Celebrating 40 years of professional rugby league in London | Super League

London Broncos are celebrating their 40th birthday this week, making them old enough for a mid-life crisis. If truth be told, the club has never been far from crises, but they are still here and that deserves celebrating. London’s only full-time professional rugby league club has experienced most of the future-on-a-knife-edge moments now threatening the existence of their 21st century counterparts, Toronto Wolfpack. Created by wealthy people in an exciting city with little rugby league history and only a few dozen amateur participants, the Wolfpack should have learned plenty from the Broncos’ story.

In 1980, Warrington director Harold Genders, a former Rochdale and Widnes scrum-half, was dismayed by the lack of coverage of the Challenge Cup final in the London media. He managed to convince Fulham FC chairman Ernie Clay that he could have a team competing in rugby league’s top division for just £500,000. With the Cottagers struggling on and off the football pitch, Clay bit. Genders resigned from the Warrington board to become managing director of Fulham Rugby League Club.

Fulham were voted in by 26 of the 29 clubs on 26 June 1980. Genders rapidly signed up a squad and footballer Malcolm McDonald was enrolled as the public face of the new operation. The club had nothing – no balls, posts or kit – but they did have a place in the second tier. This was major sports news. Fulham were the first new professional rugby league club since Cardiff in 1951 and the first southern team since Streatham and Mitcham had folded in 1937. The game had shrunk back into its shell, but Fulham thrust it into an exuberant expansionist era.

With uncanny similarities to Toronto’s approach, Genders recruited a cluster of curious top-flight veterans who were keen to experience something new in the twilight of their careers. At a time when wages were low but transfer fees were key, Genders spent £100,000 of Clay’s money, announcing a new signing every few days. But as Toronto were to discover decades later, once other clubs realised Fulham were spending their way into contention, they stopped lending a helping hand. Asking prices spiralled.

Genders spent £25,000 on influential half-back/coach Reg Bowden, who was followed by a string of other Widnes old boys, a recruitment plan seemingly being replicated by 2021 newcomers Ottawa Aces. There was logic to it. In a model also copied by the Wolfpack, Fulham were not based in London: they trained (two evenings a week) at Golborne Sports Club in Lancashire, 208 miles from Craven Cottage, but five minutes’ drive from Genders’ house. That meant an eight-hour round trip from Swansea for Welsh winger Adrian Cambriani, one of only three rugby union converts (attempts to sign Leicester’s newly capped England centre Clive Woodward failed).

On the mornings before their home games, they met at the Greyhound pub in Leigh and took a coach down to what is now the Hilton London Watford (Alan Partridge fans will recognise it as the Linton Travel Tavern). After lunch they would cross the A41 to train on Otterspool Way playing field. They drove the rest of the way to Craven Cottage on the morning of the game and would head straight back up the M1 after the final whistle. In retirement, John Risman moved to South Kensington, just 15 minutes from the ground. While he was playing for the club, he lived 333 miles away in west Cumbria. At least the drive home gave him a chance to catch up on some sleep before he started teaching again on Monday mornings.

Fulham playing rugby league at Stamford Bridge in May 1983. Photograph: Hugh Hastings/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

In an uncanny echo of Toronto’s problems earlier this year, Fulham spent a lot on transfers yet had so few players they could not risk injuries in friendlies, so went in cold for their opener on 14 September 1980 against Wigan, the recently relegated giants of the game. They got off to a flier, romping to a 24-0 lead before a late Wigan consolation. The press loved it.

Just as eye-catching as the scoreline was the attendance figure. Among the 9,554 who descended on the Cottage – twice what Fulham got in those days in the Fourth Division – were a string of stars from sport, TV and entertainment. League devotees travelled from Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire. They had to be there.

Like Toronto, Fulham found thousands of sports fans attracted to a new team in town, league virgins smitten at first sight. Many have been in love with the game ever since. Few knew who the players were but they still took them to their hearts. Huge, balding prop Ian van Bellen, who had just won the title with Bradford Northern, became a cult hero, christened “The Dutchman” by an appreciative Cottage crowd unaware of his West Riding roots.

Nearly 13,000 fans saw Leeds visit for a John Player Trophy tie on a miserable November afternoon; more than 15,000 watched them play Wakefield in the Challenge Cup; and almost 12,000 saw a friendly against newly crowned champions Bradford on the eve of the cup final, a precursor to London Skolars’ now annual Friday Night Lights. The proof that Londoners will watch a rugby league event – not a run-of-the-mill game – was as evident then as it is now. Never again would that many watch a London club play a home game.

