Broncos brave enemy territory

Andrew Baker sees London's rugby league nomads drop in at the Stoop
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The Independent Online
THIS is the year - World Cup Year - in which rugby league has tried to put itself on the map. The international squads were dispatched to Wembley and Wilderspool, to Vetch Field and the Gateshead International Stadium. And the London Broncos did their bit to spread the word by fluttering around the postal districts of the capital like a demented cuckoo, looking for a nest to call their own.

Their latest flight, on Wednesday, took them to a perch that until recently would have seemed outrageously unsuitable for their species: the Stoop in Twickenham, home of Harlequins Rugby Union Football Club.

The match against St Helens was yet another geographical challenge for the Broncos' faithful fans, who in recent weeks must have studied the A to Z with more dedication than a novice London cabbie. The club's perpetual wanderings have been forced on them by conflicting fixtures at their several current home grounds. Given the choice, they would probably wish to settle at Charlton: but the Valley was not available on Wednesday. Eventually, after much head-scratching, Broncos executives decided to further break down the barriers between the two codes of rugby.

The Broncos' initial contact with Harlequins was made through their public relations agency. When the first response was positive, officials from the two clubs entered into a lengthy haggling process before the deal was finally done. "They gave in in the end," Dick Best, Harlequins' director of rugby, revealed. "They were desperate."

The Stoop seemed to fit the Broncos and their supporters like a glove. The official attendance was 1,500, which was surely too low: there was not an unfilled seat in sight, and supporters stood three deep.

It was a cosmopolitan crowd. Women in City suits discussed the joys of the dual-income family ("It's so important not to be beholden to your husband") while large Bronco-shirted males shouted abuse and encouragement to their team in harsh south London accents. The celebrated camaraderie of the code applied as Saints and Broncos fans stood happily together to watch the game.

The Broncos lost the match, and the unbeaten "home" record that they have carried with them around the capital. But the scoreline was 34-50, and the crowd saw 15 tries, one fewer than Harlequins and their opponents have managed in four fixtures at the Stoop so far this season. Dick Best was impressed. "It was very entertaining," he admitted. "Lots of movement and action, good value for pounds 8." But he remains unconverted. "I suppose rugby league is a bit like basketball - whoever gets the ball should score."

The Broncos were delighted with the warmth of their greeting. "I was very impressed with the Harlequins people and their attitude," said Neil Robinson, a police sergeant who has followed the team throughout their history and is now their match-day co-ordinator. "I didn't meet a single person there, from the chairman to the hot-dog man, who wasn't happy to see us."

Trevor Howard, the Broncos' administration manager, was similarly upbeat. "The pitch at the Stoop was superb," he enthused. "When we went out to have a kick-around we thought they had left off one of the lines, there was so much room behind the in-goal line. It was quite a contrast with the soccer pitches that we're used to."

The dimensions were right, the atmosphere was great, and the natives were friendly: is the Broncos' search for a home over at last? It seems not. "The Stoop is lovely," Trevor Howard said, "but it doesn't meet some of the Super League criteria: there has to be a minimum amount of covered seating, and the Stoop doesn't have enough."

Howard pointed out that the atmosphere at Charlton was every bit as good, although this may have been wishful thinking: he has to take the flak from the fans for the ever-changing venues. "I have two explanations," he admitted. "I tell them that I pick them by throwing a dart at a map of London left-handed, and this time I missed all the soccer pitches . . . . The other is a conspiracy theory: I say that we are on a secret mission to dig rugby-post sockets on every soccer pitch in the capital."

Nostalgia is an essential part of the rugby league experience, and while London fans may not have the long uninterrupted heritage of their northern brethren, they still look back on their recent history with affection. "Without a shadow of a doubt," Sgt Robinson recalled, "the best atmosphere we ever had was at Fulham in the early years. It was a home-grown side with no money, but those were our best years for me."

Once the Broncos finally find a home, their best years will surely lie ahead of them. Perhaps, with a little building work, they could move in at the Stoop. "Summer rugby would be good news," Dick Best said, adding a little wistfully: "I wouldn't mind seeing Wigan here."

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