Broncos striving for Super touch

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The Independent Online
SLOWLY and unsteadily, the side which must establish rugby league as part of the London sporting scene, if any ever will, is taking shape. The London Broncos, thrust into the Stones Centenary Championship for this transitional season to prepare them for Super League membership in March, have shown few signs so far of being prepared.

Heavy defeats at Warrington and Halifax were followed by a creditable performance in a 26-16 loss at Bradford last week. The way the Bradford Bulls were jeered by their own crowd at Odsal, however, shows what the public expects when the Broncos are in town; they expect them to be beaten, and beaten handsomely.

It does not become any easier this afternoon when the Broncos go to Wigan, who are already galloping clear of the field. It is a match with considerable resonance. As the newly-published history of professional rugby league in London, Touch and Go, reminds us, it is 15 years since Fulham played their inaugural match, against Wigan and in front of almost 10,000 people, at Craven Cottage.

That Wigan were in the Second Division in 1980 and lost that match demonstrates how far they have come in a decade and a half. The voyage of Fulham, later the London Crusaders and now the Broncos, has been more turbulent. Most people will have lost count of the number of times they have almost gone out of business without the book to jog their memories. All that was meant to be over when the mighty Brisbane Broncos took over, but there has been no magic wand in evidence so far - and certainly no transformation that would make them competitive in the Super League.

It will happen gradually, says London's chief executive, Robbie Moore. Week by week - or Qantas flight by Qantas flight - the side is looking stronger. Two newcomers, the former Manly hooker David O'Donnell, and the South Queensland Crushers loose forward Chris McKenna, made an immediate difference at Bradford last week and this week's new arrival is the South Sydney prop Tony Mestrov.

It is only when the parent club in Brisbane finish their Winfield Cup commitments, however, that the dramatic changes will take place, with players of the calibre of the Australian international Julian O'Neill, and the vastly experienced forward Terry Matterson, flying in.

The Broncos' first "home" game of the season, against Leeds next Sunday, is at Brentford's Griffin Park, which has the merit of being near league's west London roots but which is not regarded as a possible permanent home. Candidates for that role include the nostalgic - Craven Cottage - and the grandiose - Wembley - although Moore's favoured strategy now is for a part-share in a humbler ground.

Meanwhile, London will continue to play most of their matches at Copthall Stadium, in Barnet, which is more accessible from the M1 than it is from most of the capital. Playing at the right place is the key to the Broncos' credibility. Those who have stayed loyal to them throughout their history may be feeling a little wistful today about that afternoon at Craven Cottage 15 years ago.

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