United in mediocrity

I suppose it could be seen as a case of “After the feast of the Lord Mayor’s banquet…”, but that would be unfair. After the six-week rugby world cup jamboree has come to an end, and given way to the infinitely more modest fair of the Aviva Premiership, it was the turn of the rugby league boys to show us what they can do on the international stage.

Today’s game was the second of the three-match ding- dong between England and New Zealand, who unlike their union compatriots may not be the current world champions (they lost to Australia in the 2013 Final) but nevertheless are also ranked first in the world. England had won the first game a week ago, but the second confrontation had been moved out of its northern heartlands to the Olympic Stadium.

On a wet and miserable London afternoon 43,393 souls turned up. Judging by the accents and the parade of club shirts many had travelled south for the game.

Two years ago, almost to the day, I was among a crowd of 67,545 at Wembley who witnessed England, 20 seconds from the World Cup final, crumble to the floor after  the cruellest of defeats, snatched from the jaws of victory. Leading 18-14 with the match entering its final minute, England conceded a late penalty. As the black wave neared the England line, Shawn Johnson shimmied and breached the barricades with 20 seconds remaining. He converted his own try to send New Zealand to Manchester’s final and England to ponder what might have been.

There may have been much less at stake today, but still New Zealand defeated an under-par England  9-2, as they managed to edge what was for large periods an attritional, defence-dominated game. It was tied 2-2 at the break, after a penalty apiece which accurately summed up the fare on offer. Apparently one TV pundit described it as “gorilla v gorilla”

Shortly after the restart Shaun Kenny-Dowall touched down in the corner for the visitors, and after the video referee had ruled out a try for both teams, Jordan Kahu slotted a decisive late drop-goal to seal victory for his team.

It was the first rugby league match at the Olympic Stadium, and there was a strange atmosphere inside it, almost as though many here were new to the game and waiting for something to happen. It was a chance to win over some Southern converts, but it was hardly the sort of England performance to inspire a new generation.

Perhaps one of the problems is the infrequency of international rugby league. It is after all two years since the world cup ,and that is a long time to wait for an international to come along if the RFL is wanting to build on whatever legacy remains from back then.

And in a week when the rugby section of the sports pages have been dominated by Sam Burgess’s return to rugby league, two of his brothers were on the field today. though they could not raise this England side above the general level of mediocrity.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

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All Blacks break the English hearts

On most days of the year I would be taken aback to see a rugby league shirt on the streets of London. Today is different but it takes a while to get used to it. The Rugby League World Cup has been taking place since the end of October. Most games have been played in the game’s northern heartland, with the odd excursion to France and even Munster. But the semi-finals are to be played in London at Wembley in a double-header, with England first up against current world champions New Zealand, followed by favourites Australia playing Fiji.

The problem with the “new” Wembley is the same now as it was when the Empire Stadium opened in 1923; it’s in Wembley. Among London’s least attractive suburbs, Wembley may be close to a whole network of railways and motorways but it can still be a pain to get to. Luckily the revamped Wembley Park tube station copes well delivering the vast majority of the crowd.

Walking down the Olympic way is part of the great Wembley ritual, but the World Cup organisers seemed to have spent considerably less than other match organisers “dressing” the stadium and the visual approach is underwhelming compared to,say,NFL games here. The stewards were friendly and knowledgeable enough, but why does the over-loud PA system insist on reminding us why we are here. I’d have thought most fans already had a pretty good idea.

The organisers must have been worried about the likely attendance as a few months ago I was able to secure a couple of tickets for £20 each. They were for seats at the back of the second tier, and I had lots of legroom. The view from the side of the sticks was clear and our half of the pitch was close enough. But when play went down to the other end most eyes automatically lifted to the big screen as it was difficult to tell who anyone was way down there. It’s an unavoidable problem in any stadium of this size-in some spots the action is too far away for the human eye.

The faces at full-time said it all. England, 20 seconds from the World Cup final, crumbled to the floor. Wembley fell silent. New Zealand danced. This was the cruellest of defeats, snatched from the jaws of victory. Leading 18-14 with the match entering its final minute, England conceded a late penalty. As the black wave neared the England line, Shawn Johnson shimmied and breached the barricades with 20 seconds remaining. He converted his own try to send New Zealand to Manchester’s final and England to ponder what might have been.

Players dropped to their knees; I swear a few in the 67,545 crowd did the same. England have suffered their share of agonies in the 41 years since Great Britain were last crowned world champions, although nothing as cruel as on Saturday.

P.S. On Sunday I watched ( with an incredible sense of déjà vu) on T.V. as rugby union’s All Blacks prevented Ireland inflicting their first defeat in 2013, and what would have been Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand, with a try with the last play of the game.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

 

FIghting all the way to the wooden spoon

Mike Miles headed down to the Stoop for potentially the last time ever to see the Broncos.

Despite the late evening kick-off, conditions were hot and humid, but didn’t seem to get in the way of an entertaining but scrappy encounter that was a credit to both sides. Leeds always looked to have the edge, but at times they looked far too clinical, with the only tactic being dummy runner, pass the ball, dummy runner again and pass the ball. London played basic but too slow rugby and the defence was much better, except for the two rob and grab tries that made all the difference.

London Broncos 18 Leeds Rhinos 30 – The Stoop – Thursday 1st August 2013
The game was originally scheduled as Sky’s Monday Night match but was re-scheduled to tonight , presumably at their behest, and so the assumption went, to avoid conflict with their Monday evening League Cup extravaganza of Preston v Blackpool….On a channel that has four dedicated sports channels.

