Castleford are in danger of joining London Broncos in the second tier

When the Super League season kicked off six weeks ago, it was assumed London Broncos would be relegated thanks to their dire IMG grading and lack of investment in a doomed squad. There was far less said about the likelihood of Castleford joining them. While new owner Martin Jepson has targeted his investment in off-field concerns, Castleford have won as many league games as London – none – and are going to earn precious little IMG reward for their abject performances. If the season ended now, Wakefield and Toulouse would surely rank higher than Castleford and take their (and London’s) places in Super League next year.

In almost every game they have played this season, the Broncos and Tigers look like top-end Championship sides doggedly trying to stay in the fight with Super League opponents before hanging desperately to their coattails as they sail away. It’s not that they are bad; they are just second best every week. Neither side has been helped by injuries. The Broncos started the season without half a dozen first-team contenders and only one of them has returned, the Scotland fullback Alex Walker. He was uncharacteristically downbeat after their 26-6 home defeat to Huddersfield on Sunday.

Broncos coach Mike Eccles was similarly subdued. “We’re finally getting to grips with the intensity needed at the start of games at this level, but it’s a case of maintaining that,” said Eccles. “Huddersfield upped the intensity and just starved us of territory and possession. We just defended our goal line for 40 minutes. Whereas in the Championship a team might go at you down one side, in Super League you get tested in all areas on every play of the game. Some of these guys are feeling the intensity levels for the first time ever. You’re not going to adapt overnight; it’s repetition and being consistent. We’re trying to deal with the intensity and take games deep. Other than at Hull, we’re not putting teams under pressure for long enough periods. That requires an unbelievable amount of effort. It’s a diesel burn to get up there consistently.”

Pre-season recruitment at both clubs suggested a massive underspend – possibly just over half the £2.1m salary cap – and has underlined the need for Super League to introduce a salary floor next year, ensuring clubs spend a minimum on wages, perhaps 85% of the cap. Some clubs are spending half a million on exemptions above the cap. This winter Cas released 11 experienced players in their 30s and replaced them with 10 players under the age of 28. With none of the new recruits big names, that’s some serious wage dumping.

London Broncos were beaten 26-6 by Huddersfield on Sunday. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

Like London, Castleford signed Championship gems, Super League back-ups and under-the-radar imports from Australia’s second tier. So far it has not worked. Despite putting in heroic first-half performances, both teams were beaten 26-6 at home over the Easter weekend by mid-table opponents. Having faced four of the best teams in the competition in their first six games, London have started a run against clubs they might have envisaged taking points off before being hit by a slew of injuries.

Cas host London later this month, so at least one of the clubs will avoid emulating Wakefield’s horrific start to last season, when they lost their first 14 matches. As a former prison officer and four-time Countdown winner, Cas coach Craig Lingard understands pressure. “This season is different: there is no relegation based on the on-field stuff so there’s no need to panic,” says Lingard. “We don’t need to go out and spend loads of money to avoid relegation – 70% of our players aren’t established Super League players and they won’t establish themselves overnight. We can’t judge these guys by Easter.”

Expectations are subterranean in the capital. The majority of their loyal fans are just pleased to be watching Super League again, even if they expect a quick return to the Championship. The Broncos have not had a good start to the season since 2019 but previous campaigns have turned on mid-season arrivals. There is little sign of that happening this year. Their only signings have been young loanees – the impressive Hull KR hooker Reiss Butterworth, and the forwards Harvey Makin from Wigan and Jacob Jones from Leigh – but they are no more experienced than the players they are replacing.

“Ideally we’d be picking up a player who has played 200 games of Super League like other clubs do – Hull had Matty Russell and Joe Bullock on loan – but that’s not an option for us,” says Eccles. “To recruit a senior player, they probably have a wife and kids and a life back north, so they can’t just pop back home. It’s hard to recruit a player in-season: it requires them to be quite young and wanting the opportunity to play Super League.”

