On Saturday, the Spirit of ’99 died, ruthlessly butchered by some Warriors from the North. With it went the London Broncos’ season and, barring a miracle next year, top flight professional rugby league in the capital altogether.
The scale of Wigan’s victory in the Challenge Cup semi-final – 70 points to nil – suggests such a miracle is unlikely. The impending return of promotion and relegation to Super League will most likely see London sink out of the top tier, replaced by more traditionally rugby league towns like Sheffield or Featherstone.
The question now is, what does all this mean for rugby league in London? Maybe, in the long term, it will prove a blessing. I’ve heard some say that playing in a lower division – in whatever new format the RFL decides to implement – will allow London to compete more. This will bring victories, victories will bring fans, and fans will bring the money needed to make it at the top level. Elsewhere, the boys at South West London Chargers reckon London leaving Super League will make the amateur game stronger, bringing it more media focus and sponsorship.
I’m not so sure. London can certainly compete now with the best of the Championship, but they’ve got something those teams don’t – Super League prestige and, more importantly, money. Without that, the Broncos are unlikely to hold on to top players like Kieran Dixon, who will surely seek to remain in the Super League with more money and more exposure. Without them, who’s to say they’ll be even close to fighting for promotion back to the top.
As for media coverage, this is even less convincing. It’s only really the dedicated rugby league press who cover anything below Super League, and obviously their audience is already aware of the sport. The national press, with their pathetically small sports-writing staffs, can only focus on Super League, internationals and the later stages of the Challenge Cup. London’s fall will bring little in the way of expanded media coverage.
The thing is, I’m not sure this really matters. The idea that league has to ‘do’ London, and ‘do’ London by having a professional team there, in order to gain a truly national appeal has been part of RFL orthodoxy for a while, but there’s little to suggest that this has actually worked. Attendances at the Stoop are low, the team unsuccessful and nationally the sport is still in financial trouble.
Instead, the RFL should be looking to amateur game to raise interest, and especially the student game. University often provides the first contact with the sport for people from outside league’s heartlands. These people start playing and watching and generally contributing to the league community. From university, they go home and either join local clubs or help in the founding of new ones (just ask new arrivals the Cambridge Lions, who have benefited from a few university players both coaching and playing, and hopefully haven’t been too hindered by my presence).
This is how the sport grows – from the grassroots and not from the strategic placing of ultimately unsuccessful professional teams. The Broncos’ days are numbered, and it doesn’t look as though any of the other semi-pro southern teams will be able to replace them any time soon. This, however, is not going to be a major disaster, especially if the RFL can re-focus its attention on more useful areas of the greatest game.