Rugby League: Broncos hit by division

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Brisbane Broncos, until recently the most popular team in Australia, are defying the accepted logic of professional sport. The more they win, the smaller their crowds this season. Not even a lengthy winning streak at home and a position on top of league can protect the Broncos from the mood of despair that now engulfs the game in Australia.

Two years after leading a mass defection of clubs to the rebel Super League, the Broncos have become victim of the bitter divisions they helped create. Against Rupert Murdoch's expectations, the Australian Rugby League has refused to capitulate, frustrating his ambition to own the country's only rugby league competition. The game has suffered endless months of recrimination, leaving the rival leagues in a mess and prompting supporters on both sides to walk away.

Two months ago, sensing the urgent need for peace, not to mention a massive loss in income, both sides entered talks aimed at unifying the sport again next season.

But a breakdown in negotiations this week prompted a widespread belief that rugby league could be mired in an irreversible decline.

"I fear that our future is not looking too good. The business world is not interested in rugby league at the moment because of the divisions," said the former Australian captain and current Canberra Raiders coach, Mal Meninga. "Our support down here at the moment is pretty ordinary," he added.

The former ARL chairman Ken Arthurson, who led the fight against Super League before retiring on health grounds in March, has no sympathy for the Raiders, and even less for Brisbane. "I think the Broncos' greed got too much for them," he said. "They were making very good money (before the split) but they wanted to make more."

Merchandising, sponsorship and television ratings have collapsed, while players' wages have spiralled as the rival leagues entered a bidding war to secure the best talent.

"If there isn't peace, the clubs won't survive financially." said the Broncos' co-founder and stern ARL critic Paul Morgan.