These are wildly contrasting – even contradictory – times for rugby league in London.
Today at Wembley, there will be the biggest ever World Cup crowd outside a final to see the most important game so far in a tournament that has been hailed as a huge success, when England play the holders, New Zealand.
A few miles away, the club that has been the senior professional presence in the capital for the past 32 years could be receiving the last rites. The London Broncos have announced their intention to go into administration. They have no ground for next season, hardly any players and a reservoir of goodwill that is almost drained dry.
It is as far from the mood of celebration that surrounds the World Cup – at least until the Kiwis get hold of England this afternoon – as it is possible to be. It is a contrast that goes to the heart of the game’s troubles in this country.
On the one hand, its central administration is solvent and can, when it puts its mind to it, put on a show like the one we have enjoyed for the last month. On the other, a steadily increasing number of clubs, among whom the Broncos are just the most extreme example, are broke and unviable.
The Broncos hope that talks with Barnet Football Club will come to fruition, but there are no guarantees.
It is remarkable timing for them to step towards the edge of the precipice in the same week that the game will demonstrate a real national profile. Of the 65,000 tickets sold for today, a high proportion have been bought from addresses in the south; those fans just cannot be bothered with a franchise as moth-eaten as the Broncos.
News of the impending administration came the day after next season’s Super League fixtures were published, with the Broncos included. Timing, again: a bit like six Super League clubs walking out of a meeting to discuss structural change on the eve of the World Cup. The game certainly knows how to complicate a feelgood factor.
Even if England beat the Kiwis today– even if they win the World Cup next Saturday – it will not solve everything, but it will be an exceptionally brave effort at papering over the cracks.
New Zealand represent a formidable obstacle but the England coach, Steve McNamara, should be congratulated for having the courage to make major changes when the circumstances demand them.
He revealed at Wembley yesterday that Rangi Chase’s reaction to being dropped was to ask to be released from the squad this weekend, to spend time with his heavily pregnant partner.
“He wasn’t picked and people deal with that in different ways,” McNamara said. “There’s no issue between him and me. Rangi has been very good for this team for a long period of time.”
McNamara is now convinced that Gareth Widdop’s very different style of half-back play is what is needed against the Kiwis. “Gareth is ideal for the game we want to play this week,” he said.
New Zealand are without the menacing bulk of Manu Vatuvei, a player who has always given England trouble, on the left wing, but instead they have a stealthy poacher of tries in Jason Nightingale.
They also have the most talented player in the tournament in Sonny Bill Williams – a player England must on no account stand back and admire.
Williams was named yesterday as one of three players on the short list to be International Player of the Year. The other nominees are Danny Brough, the English-born Scotland scrum-half, who was frozen out of England contention by McNamara, and Australia’s Greg Inglis.
Many wish that Brough was still wearing a white shirt with an irregular red cross at Wembley this afternoon, so the nomination announcement is yet another case of perfect timing.
Inglis, meanwhile, moves from centre to full-back for the injured Billy Slater in Australia’s semi-final against Fiji, the match that forms the second half of the double-header.
Fiji have improved steadily through the tournament, but if they were to beat the Kangaroos it would be one of the game’s biggest ever shocks.Reuse content