ve gone from a couple of million quid funding to, in comparison, pure pennies. We’re talking £1.5m losses at least.”

Since their first relegation from Super League in 2014, London have spent eight of the last nine seasons in the Championship. They are now a part-time club as they aim to stabilise after a turbulent few years.

“We’re just trying to put things in place to benefit the club long-term,” Eccles says. “We had to strip things back last year to start that process and we maybe went too far, because we almost got relegated. But we’ve attracted some more investment and we think we can do well with what we’ve got on the field and off it at Wimbledon.”

London also continue to invest heavily in their academy, with much of the squad that start the Championship season against Batley on Sunday produced by the club. Most Super League outfits have at least one London-born player on their books, too.

“We’re at around 50% of our squad that are homegrown, but it’s all on merit, not because they were born in London,” Eccles says. “I believe our junior programmes are as good as any in the country, on par with clubs like Wigan and Leeds.”

And after coming so close to collapse last year, what constitutes success this season for Eccles? “Improvement,” he says. “It’s a long-term approach we’re taking now and if we have a rapid rise and get promoted, brilliant.

“If we’re marginally better than last year, great. But I sense the appetite for rugby league in London. It’s still here. For the first time in a while, things are moving in the right direction. We’ve got to get some bums on seats, and the hard work starts now.”

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