‘It’s going to be tough’: rugby league’s London future looks uncertain
Rugby league is about to enter a new era, with a reduced broadcast deal with Sky Sports likely to result in restructuring and a reduction in the number of professional clubs. Some will fold and the sport will look different: and nowhere is that change is being more keenly felt than in London.
Rugby league’s relationship with the capital since the formation of Fulham in 1980 has been a tempestuous one. For every success, there has been a setback. But the news that London Broncos would revert to a part-time model in 2022 is a defining moment for the game’s future in London. With no full-time presence, the ramifications could be grave for a sport already struggling to make an impact in the city.
“I was pretty devastated when I heard the news,” says Danny Ward, the former Broncos coach who left midway through this season. Ward helped London achieve promotion in 2018 against the odds, before narrowly failing to keep them in the top flight the following season. Since then, there has been an undoubted regression for the Broncos, typified by their decision to concede defeat and move away from a more expensive full-time model.
Attracting players to compete for promotion to Super League, Ward feels, will instantly become more difficult. “Part-time clubs in the north can put strong squads together and given how much more expensive it is to live down here in London, there’s not a chance those players would come to the Broncos for the same money. I’ve always felt a part-time model could never work here because you can’t offer as much. It’s going to be tough.”
The Broncos are preparing to leave their base in Ealing to move in with AFC Wimbledon at Plough Lane next year. It is yet another ground switch for a club that has had a nomadic existence, failing to properly lay down roots. “I think people need a bit of transparency from the club about what the plan for London is,” Ward says. “Where do they want to be in two years, and five years? London should be in Super League, but they’re going to have to earn it the hard way now.”
Promotion in 2022 will be an afterthought for the Broncos; their priority will be ensuring they are in a position to be still in the professional game the following year. The expectation is that only 20 of the existing 37 clubs will be in a position to claim central funding from the Rugby Football League in 2023, with Super League and the Championship likely to revert to two divisions of 10 teams. That means next year London must make the top eight in the Championship to stand any chance.
A failure to do so would be damning for the RFL’s strategy in London: if, indeed, they actually do have one. But beyond that, reduced investment means a further cull of the Broncos’ junior development system, which has produced a number of England stars. “They run a fantastic programme there, and the goal of being a full-time professional rugby player is a big draw for lads who don’t make it in union or elsewhere,” Ward says.
“Will kids view it the same way now there isn’t an avenue to full-time rugby in London? There’s more opportunities to go off and do things, and it could really impact what type of players the Broncos can attract.”
It is that outlook which has prompted a shift in mentality across the city. London’s other professional club, the Skolars, have struggled this year in League 1, the sport’s third tier which could find its entire existence under threat in a financially smaller sport.
Their coach, Jermaine Coleman, will move to the Broncos in 2022, but he feels he leaves a legacy behind to build on for the entire city. “We’re missing a trick in London and it’s there for all to see,” he says. “It’s the most multicultural city there is, and we’ve tried to tap into those communities this year. I’ve got Caribbean, Filipino, Nigerian, Zimbabwean and Greek players all in my squad. We’ve struggled on the field, but we’re laying some foundations.”
Coleman, a teacher by day, also sees the sport’s problems at ground level. “There are so many communities desperate to pick up a sport and we don’t tap into it, we don’t integrate with these people,” he believes.
“We’re so closed off as a sport with our thinking. I’m forever getting kids at my school asking if we can get a rugby league coach in, but there’s nobody to do it. A decade ago, there were 10 community officers in the city. Now there’s two or three.”
Coleman and Ward both agree that with both clubs now part-time and shopping in the same limited pool of local talent, the challenges will only intensify for rugby league in the capital. The RFL has always taken credit for its role in the talent stream which has emerged in London but if that is fair, the sport’s governing body must also carry some of the responsibility for what is happening now.
Rugby league can ill afford to lose any presence anywhere in the country, but a professional game without a healthy London club would be the very definition of regression for a sport that faces a nervous future.