London still have one overseas spot remaining, but luring talent to the capital is tough. “We’ve got the feelers out with agents here and in Australia to see what’s available and there isn’t a great deal,” adds Eccles. “We’re not going to bring in players just as good as what we’ve got. Last year Corey Norman and Dean Whare breathed a lot of confidence into the rest of the players and we’re looking for a similar influence if we recruit long-term.”

London will gain more IMG points from their much improved social media, fan engagement, commercial income and increased crowds – although their attendances have slumped from 5,102 in their opening fixture to 4,116 to 3,324 to 2,300 last Sunday across four home defeats – and will surely get IMG to see sense and give them more credit for their huge catchment area. But they are still likely to be ranked a few positions short of the top flight.

The Tigers are also putting all their eggs in IMG’s basket. They are installing 1,719 seats on the Princess Street terraces this month to meet minimum standards, as well as making other minor improvements to secure one IMG point for the Jungle. The echoes of Wakefield last year are uncanny. The Tigers need to leapfrog Leigh, Wakefield or Toulouse to make the cut. It’s not looking good.

Foreign quota

Huddersfield’s victory on Sunday – their 19th straight win against London – was inspired by the work of their overseas players. Esan Masters filled in exuberantly for Jake Connor at fullback; former Bronco Luke Yates rampaged through the middle; Tonga half Tui Lolehea kicked clinically; and Fiji skipper Kevin Naiqama proved you can cut off your trademark towering high top in your mid-30s and still run around like a young buck. Sebastien Ikahifo enjoyed his sunny Sunday so much he forward-rolled his way off the pitch when substituted. Really. In April 2006, when Harlequins RL beat Huddersfield in a Harlequins union/league double-header watched by 12,000 at the Stoop, they did so with 13 overseas players. That was unremarkable given the London club often fielded 16 or 17 Antipodeans in their first few years in Super League. Last Sunday, they had just three.

Clubcall: Hunslet RLFC

Lucius Banks was the first American and first black man to play professional rugby league, spending two seasons with Hunslet, then one of the UK’s top clubs, 110 years ago. Banks had been spotted playing quarterback in New York by a Hunslet director, who tempted him to have an adventure in Leeds. His grandson, Richard Lucius Banks, and his family were guests of honour for Hunslet’s game with Keighley at the weekend. The Lord Mayor of Leeds presented the family with Lucius’ heritage certificate. “We had limited knowledge of my grandfather’s time here and the important role he has in the game’s history,” said Richard. Find our more about Lucius Banks’ remarkable story on Professor Tony Collins’ podcast Rugby Reloaded.

Fifth and last

New faces keep appearing in Super League, but not necessarily new names. The latest is Thomas Deakin, who made his debut at hooker for Huddersfield last Sunday. Thomas is the grandson of Steve Deakin, who coached XIII Catalan as they evolved into the Dragons. “You forget how much it means,” said Giants coach Ian Watson after the match. “His whole family was there. I could hear them screaming when he came back on to the field. His grandad Steve presented his jersey, which was a really special moment. He’s a project. We’ll develop him and he will feature again. He’s got a dangerous running game. I think he’ll be the first-choice nine in a few years.” Deakin’s late uncle Peter, the marketing guru who transformed Bradford Bulls and Saracens, would also have been extremely proud.

Goalline drop out

Ten years ago, the Huddersfield second rower Jack Murchie was playing alongside Joseph Manu for the Australia Under-19s in the inaugural Commonwealth Championships Nines in Cumbernauld. Murchie scored a try in the shock 18-18 draw with Scotland, Harvey Burnett having put the Young Bravehearts 18-8 ahead. Australia were beaten by Papua New Guinea in the final, while Scotland beat an England Lions team that featured current Castleford forward George Lawler to clinch fifth.

Burnett went on to win four full Scotland caps, and play for Oxford and Bradford. Sadly he has spent the last five years fighting an extremely rare cancer that is baffling specialists. He is now going to Germany for dendritic cell therapy and needs help funding it. Astonishingly, Harvey is running a 50km race this Saturday. The proceeds of this column are going towards Harvey’s fund.

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