By the time promotion was sealed, Fulham were averaging attendances of more than 6,000. The impact they had on away attendances in the division was extraordinary. Eight Division Two clubs had their biggest gate of the season against Fulham. With a tiny staff (just a kit man, administrator and timekeeper-cum-cook) and a weekly wage bill of just £900, there was a bewildering and misleading moment when rugby league looked a potential goldmine to struggling football clubs.

Directors from Southend, Bolton, Charlton and Tranmere were at the first game and others saw a report on Match of the Day. Within two years, the RFL had new clubs at Cardiff City and Carlisle United, with interest from many other Football League clubs.

Of course, it didn’t last. Fulham’s Dad’s Army team soon broke up. They were relegated immediately, bounced back at the first attempt, but spent the next dozen years in the lower divisions. After evolving into London Broncos in 1994, they spent 20 seasons in the top flight, yet never matched the average gate from their debut campaign. It seems miraculous that any club whose record league attendance is from their very first game should reach the age of 40.

Fulham ran into a 24-0 lead againstWigan in their first match in 1980.
Fulham ran into a 24-0 lead against Wigan in their first match in 1980. Photograph: PA

The Ship of Theseus paradox – better known as the tale of Trigger’s brush – may question whether it really is London RL’s 40th birthday. All team sports fans accept players, managers and kits changing every year, the club badge now and then, even the emotional upheaval of moving home. But throughout a fan’s life, their club’s name and colours – their primary identifiers – stay the same. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it, standing and cheering for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.” Not the Broncos. They have had four names (including London Crusaders and Harlequins RL), about eight sets of colours, and 11 ground moves. No wonder all but the most ardent London fans drifted away.

And yet rugby league in London has somehow survived. Before Fulham, the longest any club in new territory lasted was five seasons (Ebbw Vale from 1907 to 1912). Since Fulham, you can count the number of clubs who have lasted five years on one hand.

After last year’s heroic effort in Super League, the Broncos are back in the second division, producing more top-flight players than any other club who number home fans in the hundreds. But at least they have made it to middle age. For that, all southern league fans should be extremely grateful. Genders, who died in 2016, would surely have been chuffed.

Foreign quota

Last Wednesday morning, Catalans Dragons were fifth in Super League. By Thursday they were top, without playing a game. On Saturday night they were back to fifth having lost to Wigan in their grand return to Perpignan, watched by 5,000 fans. Welcome to the continually crazy world of Super League, where the change to win-percentage rather than points total to decide the table could lead to a snakes and ladders finish to the season.

Credit to Super League, the clubs, and the RFL for their flexible approach and early decision-making. The new system goes some way to ensure no club is at a disadvantage if more games are called off and unable to be rearranged. However, it does raise the question as to why so many rugby league players are testing positive for Covid-19 compared with football. The lack of club bubbles and a lax attention to the rules by some players could explain it.

Clubcall: Devon Sharks

The 2019 South-West Conference champions decided to pull the plug on the season and abandon training last week when it became clear that their debut in the Southern Conference League was going to have to wait until 2021. Having just moved from Bovey Tracey to Exeter Saracens, the Devon Sharks will be back next spring, when the National Conference League will also restart. Meanwhile, relaxed regulations were allowing training and matches between local teams this autumn, providing the opportunity for district leagues and cups to get up and running again.

Goal-line drop-out

Next week, registered fans can buy tickets for next year’s World Cup (from 21 September) with the desire to sell 750,000 tickets clearly reflected in the prices. They range from £2.21 for children and £10 for adults to see a group double-headers in the wheelchair or women’s tournaments, right up to £121 for seats presumably next to Harry and Meghan at the Old Trafford final. The elasticity is impressive. With most games starting at £15, everyone can get a ticket for a couple of hours’ pay, whether they are on minimum wage or millionaires. The public ballot opens on 23 October.

Fifth and last

One of Warrington or St Helens will see their double dreams disappear next Saturday when they meet in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals. Title-chasers Wigan will fancy seeing off inconsistent Hull, while Leeds should be too good for entertainers Hull KR, as should Catalans for Salford in Friday’s double-header.

Due to a series of walkovers and byes, it’s the first game in the competition for Saints, Warrington, Wigan, Salford and Leeds, who would reach the final with an unprecedented two wins. The RFL are desperately hoping fans will be able to attend the semi-finals on 3 October and have plans for at least 20,000 at Wembley on 24 October. Don’t hold your breath.

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