Broncos bucking the trend

RUGBY LEAGUE'S NEW HORIZONS: Australian influx threatens to raise London's status, as Dave Hadfield reports, while below, an England internationa l mines South African potential
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The Independent Online
This is a critical time in the London Broncos' battle to establish themselves as a successful part of the capital's sporting scene.

Although they announced this week that Charlton Athletic's ground at The Valley is to be their home for the remainder of this season and their first in the Super League, it is in two stadiums on the opposite side of London that the more immediate dramas will be played out.

Tomorrow they meet Halifax in the third round of the Regal Trophy at The Stoop. Eight days later, there is talk of a full house at Brentford for the visit of Wigan in the league.

These are exciting, if sometimes confusing times in the chequered history of rugby league in London, this chapter of which began when Fulham set up shop at Craven Cottage in 1980 and continued when the Brisbane Broncos took over an ailing club two years ago.

Even Barry Maranta, who sold up his 25 per cent of the Brisbane Broncos and now owns 75 per cent of the London operation, admits that it has been tougher than he imagined to get this far.

"We have offered six-figure sums to soccer clubs and they haven't wanted to know," he says. "But now that we have got a real home at The Valley, we can get out into the streets and the schools and tell people about it.

"Once people come to the games, it's very easy to make them converts. Getting publicity in London is a struggle, partly because rugby union occupies a place in London's mentality that I don't think it deserves.

"But we will do it. We got the Brisbane Broncos up from 3,000 to 44,000 and we will be marketing very heavily on the difference between our game and other games."

Maranta's best marketing tool is the expansive style of rugby that the Broncos have been playing. Since they brought in a crop of Australian players several notches up from the usual London blend of back-packers and lower-graders, they have produced some dazzling displays.

A gifted young pair of half-backs from Brisbane, Leo Dynevor and Ben Walker, have been highly influential, but perhaps the one signing that shows that the Broncos really mean business is that of Paul Hauff.

To call Hauff an imposing player would be an understatement. He is 6ft 8in, fast, agile, has played full-back for both Queensland and Australia and, at 25 with much of his best rugby in front of him, has thrown in his lot with London rather than carrying on with Brisbane.

"Yes, they are exciting times here, and the next couple of weeks are the best chance we'll have of getting a big audience," he says. "It's very important that we perform and get the right results. People always like winners."

It is the star quality of players like Hauff, Walker and Dynevor that can not only make London winners, but winners with plenty of style. "We play a very entertaining sort of game," Hauff says. "In fact, we only know one way to play and sometimes it can catch us out. But it depends on the type of players you have. We've got blokes with a bit of flair and they just want to throw the ball out all the time."

That can create all manner of opportunities for a rangy giant like Hauff chiming in from full-back, and it brought him no less than eight tries in his first four games for the club. "I've had a bit of a drought the last couple of games," he says. "Other teams watch the way you play and start to read what your play-makers are doing. As a runner, I rely a lot on those players."

From a players' point of view, Hauff welcomes the news of a permanent home, even if it represents something of a horror drive from his house, shared with two other Broncos, in Edgware.

"We will start to get some home advantage now. So far, every game has been like an away game."

Their nomadic existence has taken the Broncos into some strange places, of which tomorrow's venue for the last of their games at the Harlequins' ground must be, given the history of the two codes, the strangest. It gave them, Maranta says, a chance to take their invigorating brand of rugby to a new audience, the players and members of one of rugby union's most pukka clubs.

"Much as they wouldn't like to admit to it, they were fascinated by the way we play the game," he says.

"John Gallagher, who used to play for us and is now with Harlequins, told us that they were wincing every time a big hit went in. They don't have anything like that in their game.

"We're confident about the attractions of our code. We know it's better than that rubbish against South Africa last weekend. We want to be compared and contrasted. We welcome it."