Broncos seeking instant response

Dave Hadfield follows the signs to rugby's Super League which gets under way this weekend
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The Independent Online
"We are going to have to get some signs up here," said Barry Maranta, surveying the streets of Charlton. "You get directions to a Russian submarine, but not to our ground."

It would indeed, as the chairman of London Broncos indicated, be easier for a stranger to find the submersible moored nearby on the Thames than The Valley. The Broncos signs will go up, but it is the first few weeks of the Super League season, which begins this weekend, that will be the pointer to whether the capital's rugby league club will sink or swim.

London, upon whose ability to survive and thrive much of the credibility of Super League rests, begin their campaign with a demanding trip to Halifax on Sunday, before starting their home programme against the other great imponderables of the new competition, Paris, next Thursday.

By then, the game as a whole will have a much better idea of the Broncos' potential. Maranta is unequivocal about the make-or-break nature of it all. "If it doesn't work now, it never will," he said.

No club has welcomed summer rugby more enthusiastically than London. Indeed, according to the affidavit that the European Super League chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, tabled in Sydney recently, the club was unlikely to have carried on if that revolution had not come to pass.

In the summer, they firmly believe, they will attract bigger crowds than they have so far lured to The Valley, not merely for a match but for an afternoon of entertainment, but they will first have to break down the psychological barrier that separates them from large numbers of potential supporters in south-east London.

It might be only 20 minutes from Charing Cross, but it might as well be on another planet in the minds of many Londoners. "Once we get people here, they will come back. The game has a very high conversion rate," Maranta said.

In order to convert enough people finally to make rugby league in London a commercial success, however, the Broncos must both entertain and win. Last season, it would have been a harsh critic who called their matches dull, but the Broncos finished on the wrong side of high-scoring contests on too many occasions. This time, a new Australian coach, Tony Currie, hopes to retain the spectacle while adding some steel.

"I'm not rethinking the priority that is placed on entertainment," said Currie, a top-class centre with Queensland, Australia and - for two seasons - Leeds in his playing days. "But I'm stressing that for 50 per cent of the time, when you haven't got the ball, the game is about defending. In the past, the Broncos have sometimes got lazy over that."

"But we will still throw the ball around," he said, casting an eye over the broad acres of what was once the biggest club football ground in England. "End to end and sideline to sideline."

The tougher streak that the Broncos need alongside that commitment to expansive rugby is epitomised by the club's major new signing, the powerful and punishing prop forward, Gavin Allen. He is earmarked as the enforcer that the side has lacked and younger forwards, like Tony Mestrov and Darren Shaw, are already relishing the prospect of playing with him.

Allen, a force in Queensland's State of Origin series victory last season, will make his competitive debut for the Broncos at Thrum Hall on Saturday evening, along with three other new Australian recruits: Greg Barwick, John Minto and Tulson Tullett.

The player the Broncos have chosen to spotlight this week, however, is the one Englishman in their opening match line-up, Junior Paul, a winger from nearby Blackheath, who turned up to pre-season trials last year.

Paul played one match for the Broncos' first team in the winter season, a self-confessed nightmare against Sheffield, but London have shown faith in him, both for his own potential and for his symbolic importance as a precursor of the club's long-term strategy.

"There are thousands of potential players out there," said the Broncos' chief executive, Robbie Moore, of the metropolis the club must try to woo. "Junior now has the benefit of having worked with the team and feeling much more a part of it. He knows now he will get all the help he needs."

Paul, a quietly-spoken 24-year-old, squirming slightly under the pressure of others' expectations, is a willing learner. "I tend to listen to anything anyone at the club tells me," he said. "I've only been in the game a year and they have been in it since they were kids."

The Broncos' reserve side won promotion in the Alliance League last season and they launch an Under-19 Academy side this time, mainly composed of young Londoners, leavened with a couple of scholarship players from Australia.

But it is on the performances of the big boys - very big boys, in Allen's case - that the viability of the Broncos and of Super League as a whole hinges. They have much going for them, not least landlords at The Valley with experience of exile themselves who are solidly behind the enterprise. But the coming months will determine whether the club is ever to reach the heights to which it aspires.