Broncos' big move should pay off

London's itinerant rugby league club already feel at home after returning to The Valley from the other side of the capital
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The Independent Online

London's rugby league club has zigged and zagged across the city like a tube line with a natural sidestep, but this might be the first time it has felt that it was coming home. On Sunday afternoon, the Broncos will play their first game back at The Valley since deciding that their three seasons deep in rugby union territory at The Stoop were not really all that good an idea.

It has been a big move, involving shifting their players and their families, their staff and their gear from one side of the capital to the other. Their chief executive, Tony Rea, says it must also be their last. "There comes a time when you have to make a stand and say 'This is it'. If we have to move from here, I think I'll be gone as well," Rea says.

Along with the utility back, Tulsen Tollett, Rea is the one survivor from the Broncos' previous season at The Valley - the first of Super League and his last as a player. "I always liked it here from a players' point of view, but it has changed a lot since then," he says.

Indeed it has, in a way that reflects Charlton Athletic'supwardly mobile aspirations. Since the Broncos decamped, the Addicks have had a season in the Premiership and, barring a major collapse, they are going back there later this year.

The Valley has lost its Portakabins and sense of impermanence since the rugby league club last operated out of the stadium. It has all the facilities any sporting club could require and, crucially, the Broncos get a 50-50 share of match-day profits from the bars and food concessions.

That is a far cry from the situation at Harlequins, where the Broncos were tied into a contract that committed them to shelling out a hefty rent, but denied them any spin-off income.

"The big difference is that they want us here. I got here at eight this morning and was straight into talks with Peter Varney [Charlton's managing director] about how we can help each other. It was never like that at The Stoop."

Although south-east London is solid football territory, Rea has found it more receptive than Twickenham. The demographics are right; the population is younger, more working class, more sports-orientated.

The Broncos are doing their bit as well, with 24 of their players providing local schools with free coaching. Their mixture of players from Australia, the north of England and, yes, even west London are settling into the area.

They do most of their training just down the road and the sight of them commuting to and fro by bike creates an arresting image of a club at home in its new environment.

But the real test starts on Sunday. After a Challenge Cup defeat by Salford, in a tie played way over yonder in Kingston, and an opening Super League loss at Warrington, the Broncos come home this weekend for their second debut at The Valley.

Comparisons will be easy to make, if perhaps a little misleading. The announced crowd for their first home game in 1996, against Paris St-Germain - remember them? - was 9,638. By the last game of their tenure, against Castleford, it had shrunk to 3,500, although there were 10,000 there the previous week for Wigan.

It is a good example of sod's law in action that circumstances have conspired against them on Sunday. Not only are their visitors, Huddersfield-Sheffield, a difficult concept for Londoners to understand, but the Addicks have a vital promotion game at Manchester City earlier the same afternoon.

"It was a late change in the football fixtures," says Rea. "We tried all ways to get a big screen on the ground so that people could watch that and then watch us, but it couldn't be done."

In the end, the Broncos have put their kick-off back to four o'clock, so that Charlton supporters can watch their 1pm game at home and then come to the ground and see what the other game is all about. It's an unfortunate complication, but the encouraging aspect from Rea's point of view is that more than a few Addicks fans appealed to them to do just that.

In the longer run, local interest will depend largely on how the Broncos perform in Super League. Despite the recruitment of the most successful coach the game in this country has ever seen in John Monie and a squad that looks better balanced than last year's, early results have not been encouraging.

"But the upheaval of the move has had a lot to do with that," says Rea. "Now that we've settled in, I'm confident we'll be competitive.

"When you look at the history of rugby league in London, it has been a search for the right place to be based. Someone has got to bite the bullet and say that this is the right place."