Rugby League: Broncos revival starts at Sunbury

London's under-achieving rugby league side are hoping that two Australian coaches can revive their fortunes. By Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online
TO THOSE of us who have only just got used to the idea of rugby league as a summer game it comes as a shock to the system that, before winter has really started, clubs should be preparing for next year.

Few have started their pre-season training earlier than the London Broncos, with under-achievement last season to get out of their system. If they succeed in doing so it will be a tribute to a remarkable collaboration between two young coaches who both wanted the job.

Out on a sports club pitch in Sunbury, occasionally used by London Irish's junior sides, Dan Stains and Les Kiss are already putting next year's Broncos through their paces.

Two Australians in their mid-30s, they were natural rivals for the role of head coach at London when Tony Currie ran out of time after last season's disappointments.

"Les was initially the front-runner for the job," says Stains. "He approached me about being his assistant. But, after a few days of discussing our philosophies, I told him `Look, I want the job'. In effect, I wanted his job, but he said he could understand that."

Stains, a famously tough and hard-working forward with Cronulla, Queensland and, briefly, Halifax, made his pitch to the Broncos and impressed them enormously with what he often refers to as his vision for the club.

"But the way Les responded showed me that he was the man I wanted to work with."

So both candidates are working side by side in Sunbury. "Dan's the head coach and I'm totally happy with that," says the former Kangaroo winger, who retired early with a persistent knee injury and worked his way through the coaching structure at North Sydney.

The theory is that the division of responsibilities between the two will play to Kiss's strengths.

"Dan will prepare the first-team squad, with me assisting, while I have a role with the other sides and a broader-based responsibility for grass- roots rugby league in London.

"It's understandable that most of our players now come from outside the area, but our image of the future is all about bringing through players from London."

That ambition is given practical expression by the way that the Broncos' most promising young southern-based players are already training with the imported professionals from Australia, New Zealand and the north of England.

Stains points to a young winger. "That's Wayne Sykes; he's lightning- quick and a first-grader in the making. He'll get an opportunity to show what he can do this year."

There are others, like Ed Jennings, a stand-off or loose forward originally from the Isle of Wight, and James Brooks, a scrum-half from Henley-on- Thames shadowing Shaun Edwards in training, who are also tipped to make the breakthrough this coming season.

Initially, however, much will depend on how well Stains and Kiss can mould together the mix of antipodeans and northern expatriates who will make up their first-choice team.

Edwards, never one to suffer with coaches he does not rate, is training with his full ferocity, although the Broncos would be happier if Martin Offiah's lingering foot injury would allow him to get out onto the training paddock more often.

Perhaps the most important test, though, will be how well Karle Hammond, a significant northern signing in his prime, settles in.

The Broncos see a symbolic as well as practical value in Hammond adapting well, on and off the field. The unwillingness of leading players from the rugby league heartlands to relocate to the big, bad city, has been one of the limiting factors throughout London's history.

The early Fulham teams got around that by bussing in whole sides; now, a signing like Hammond has to move his family to London. He has a house in Isleworth, is in the process of selling his home in Widnes and has trained hard enough to bring his weight down by half a stone in order to revert to his favourite position of stand-off next year.

And, as usual, there are the new Australian faces to get to know. This time last year the Broncos didn't even know who they were recruiting - something that contributed to their slow start; this time only the newly- signed Robbie Simpson, a second-rower from St George, is not in the country yet.

"They have come together more quickly than any group of players we have had," says the club's football manager, Trevor Howard, who has been organising the comings and goings for the last five years.

Stains and Kiss have put heavy emphasis on involving wives and girlfriends. "We have to have that sense of all being in this together," says Kiss. "We are still a pioneering club."

This year's new pioneers include players who should make an immediate impact, like the front-rowers, Darren Bradstreet and Dean Calloway from Illawarra and Greg Fleming, a versatile back who was a regular first-grader at Canterbury last season.

But it would please Stains and Kiss no end if the players we are talking about in a few months' time are among the young hopefuls working out with them this winter.