International rugby league’s long-awaited return to Wembley marked both the end of a big week for the sport in the capital, and the beginning of a new era for London’s Super League side, which welcomes an influx of NRL talent this pre-season as it returns to its former Broncos identity.
After a 14-year absence it was a bold decision to take Saturday’s Four Nations double-header to Britain’s most iconic stadium – the culmination of a high-profile week which saw the international player awards held at the Tower of London, and league’s brightest stars paraded against a backdrop of famous monuments.
The Wembley crowd of 42,344 fell short of many people’s hopes of a 50,000-plus attendance, but RFL Chief Executive Nigel Wood was delighted with the turn-out.
“The atmosphere was terrific and over 42,000 people were treated to two matches of the highest calibre,” he said on Wednesday.
“Our decision to take the Gillette Four Nations double header to Wembley was fully vindicated and the feedback we have had since Saturday has been uniformly positive, from the players, the supporters, our broadcast partners, the media and the stadium itself.”
Despite the upper tier being closed, the crowd created an electric atmosphere in the famous stadium, particularly as England ran the Kangaroos close for much of the second game.
British rugby league has faced criticism in recent years for its readiness to stage internationals in small stadiums, but the success of the return to Wembley should encourage the RFL to think big when allocating venues for the 2013 World Cup.
London is an undisputed outpost of English rugby league but, encouragingly, 40 per cent of Wembley ticket orders came from London postcodes, suggesting the capital’s residents could be keen to re-discover the 13-a-side code.
It all bodes well for the city’s Super League team, who capitalised on the Wembley hype last week to announce their rebranding and return to their former name, London Broncos. It’s the identity associated with the club’s most successful period, when they finished runners-up in the 1997 Super League, beat the Mal Meninga-coached Canberra Raiders in that year’s World Club Championship, and reached their first Challenge Cup Final in 1999.
The decision to return to the Broncos name has been welcomed by most supporters - after six years as the identity crisis that was Harlequins Rugby League - even though the club no longer has links with its Brisbane cousins.
Once an overseas outlet for Brisbane’s excess talent, London Broncos hosted the likes of Ben Walker, Terry Matterson and Russell Bawden, while Brisbane cast-offs such as Steele Retchless cemented a cult following of their own in the English capital.
Keen to end its heavy reliance on Australian imports, in recent years the London club has made huge strides in developing local talent in a city where rugby league is not just un-cool but unknown amongst many budding sportsmen.
There are now 29 London-raised players representing London Broncos in Super League and London Skolars in Championship One, with nine Londoners in the Broncos’ first-team squad and another nine on the fringes.
With strong local player pathways in place, the club has returned to the NRL transfer market for 2012, bringing in Manly grand final winners Shane Rodney and Michael Robertson (joining a Sea Eagles Diaspora of Chad Randall, Luke Dorn, Mark Bryant and Michael Witt), plus former Kangaroos stars Craig Gower and Antonio Kaufusi.
It’s a deliberate attempt to fast-track the progress of London-born players, explains Broncos coach Rob Powell, whose Australian recruits begin arriving next week.
“We’ve made a conscious decision to look to the NRL to add more experience to our squad. Our belief is that working alongside experienced players will speed up the development of our London kids.
“Robertson and Rodney are coming straight out of a grand final win with Manly and we believe that kind of quality will be infectious. They’re used to being in a winning team and in an environment that creates one, and that will bring a lot to our club.”
The signing of 33-year-old Gower, who has spent the last four years playing rugby in France, raised eyebrows in both hemispheres, but Powell is convinced the former Penrith halfback is committed to the challenge of transforming the London Broncos into serious contenders.
“We’ve done a lot of homework on his character as well as his playing abilities, and everyone I’ve spoken to has said he’s one of the most competitive players they’ve ever come across. He’s hungry to win and he’s a fantastic trainer – that’s one of the reasons he played for the Kangaroos at such a young age. He will play a strong leadership role and raise the bar in training and in our attitude towards games, because he won’t accept anything less than a very high standard.”
Off the field, the club are also targeting Aussies and Kiwis again, with specific marketing aimed at London-based expats planned for 2012. It’s a previous tactic that was shelved in recent years, along with the reliance on big money signings from down under.
With the return to the Broncos name, the London club has abandoned its recent trepidation towards its historical Australian associations. And if the new combination of NRL experience and London pride can achieve a return to the glory days of the late '90s, there won’t be too many complaints in the capital.