London's high life

Dave Hadfield finds the Broncos out to set new standards against Saints tonight
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The Independent Online
Out in west London, there is a stamping of hooves and a flaring of nostrils as the Broncos prepare, in their new setting, to live up to the standards they set themselves last year.

The London Broncos' fourth place in the inaugural Super League season was a big triumph; a victory for the club's distinctively Australian self- confidence in the face of all the hurdles in its way. But it does mean that anything less, in their first year at the Harlequins' ground in Twickenham, will be considered a failure.

"We have to be as good or better," admits their coach, Tony Currie. That is a demanding standard to set, as the Broncos are likely to find out in their opening Super League fixture against the champions, St Helens, tonight.

Currie thinks that London will benefit from their top four finish last season, in the sense that referees will no longer subconsciously categorise them as likely losers when they meet another top side. That is the theory and Currie and his captain, Terry Matterson, believe that it was borne out by their two Super League matches against St Helens last season, both of which the Broncos lost in controversial circumstances. "We deserved better than to lose both of those matches, so we have a point to prove this time," said Matterson.

Whether they have a team capable of doing so is another matter. Some key contributors to last season's success have gone and newcomers are still bedding into the side. Josh White and Paul Smith are two who need to show their worth today, but Matt Dunford, the experienced former Manly prop who was one of the winter's big signings, is kept on the bench by the form of Russell Bawden.

The Broncos also have the services - at least on a part-time basis - of Martin Offiah. The most prolific try-scorer in recent rugby league history trained with the side for the first time this week, but still leads a split existence.

Next weekend, for instance, he will play for London at Warrington on Friday night and then for his union club, Bedford, against Rotherham in the Courage League on Saturday. That is apart from collecting his MBE insignia from Buckingham Palace on the Friday morning.

Offiah says that four months in union, seeing relatively little of the ball on the wing, have sharpened his appetite for league. Free now of the toe injury that hampered him in his early games for London last year, he should be able to produce the potent finishing that the Broncos expect from him.

"You can see in his attitude at training that he is jumping out of his skin," said Currie. "He lets the younger blokes catch up with him and then he just goes away from them. He's still got it."

What Offiah might also have soon is the company of his closest friend in his Wigan days, Shaun Edwards. Wigan are likely this week to release Edwards from the remaining two years of his contract on compassionate grounds. His girlfriend, Heather Small from the pop group M People, is expecting their child any moment now; she lives in London and Edwards does not "want to be the sort of father who doesn't tuck the baby in at night".

Adding Edwards's still magisterial powers as a scrum-half to Offiah's try-scoring potential would take the Broncos further in the direction they need to go. They will never become a fully accepted part of the London sporting scene while they are still staffed almost exclusively by Australians and even though they are doing excellent work in developing local junior talent, the only way they are going to get more British players into their side in the short term is by gritting their teeth and venturing into the domestic transfer market.

That goes against the Australian culture, but the club is perhaps realising that what works in Brisbane does not necessarily work here. Their continuing wanderings around the capital are a case in point. Anyone who had spent more than a long weekend in London could have told them that Charlton was the wrong place for a rugby team, but they fondly imagined they were back in Brisbane - a city small enough for anyone interested to seek you out, no matter where you are located.

Geographically, they have got it right at The Stoop, even if they are still feeling their way there, uncertain of how they fit in. The potential for healthy crowds is there, but only if the Broncos match last season's achievements by showing that they can compete on even terms with the big boys.

Bradford's stunning demolition of Warrington on Friday night in the season curtain- raiser provided an early indication of the size of London's task.

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