Rugby League: Branson to bring out the best

Dave Hadfield expects a new dawn to rise over London's rugby league team
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The Independent Online
The London Broncos could hardly have chosen a tougher proposition for their first match under new management than this afternoon's Visa World Club Championship quarter-final against Cronulla at The Stoop.

In the week that has seen Richard Branson take over as chairman of the club, the Broncos have to measure themselves against arguably the second- best club side in the world. Under Branson, London themselves aspire to becoming the best in the world. Today will show them, despite their wonderful feat in coming second in the European Super League and in beating Canberra in the WCC, how far they have to go.

A risk is certainly attached to giving 20-year-old Giles Thomas, a former schoolboy rugby union scrum-half from Worcester, his full debut in such demanding circumstances. Alternatively, the Broncos coach, Tony Currie, could have moved Tulsen Tollett or Robbie Beazley to scrum-half. "But that would have meant weakening another department of the side and we have a lot of faith in Giles," said Currie.

London were privately furious at Bradford revealing the signing of Shaun Edwards during the build-up to today's game. But his departure - and that of Josh White - leaves one position that is a clear priority for recruitment over the close season.

There has already been an approach to Noel Goldthorpe, a talented and creative player who is now so far out of favour at the Hunter Mariners that he was not even brought to England for their WCC commitments. But he is reluctant to leave Australia. The Broncos are also likely to lose Tony Mestrov and Russell Bawden, who are both homesick for Oz, while Tollett is already committed to a long-term contract to play for Harlequins.

On the brighter side, Martin Offiah and London's player of the season, Peter Gill, have both signed new, two-year contracts. But there is plenty of rebuilding for the Branson regime to finance before next summer. The Virgin boss was reluctant to wave wads of money and declare it would be no object when his takeover was announced in midweek, but there is no denying the Broncos now have top-flight financial muscle - as well as first-division promotional flair - behind them.

It will be a busy summer of comings and goings, and London are likely to be active participants even though many northern players still have an instinctive fear of life in London.

Branson's persuasive powers - as well as his money - will be invaluable as London set out to top-load a squad that is already rich in promising local youngsters. His involvement in this particular sport probably baffles a lot of his neighbours in Holland Park, but personal enjoyment of a project has always been one of his business motivations.

Besides, for a relatively modest outlay a man such as Branson can instantly become a big player in a sport which is short of generous benefactors and sugar daddies. Almost regardless of what happens this afternoon, there are exciting and enjoyable times ahead for him and his chosen team.