London Broncos are still searching for the blueprint to be part of the future

We are approaching the halfway point of London’s first season back among rugby league’s elite: which means that we are halfway towards the Broncos being quietly asked to leave Super League later this year by IMG – and in truth, there have not been too many surprises.

Their unexpected promotion last year created a problem for IMG in that it thrust a club back into Super League who, under the gradings system that will determine the 12 clubs competing in the top division from next year, are some way adrift; London were ranked 24th out of the 36 professional clubs at the end of last season.

That meant no matter what the Broncos achieved this season, they wouldn’t secure the necessary grading points to stay in Super League when the system replaces conventional promotion and relegation at the end of this season. As it turns out, at the halfway point of 2024, London – with a squad of part-time players – are bottom, though only on points difference behind Hull FC.

But if nothing else, their return to Super League for the first time since 2019 has at least stimulated a debate about what direction rugby league needs to head in with the game in the capital. Mike Eccles’s side were well-beaten 34-4 in the early-summer sunshine at Salford on Sunday, but they have undeniable spirit, endeavour and, more importantly, a group of players which offers hope.

London were promoted last year without a single northern-born player in their squad, and barring a couple of off-season additions, that remains the case this year. There are London-produced players playing elsewhere in Super League like Mike McMeeken in the England elite setup, too: there is no doubting that London has a place in the landscape of the game.

But where? They are some way adrift of the threshold required to get back into Super League under IMG next year, and are believed to be putting a proposal together to try and give themselves a chance of retaining their top-flight status. The mood music remains, though, that they will be replaced by Wakefield Trinity for 2025.

The feeling at London is that the IMG criteria which forms the gradings does not give the Broncos advantage in the sections you would expect them to score well. For example, clubs are given points based on their population and catchment area: London are not scored on the entirety of the capital, but instead the borough of Merton, where their home ground in Wimbledon is located.

Whether any changes come remains to be seen. But one way or the other, as Eccles has repeatedly stressed, there has to be a blueprint for London to be part of rugby league’s future. They do not want to be gifted a place in Super League: they simply want to know what they need to do to be part of it.

The fact London are essentially part-time this season, in part due to the fact their promotion came as a surprise even internally last year, giving them little time to prepare for the transition back to Super League, means results on-field are inevitably harsh. Here we saw their season in a microcosm; they battled gamely for an hour before falling away in the final quarter against Salford.

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Eccles and his batch of homegrown players’ challenge is to avoid finishing bottom, a fate many felt was certain in pre-season. If they do that, it will show the player pool is there in London to compete with the best – though many have known that for some years. It’s just finding the plan for growth off the field to match what happens on it. Do IMG want a strong London? We’re about to find out.

There is an argument you could make the case for preferential treatment for every expansion club under IMG’s plans to reimagine rugby league. But as the game prepares to head to London en masse for the Challenge Cup final this weekend, it is pertinent to ask just what – if any – intent there is to finally make things work.

The Guardian