Rugby League: Broncos' rocky route to stardom

London owe debt to unlikely cast of characters for chance to play in Saturday's Challenge Cup final
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The Independent Online
APART FROM themselves, nobody expects London's rugby league team to give Leeds many problems at Wembley on Saturday. The mere fact that they are there at all, though, is testimony to the way that relays of torch-bearers have defied the odds by keeping the flame alive.

When Richard Branson leads out the Broncos for the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final, he will be the latest and most recognisable of an often unlikely cast of characters who have sustained the dream of making the code a success in the capital.

It is a dream that goes back a long way - to Brigadier-General A C Critchley in 1933, just four years after the Challenge Cup final was played at Wembley for the first time.

Even allowing for the eccentricities of some of his successors, the Brigadier- General was an unusual rugby league evangelist. A former Canadian mountie and Conservative MP (not simultaneously), his other schemes included the introduction of cheetah racing to London.

He had the White City greyhound stadium on his hands, doing very little for most of the time, and acquired the Wigan Highfield club to play there. They did so for just one season, quite successfully in terms of results, before Critchley declared the experiment a failure and Highfield returned to a nomadic existence in the north-west.

Another greyhound man, Sydney Parkes, went one better by setting up two London clubs - Acton and Willesden and Streatham and Mitcham. The former lasted one season, the latter two, although they did create the first banner headlines for the code in London by signing one of the world's leading rugby union stars, the New Zealander George Nepia.

It was Parkes' failure to gain a greyhound racing licence - the main point of the exercise - that killed off Streatham and Mitcham. After they collapsed in chaos at the end of the 1936-37 season it was, for over 40 years, the end of professional rugby league in London.

It is difficult to recreate now the sensation that Fulham's arrival in 1980 caused. Rugby league had been virtually static since the War, with only the addition of Workington and Whitehaven from what was already a hot-bed of the game, and Blackpool from marginally outside the mainstream. Expansion had been a discredited notion; consolidation was the mind-set of the 60s and 70s and the code looked a more exclusively northern preoccupation than ever.

So when the Warrington director, Harold Genders, persuaded the Fulham chairman, Ernie Clay, to set up a rugby league team at Craven Cottage, it was not just national but world-wide sporting news. I can vouch for the fact that it was the back-page lead in The South China Morning Post. In many ways, that first season remains the best-ever for the game in London. Almost 10,000 were watching as Fulham, with a side of Northerners expertly led by their player-coach, Reg Bowden, beat Wigan in their inaugural fixture, and there were more than 15,000 present, setting a record that still stands, against Wakefield in the Challenge Cup.

Fulham were promoted twice and relegated twice. Clay, under pressure from a board that had hoped, like him, to make money for the football club, pulled the plug in 1984.

A couple from Maidenhead, Roy and Barbara Close, and the first player Fulham had signed, Roy Lester, emerged as the club's saviours. Most of the players had moved on as free agents and a new team began life at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, an uninviting venue if ever there was one.

The club soldiered on in even more reduced circumstances at Chiswick Polytechnic's ground - surely the only one in the history of the game with a miniature railway behind the stand - and almost closed for good in 1986, only the players agreeing to appear for nothing against Huddersfield enabling it to fulfil its fixtures.

Supporters virtually ran the club the following season and a shifting cast of characters, including two high-profile overseas coaches in Ross Strudwick and Tony Gordon, somehow kept it alive into the 1990s, by which time it had been back to Crystal Palace, changed its identity to the London Crusaders and settled at Copthall Stadium in Barnet.

These had been years full of drama, defiance and recrimination, but the biggest upheavals were still to come. Prompted by the then chief executive of the Rugby League and - whatever else he might have done right or wrong - London's staunchest ally, Maurice Lindsay, the Brisbane Broncos bought the club, re-named it and moved it to The Valley to take up its guaranteed Super League place.

Alarmed by the cost of the venture, they were relieved in the end to pass the baton to Barry Maranta and then on to Branson. But, when he steps out at Wembley, Branson will represent all his predecessors, competent and incompetent, honest and devious, wealthy and bankrupt, who somehow kept the show on the road.

If this is anyone's final, it is theirs. And that cheetah racing could still work.

n With acknowledgement to Touch and Go: A History of Professional Rugby in London (London League Publications).

RUGBY LEAGUE: SPREADING THE WORD: LEAGUE'S PIONEERING CLUBS

FULHAM

Founded: 1980. (Became London Crusaders in 1991; London Broncos in 1994).

Achievements: Second Division Champions 1982-3; Super League Runners- up 1997; Challenge Cup finalists 1999.

Prospects: Despite the efforts by hosts of believers over almost two decades, still struggling to win mass acceptance in capital.

CARLISLE

Founded: 1981. (Merged with - in effect absorbed by - Barrow in 1997).

Achievements: Promotion (with team of imported veterans) in first season. Life generally a struggle thereafter.

Prospects: Some amateur activity still going on. Possibility of international matches at Carlisle United in next year's World Cup.

CARDIFF CITY

Founded: 1981. (Became Bridgend in 1984; folded 1985; a different club, South Wales, competed in 1996; unsuccessful Super League bid from Cardiff consortium in 1998).

Achievements: Never quite letting the idea of a top-flight club in South Wales die.

Prospects: Another Super League bid in the pipeline.

KENT INVICTA

Founded: 1983. (Relocated to Southend 1984; folded 1985).

Achievements: Provided a route into the English game for overseas players of the calibre of Gary Freeman and Mark Elia.

SHEFFIELD EAGLES

Founded: 1984.

Achievements: Division Two Champions 1992; Play-off Winners 1989, 1992; Challenge Cup Winners 1998.

Prospects: Well-established and highly-competitive club, but still find it hard to attract the crowds their success deserves.

PARIS ST-GERMAIN

Founded: 1996 (Folded 1997).

Achievements: Giving European Super League a short-lived European dimension; avoiding last place in both its seasons.

Prospects: Any future franchise in France is more likely to be in the South.

GATESHEAD THUNDER

Founded: 1999.

Achievements: Winning four of first seven games in Super League.

Prospects: Team capable of reaching the top five and an administration which is in for the long haul, but some desperately disappointing crowds so far.

AND THE REST...

Other non-RL towns and cities which have hosted professional sides over the last two decades are Mansfield, Nottingham, Scarborough and Preston. None still has a professional team.

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