Broncos buck the trend

Andrew Baker is part of a record rugby league crowd in south-east London
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The Independent Online
THE South London Press billboard outside the Valley on Thursday night had a reassuring message for the locals: "Don't panic says Charlton boss". Most of south-east London appeared to have taken Alan Curbishley at his word, treating the much-trumpeted arrival of the Super League with equanimity.

In fact the only people taken by surprise when the London Broncos took on Paris St- Germain were the box-office operatives. The biggest crowd to watch a league match of rugby league in London for 15 years, 9,638 people, showed up, and the Broncos' front office were overwhelmed. Quite a few fans were still outside when the game kicked off.

Those temporarily excluded had missed the pre-match entertainment, one of the defining characteristics of Super League. There was nothing particularly super about Thursday's musical stars, Squeeze, who last had a hit around the time that Wigan were being regularly beaten. They sang one of those hits, "Take Me I'm Yours", which came with the subtext "Take us, we're all you're going to get", and signed off by shouting "See you in the First Division!", which suggested either that they hadn't looked too closely at the programme or that they didn't think too much of Charlton Athletic's promotion prospects.

What else makes Super League any different from plain old rugby league? Fireworks and figures of fun - no, not Maurice Lindsay, but a berk in a Bart Simpson costume, there to remind anyone that might have forgotten who was bankrolling the evening's entertainment.

The fireworks, two socking great roman candles, greeted the players, who took the field to loud acclaim and warmed up around the roadies who were dismantling Squeeze's sound system. All was ready, bar the most important part of the jigsaw. Then Mike Stephenson, "Stevo", the High Priest of Super League, scrambled up a ladder to his appropriately lofty perch, and the game could begin.

Oh yes, the game. It can be difficult amid all the hype and razzmatazz to remember the point of it all, and for the first few minutes the much- transplanted players of London and Paris seemed to have suffered a collective attack of amnesia. They had a ball, that was for sure, and they remembered the shape of it from somewhere, but they could not for the life of them work out what to do with it except drop it.

The crowd, by now fully installed, did not mind a bit, cheering every Bronco foray forward. Eventually, after 18 minutes, Kieren Meyer found his bearings and sprinted in to score in the corner, to a roar that threatened to lift the roof off Charlton's nice new stand. The Broncos have been looking for a home for many years, and now that they have finally found one, their fans were determined to let the neighbours know that they were there. They were loud.

This is more than can be said for the followers of Paris St- Germain, who were either very few or very quiet. When Patrick Torreilles registered the French team's first score with a penalty it was to total silence. Seventeen thousand fans watched their opening fixture at the Charlety stadium outside Paris, but there was no aural evidence that any of them had travelled to London to support their team. And if they can't make it to London, what chance do they have of finding their way to Workington?

The geographical problem facing the London fans was locating a beer at half-time, another area in which the Broncos appeared to have underestimated demand. One barperson, no matter how polite or how swift with the change, is not going to satisfy a grandstand-full of thirsty rugby league fans.

The game was not as one-sided as the crowd, but although Paris came within four points of the Broncos at 22-18 halfway through the second half, the London team stretched away again to win 38-22. It was the perfect result for promotional purposes, just as Paris's first home win had been six days earlier. What good fortune the fledgling Super League has enjoyed.

Off the field, they have made their own luck, and the marketing splurge seems to have paid off. The Broncos' commercial manager, Nigel Walters, reported that the club shop had sold 200 replica shirts on the night, "and the crowd were baying for more".

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But an unbiased vox pop in the supporters' club bar revealed overwhelming approval of the Super League experience, even among those who had not previously seen a game of rugby league.

Joanne Stevens, from Essex, was one initiate. "I thought it was excellent," she said. "I really enjoyed it, much more than I thought I would." Now, with the help of her friend John Gregory, a league fan, she was going through the programme, poring over the pictures of the players and identifying her favourites. What had she thought of all the nonsense beforehand, the fireworks, Squeeze? "I loved all that. That really made it for me." A fan is born.