Rugby League: Brisbane's capital investment in London: Broncos to spend big bucks on crusade to develop barren British territory. Dave Hadfield reports
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Wednesday 08 June 1994
The Broncos chief executive was not in the most cheerful of moods as far as domestic affairs were concerned. The idea that Brisbane's uninspired season would be turned around by winning the World Club Challenge had been dismantled by Wigan the previous evening.
There were plenty in Australia - especially south of the Queensland/New South Wales border - openly pleased to see the Broncos get their comeuppance. Likewise, there will be those in both hemispheres quietly delighted if the world's most powerful rugby league club makes a mess of its latest venture - the attempt to turn the London Crusaders into the London Broncos and into a major force in the game.
Ribot and the Broncos have never been shy about trampling on sensitive toes in Australia, but he is keen to correct some early misconceptions about his organisation's plans in London.
'There seems to be some impression that we think because we are the Brisbane Broncos, everything will fall into place for us automatically,' Ribot said. 'That couldn't be further from the truth. We know we have to start from scratch and earn the respect of the English game.'
When you see the mighty machine that the Brisbane Broncos have become, it is hard to keep in mind that six years ago they were starting from scratch in Australia.
Since then they have exceeded the most optimistic of expectations, becoming the best-supported rugby league club in the world and the most handsomely sponsored sports operation in Australia.
Gates have risen from an already healthy average of 16,000 in their inaugural season to 42,000 this year, fully justifying the decision to move from the atmospheric but cramped Lang Park to the elastic ANZ Stadium, built for the 1982 Commonwealth Games.
They have won Australia's one important competition, the Winfield Cup, for the last two years and they provide the backbone of the Queensland and Australian teams. In that context, a few domestic defeats and a beating by Wigan are mere hiccups.
All of which raises the question of why an organisation with so much going for it should put its reputation on the line by tackling one of the intractable problems of British sport.
The answer, according to Ribot, is the need for the Broncos to develop a global dimension if they are to continue to grow. The same can be said of their links with their NFL namesakes, the Denver Broncos, who will play a pre-season game at the ANZ next year and take part in player exchanges. Australia is no longer big enough to accommodate an infant as big and boisterous as the Brisbane Broncos.
Ribot, a Test wing a decade ago before he shaved off his trademark moustache and began to wear sharp suits, knows that he is starting from a very low threshold in London, with crowds numbered in hundreds rather than thousands.
'We know we are in for a long haul,' he said. The club is budgeting to lose pounds 500,000 in each of its first three seasons in the driving seat in London.
'The Broncos are all about winning,' he said, with the shock of the previous night still obviously in mind. 'But last night was also a classic example of getting the event right. You have to put on an event that people will enjoy even if their team loses.'
Ribot, whose French parentage gave him the playing name John Ribot de Bresac until he found it a little unwieldly for a rugby player, has a manager, Robbie Moore, and a coach, Gary Grienke, installed. There are, however, important details still to be put in place, not least where the restyled London operation is to be based next season.
This season's home ground, the Copthall Stadium in Barnet, is as far from the Broncos' image of a magnet for corporate involvement as it is possible to be, which is why Ribot has been thinking about that other river.
Fulham's ground by the Thames was part of the appeal of the mould- breaking London-based club of the early-Eighties that later lost its bearings in the metropolis.
'We have the option of going back to Craven Cottage,' said Ribot, who scored a try there against Fulham on the 1982 Kangaroos tour. His best advice is that, in terms of goodwill and geographic logic, that is the wisest thing the Broncos could do.
Their eventual plans extend to grander schemes, however. Within five years, they would like to be in a position to consider playing their home games at Wembley, which sounds outrageous but Ribot defends that as feasible.
'You have to set yourself targets. But we aren't kidding ourselves. We know we have to build from a base of 1,000 to 30,000 or 40,000 before we could do it,' he said.
It sounds like a bad case of the Australian dreamtime, but those who have followed the Broncos' development are less willing to dismiss it as fantasy.
'If this mob put their minds to it, there isn't anything they can't do,' said Tony Durkin, who has reported on the Broncos on and off the field since their inception.
'Anyone who underestimates them is a fool.'
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