Rugby League: London lose their innocence on their last crusade: Dave Hadfield on the metamorphosis taking place after tomorrow's Second Division Premiership final

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The Independent Online
IT IS the end of an era for London Crusaders tomorrow, as they lose their name, their coach and their record of never reaching a final during their stormy 14-year history.

Next season, the club that started as Fulham in a blaze of publicity in 1980, will be known as the London Broncos. Tony Gordon, the former New Zealand Test coach who has been the latest in a long line of caretakers trying to keep the wolf from the door, will be elsewhere.

And London, who so narrowly missed promotion, could have the consolation prize of being Second Division Premiership winners.

Even by their turbulent standards, this has been quite a season for rugby league's flagship in the capital. They have moved home, come closer than ever to going out of business, gone almost as close to the First Division for the first time in 10 years, and have been taken over by the most successful club in the world - the Brisbane Broncos.

Gordon is being replaced by a Brisbane coach, Gary Grienke, and it remains to be seen how many of the players who have taken London to the final against Workington Town at Old Trafford will still be around next season.

If, as seems probable, Gordon finds another club to coach, the former Kiwi captain, Sam Stewart, is likely to join him, while the hugely talented scrum-half, Mark Riley, also wants to move north.

'I want to get away from London myself,' Gordon said. 'You never get to know your neighbours here.' Failure to agree terms with the club's new owners was perhaps a more compelling factor, but no one can deny that Gordon has done a good job this season.

Despite a run of three defeats in four matches, when the club's failure to pay its players added to the general level of uncertainty, London missed promotion by a single point. They took three points from tomorrow's opponents and eventual champions, Workington, and it would have been four and promotion had John Gallagher not missed a drop goal in the drawn match between the two sides in March.

That misfortune should not detract from Gallagher's contribution. After his unhappy three years with Leeds, he has settled down in his native London, where he is also a development officer for the code. As a goalkicker, he is second only to Wigan's Frano Botica this season and Gordon praises his general play.

'We like to get the ball wide and with John, Andre Stoop, Mark Johnson and Scott Roskell we have plenty of pace and finishing power.' Stoop is Namibian, Johnson a South African and Roskell an Australian, all of which emphasises London's continued reliance on imported players.

'Nobody is quite sure what the Broncos' policy will be next season,' Gordon said. 'There has been talk of them investing heavily in top British players, but I think the main emphasis will be to send their own players out here to get some experience.'

The dangers of that strategy were underlined when the Broncos, alarmed by their own poor start to the Australian season, called back the first two players they had hived off, Victor Timms and Leo Dynevor, after a short stay with London.

'I was offered them back for the final, but I told them thanks but no thanks,' Gordon said. 'I'll stick with the players who have been doing the job. The team has really come of age towards the end of the season. The blokes have started to understand what they need to do and, if we hadn't had all that financial trouble, we would have gone up without any doubt.'

As it is, the London Broncos will be a Second Division club with First Division financial backing next season. Their aspirations are sky-high - they have even spoken fancifully of using Wembley as their home ground within five years - but, more immediately, they need to find a ground for next season which will enable them to carry on the corporate hospitality that is a key facet of their plans.

Wherever that new home might be, there is, as London will demonstrate at Old Trafford tomorrow, already a team worthy of it.