Storm's start is far from perfect

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The Independent Online

One thing rugby league is consistently good at as soon as it steps outside the mainstream is giving off conflicting signals. So, six days after the resounding success of taking the Challenge Cup final to Murrayfield, it was possible to watch the London Broncos playing one of their most attractive Super League fixtures of the season against Leeds in front of fewer than 3,000 people at the Valley.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was one that showed that the game can reach out beyond its heartlands. Amid Super League's loss of nerve over expansion, the Rugby League Conference has been a beacon of commitment to the cause, with four new clubs, including Kingston, Coventry and Rotherham, starting the competition's season.

The fourth of them, the South London Storm, are the most interesting case of the lot. Born of the amalgamation of two of the standard bearers of the game in the capital, Peckham and Bexleyheath, they play at Streatham and Croydon rugby union club, once the stomping grounds of one of the last of that code's cold warriors, Dudley Wood, and also close to the home turf of Mayor Ken.

Streatham and Croydon used to run 13 teams; now the grandstand has part of its roof missing and it is down to two sides, while the league cuckoos in the nest have more than 100 registered players, from under-10s upwards. The Storm's coach, Graeme Harker, admits they have ambitions to take over and become the prime providers of rugby in a multi-ethnic swathe of London.

A more pressing concern yesterday for a club fielding two Americans, a Frenchman and, in the second team on the adjoining pitch, a Moroccan, was coping with the Oxford Cavaliers, one of the best-organised teams in a competition that prides itself on sound administration. Unfortunately, that was where it all came unstuck, Oxford sweeping into a 24-0 lead in as many minutes.

The Storm slowed the flow after that and deserved a late consolation try from Dean Elliston, but still ended on the wrong side of a scoreline that left Lionel Hurst, the chairman of Oxford but also of the Conference, with divided feelings. "Oxford are an established side and it's asking a lot for a new club to match them," he said. "It looked so good in training," lamented one South Londoner. Mixed signals again.

South London Storm: D Walker; Abel, Love, Murray, Bruce; Keen, Mason-Ellis; Ward-Hastelow, Fields, Elliston, Critchley, McGawley, M Walker. Substitutes used: Jacob, Stewart, Smith, Harker.

Oxford Cavaliers: Lacey; Jordan, Fairhurst, Hicks, Aven; Flatman, Wilde; Skordi, Scargill, Nikora, Martoo, Truman, Millard. Substitutes used: Rushworth, Graydon, Lowson, Ross.

Referee: I Bates (Richmond).