The Interview: Tony Rea - The Bronco bucking the trend

League's visionary missionary in hostile territory is driven by his faith. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
TONY REA'S day began at seven and he was still at his desk 12 hours later. In between, he had settled one player's contract, held a meeting with his development officers, overseen training in preparation for today's home game with Huddersfield, put the finishing touches to the strategic plan for the new millennium and chaired the weekly meeting of the Broncos administrative staff. He would deflect the notion that the London Broncos has become a one-man rugby league team, but his colleagues at the regular Super League meetings regularly ask if there is anyone else at the club.

It is a fair bet that he's the only chief executive who has donned a tracksuit this year or whose mind can profitably and legitimately drift off into the land of defensive systems and tactical formations while wrestling with the details of the new television contract. A man of many parts is Tony Rea, and in his dogged pursuance of a vision for the future of rugby league in London, one of sport's true stalwarts. Not many put their love for a sport so clearly on the line every hour of the day.

There is no doubt, in Rea's mind, that the dream of a thriving rugby league team in London will be fulfilled. Maybe not next season or even the one after that. But he can see the day when the "house full" signs are posted outside the Stoop memorial ground - or wherever the Broncos have laid their hat - and the warmth of the capital city's acclamation is expressed in accents more Pimlico than Parramatta. If enthusiasm, persistence and a sheer downright refusal to admit that any other sport exists on the planet are factors in the equation, then the problem is as good as solved. But what gives Rea a better than even chance of success, what marks him out from his predecessors, is his acceptance that he has to reshape a sporting culture, not just put on a good show and wait for the crowds to roll up. It must still feel like hoeing in the Kalahari on some days.

Whatever your stance on the particular beauties of rugby league, the survival and steady progress of the Broncos remains one of sport's most endearing stories. Remember the days of Kent Invicta? Probably not. London has proved a tough market to crack. The big city likes the big time; Broncos took 15,000 fans with them to the Challenge Cup final in the spring, but only a fifth of that number are regulars at the Stoop. But the experiment of transplanting sports across the country's greatest divide has survived through the past two decades and emerged healthily enough in the converted executive suite No 21 beneath the main stand at Harlequins.

Rea should take much of the credit for the brief glimpses of stability. A Queenslander who helped turn around North Sydney, captaining them for seven years before he moved to the Broncos in 1994, he clearly relishes a challenge. But the extent of his commitment has been tested to its limit since the dismissal of Dan Stains, the coach who guided the Broncos to the Challenge Cup final.

When Stains left, the victim of player unrest and his own inflexibility, Rea was asked by the board to add the responsibility of head coach to his original job spec. If Broncos lost on a Sunday afternoon, that would be another problem stacked up in Rea's in-tray. When he accepted, a friend dropped him a note: "Congratulations, Tony, you do twice the work for the same pay and you'll make half the friends." Right on the button, says Rea. "But it was genuinely not about me," he says. "I'm doing this for the club's sake. The board felt they needed some continuity." And he took some of that message with him on his 10-minute commute from his makeshift office down the A207 past the twin speed cameras to the training ground. In the 74-12 defeat which sealed Stains' departure, Rea detected not just the collapse of the critical relationship between coach and team, but a deeper loss of identity.

"I let the players know what the Broncos are all about, I let them know who they're representing and why. It's hard with the Broncos whether you're trying to sell something to the people or the players. At most clubs, a core of players have a natural affinity with that club almost from the time they put on a nappy. But there's not a player who's grown up saying 'I want to play for the Broncos'. The culture has to be established and I'm definitely very strong on that. Those are our colours out there, that's what you are, now go out and play."

In the long term, a concept not often embraced by London league clubs, the key is the development of local footballing talent. In his mid-morning meeting, Rea hears from Phil Jones and Dave Evans, his development officers, of progress in the 17 secondary and 12 primary schools targeted by the Broncos. Signed football cards, personal appearances by the players and by Buck the Mascot, a cashback incentive scheme in which the schools benefit financially from the sale of 20 tickets or more, anything to propel sceptical kids into league's orbit.

A database of 900 "hot leads" shows how painstaking the club's marketing has to be. "We're looking at a new generation of supporters coming through," says Rea. "The best way is to allow them to touch the game, feel it and enjoy it. It's always the follow-up that's the problem, but if those schools don't come to a game, we're doing something wrong." Success is measured in small ways; in the fact that 70 per cent of the kids at training camp this summer had forsaken their Manchester United shirts for Broncos tops. But time is not on the their side.

In five years, Super League clubs will be limited to six Australians and the Broncos, heavily reliant on imported talent, need to be ready to stand on their own feet. Their academy side are competitive, but short of proper competition in the south; their 23 trainees are promising but raw. "Everyone wants a quick fix, everyone's got an idea of how to do this, but it just needs continuity," he says.

Rea's own future will be decided in the next few weeks. One of his disguises will be discarded, probably the tracksuit, though his record of won seven, lost five is credible enough. "I'll do what's best for the club," he says. "It's genuinely not about me, about protecting me and my life. It's up to the owners, Richard Branson and David Hughes, they're the ones investing in the club. There's no way I can continue like this. Players get time off, the coaches get time off, I have to come back and start another job again. At the moment, I'm flying on adrenalin."

Today, the visit of the league's stragglers present its own problems. Rea has a niggling suspicion the Giants might spring a tactical surprise or two and he will emphasise caution in the dressing-room beforehand. On match days, he is the coach first, the chief executive second. The glad-handing of sponsors has to wait, but during matches his mind can wander to thoughts of gate figures and marketing ploys.

It has been a momentous season for the Broncos, one way and another, for Rea, not least. "We'll get the job done," he says. "I know what we're aiming for and I know exactly how we're going to do it, but I still yearn for the day when I sit watching the Broncos in a full stadium."

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