Super League: London Broncos looking to bounce back after suffering relegation
By Rob Lancaster
Last Updated: 14/07/14 1:07pm
Finally the inevitable has been confirmed – London Broncos’ spell in Super League is over, for now at least.
The 72-12 hammering at the hands of Warrington at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Sunday made it mathematically certain that the capital club, formerly Harlequins RL, would be plying their trade in the Championship next season.
When you start the season with just a few players do you expect anything else? It didn't matter who was the coach it was a year for relegation and being so under prepared of course they were going to get their backsides kicked
Tony Smith on the Broncos
It was a 20th straight defeat in the league for the Broncos, and while they have been put out of their misery in terms of preserving their top-flight status, there still could be more pain ahead. The fixture list has not been kind in the closing rounds – they still have to host St Helens, Hull KR and Leeds in their remaining games, as well as travel to Castleford, Salford and the south of France.
If they are to avoid ending up laying a giant egg for 2014 then their best chance to break their duck could come on the final weekend of the season, when they host a Bradford side that look certain to join them in falling through the trap door.
London head coach Joe Grima – who took over from Tony Rea during the campaign – admitted after the heavy loss to the Wolves that it had been a “tough day” for everyone connected with the Broncos.
Yet there must also be an air of relief for all those concerned; the writing was on the wall before a pass had even been thrown in the season, and all the game at Warrington did was make it official. The heavy defeat was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the poor camel had suffered for so long that it should feel like a blessed release.
Indeed, it had seemed at one point that they wouldn’t even be alive for this year. Administration threatened their very existence and even when their future was secured, they were homeless and threadbare in terms of playing numbers.
They hastily assembled enough bodies to fill out their squad, their Super League brethren helping out with a number of loans deals for youngsters, while the Hive in Barnet became their new forwarding address.
Conceding 64 points on opening weekend to Widnes, though, suggested tough times were ahead. There have been fleeting moments of hope since, including twice running Catalan Dragons close, but relegation looked a nailed-on certainty from as far out as last November. When it was finally confirmed, the coach of the team that sealed their fate offered little sympathy.
"London are paying the price for having a handful of players at the start of the season while the rest of us were honing our skills and doing the hard work in November and December for a long and arduous contest,” Tony Smith said after seeing his Wolves run in 13 tries.
"When you start the season with just a few players do you expect anything else? It didn't matter who was the coach it was a year for relegation and being so under prepared of course they were going to get their backsides kicked.”
Smith's words may seem harsh, but there is little room for sentiment in professional sport. Super League is a business and the product the Broncos put out into the market has simply not been up to the required standard. The table does not register anything for hard-luck stories or putting up a fight. It just says '0' points.
With their backsides smarting then, the Broncos – a Super League presence since the inception of the competition in 1996 - are now going to have to look to the future.
Once again there will be upheaval in terms of the playing staff - Mason Caton-Brown has already headed off to Salford, and has made an early impact with the big-spending Red Devils, overseas forward Atelea Vea has signed a deal with St Helens and Castleford are set to further pick some of the meat off the bones of the Broncos’ Super League carcass.
Yet the wheels are in motion to make sure there isn’t a repeat of the mistakes made prior to this tough campaign. Ex-Salford half-back Liam Foran is bound for a return to England, plus Italy international Ray Nasso has signed a two-year deal. There are more yet to be announced, too, insists Grima, who will be assisted by Andrew Henderson, a man who will offer some lower-league experience.
Because we've been realistic I think it's going to be a great benefit for us. Going back to the Championship and starting over again just reassures that we're here for the long term. It's probably not a bad thing given where we are.
"Since I took over we've had a plan A and a plan B, we knew where we were and there were no illusions by myself or my staff and we've been planning for that Championship and relegation," Australian Grima told the Broncos' official website.
"It's no surprise and we've made some good signings and we've got two or three that we'll announce over the next three to four weeks that are Australian-based signings and we're planning for that Championship.
"Out of the 31 players we've got contracted, 23 will be moving on whether they will be taking up opportunities at a Super League club or have been advised that they are not required at the Broncos next year.
"Jason (Loubser), our general manager, and David Hughes, our chairman, myself and my staff, have been working behind the scenes to set up contingences and strategies and a plan B for the Championship.
"Because we've been realistic I think it's going to be a great benefit for us. Going back to the Championship and starting over again just reassures that we're here for the long term. It's probably not a bad thing given where we are."
Chairman David Hughes will once again have to reach into his pockets, ones that must be bottomless considering the amount of funding he’s given to the club over the years, to make sure they can remain full time and have a proper crack at an instant return.
It is also crucial, however, that the Broncos continue their efforts to improve off the field.
The sport of rugby league may not have quite taken the stranglehold the Rugby Football League would have ideally liked due to the long-term Super League presence that was afforded to them by the licensing system, yet the work at grassroots level cannot be discarded just as they are starting to bear fruit.
The current Under-19s are performing better than their senior counterparts, managing six victories this year, while former Hemel Stag Dan Sarginson - now of Wigan - was part of England's squad for their mid-season training camp. Yes, rugby union will be the dominant code in the south. But that is no reason just to give in and go away.
"It is exciting but it's probably not the best day to be excited on but the planning over the past 6-7 weeks, getting in touch with the London-based junior rugby league clubs, having a real interaction with our 19s who were outstanding today, we're taking little steps and there's an eight-point plan that we are adhering to or we're following about our philosophies of coaching, our database, recruitment and retention policies,” Grima said in the aftermath to the Warrington defeat.
“They are things which we've identified that are going to ensure us that given the opportunity to come back up to Super League we're going to be ready and be able to compete and be able to produce our own out of our own back yard instead of them going to northern based clubs. It is exciting and it just reassures us we're doing the right thing and that Broncos are going to be here for the long haul.”
Whether the Broncos can bounce back immediately remains to be seen – the Championship is a tough, uncompromising competition that will see London’s representatives up against clubs with deep roots in some of rugby league’s heartlands.
But London at least are sending out the right signals, suggesting they are aiming to bounce back from the most miserable of years. The decline has been drastic, but clearly not terminal.