20130601-213334.jpgKevin Sinfield celebrated his 500th appearance for the Leeds Rhinos (surely Broncos could have publicly marked the occasion?) with victory and five successful kicks against a much-improved London Broncos.

But the visitors needed only five minutes to claim their first score, and four more tries sealed a third straight win for the Rhinos, but three tries for the Broncos restored some pride after their 70-0 tonking in the Challenge Cup semi-final to Wigan in their previous outing.

However, the loss is little aid to their hopes of avoiding the proverbial wooden spoon with only four rounds of Super League remaining.

The doomsayers – and there are a lot of them – in the correspondence columns of the rugby league press were predicting a record low attendance as Leeds fans wouldn’t be bothered to travel. Well I turned up at the ticket office half an hour before kick-off and there was a queue forty yards long! And at least half of them were wearing Leeds colours.

The attendance of 2,377 was in Broncos terms a very reasonable one. In fact it was the fourth highest at The Stoop this year.

But it can only get worse for London Broncos. There are rumours that owner David Hughes, who has invested around £20million since buying the club from Virgin in 2002, has reached the end of the line, and Super League itself is discussing proposals to reduce the number of clubs by two, in 2015, and if it comes to simple league position deciding who is relegated to the Championship then the Broncos must be hot candidates.

Broncos have one more home game this season, but I will be watching West Ham open their premiership campaign against Cardiff, so this was my final visit to the Stoop to watch rugby league in 2013. But who knows where the Broncos will be playing next year. The current favourite is Barnet FC’s new ground, The Hive, but the Londoners have more pressing problems than where will they be playing.

Wherever I lay my hat….

“Hello Gillingham, Kent”….The Broncos bandwagon rolled into Kent for the second time in a year as the club eyed up potential new homes pending their eviction from The Stoop in just a few months time.  Last year the game here versus Hull was deemed a success, mainly due to good ticket prices and hundreds of away fans turning up in fancy dress in a crowd of nearly 4,000.  This year it was the Wolves from Warrington who would be making a weekend of it in the Garden of England.  Once again the club had tried to drive local interest with cheap advanced ticket prices, a warm up game featuring the Under 19 squads and the presence of the Military Wives as pre-match entertainment.

8987852510_53e9e3c941_bLast week’s draw against Castleford Tigers had given the club hope, but soon after it was announced that the club captain, Craig Gower, was returning to his native Australia.  Add this to the news that hooker Chad Randall would miss the rest of the season and it was hardly the best preparation for the match against Warrington, who were once again challenging at the top of the table.

Gillingham isn’t known for its decent pubs, and by decent I mean one that serves anything apart from Fosters/Stella/John Smith.  The nearest hostelries to the station, the Britannia and Southern Belle hardly looked welcoming in the bright Saturday sunshine but a little bird (OK – the Beer in the Evening app) told me to head to the Cricketers on Toronto Road.  It looked like the Warrington fans had also had the same advice, heading here in their numbers to soak up some proper Kentish beer (Spitfire if you please), a running BBQ and enough TV’s showing the cricket to keep everyone happy.

A short walk down the hill and we took our places in the sunshine ready for a feast of rugby.  Big Deaks and Dave had backed the Wolves (heavily) and even I had a little dabble on time of first try.  As the Military Wives left the field and the minute’s silence for Lee Rigby was impeccibly observed, it was showtime.  Alas, the moments before kick off were the highlights of the afternoon for the Broncos.

London Broncos 10 Warrington Wolves 82 – Priestfield Stadium – Saturday 8th June 2013
Lightning doesn’t strike twice so they say, but this was the second time in just over two years that Warrington had inflicted 82 points on the Broncos.  Fifteen tries from ten different players were not scored by luck in a nightmare afternoon for Tony Rea’s team.  Amazingly it took the Wolves nine minutes to open the scoring (and thus winning my bet of a try in first ten minutes) and followed this up with a remarkable conversion miss from right under the posts.  Broncos tried to fight back but the Wolves were simply too strong, scoring a further four tries in the first half, although they did manage one of their own.

8990994762_124e207a58_bHalf time saw the Broncos mascot win a 100 yard dash down the pitch and how they needed some of that spirit in the second half as they simply wilted in the sunshine, conceding over a point a minute (54 in total) to rack up 82 points.

At the end of the game the Broncos headed to the dressing room, tails firmly between their legs.  Coach Tony Rea apologized for the display in the press conference afterwards for the display which left a round 1,500 home fans stunned and wondering how they can avoid finishing bottom this season.

So the big question was – “Did it work?”  The crowd certainly got into the game and I have no doubt the Broncos will feel more at home here than at the Stoop.  I think that for a season the crowds will be OK – they will have to really work the local areas, but if they are able to try and concentrate their home games in the warm months when Gillingham’s season is over then they will undoubtably get some decent crowds.  The challenge will come in the following season, when the novalty for away fans on a long trip south has worn off.

 

Castleford lose their nerve when presented with the Broncos kill

After bowing out of my domestic football season on the high of the Champions League final last weekend, options for the summer of sport were limited. June bounded into our lives underlining the void of sport in the summer. But wait, what’s that coming over the hill? Of course it was Rugby League at The Stoop. The London Broncos are in a watershed season. Last year they broke their partnership with Harlequins, and whilst they still share The Stoop, that arrangement will soon come to an end and their nomadic existence which has seen them play at Craven Cottage, The Valley, Crystal Palace Atheltics Stadium, Wealdstone’s Vale Park, Hendon’s old ground Claremount Road, Griffin Park and even Stamford Bridge. Now they will be back on the road. Last season, whilst The Stoop needed to be re-seeded for Quins Rugby Union season they played at Leyton Orient and Gillingham. This year Esher RFU has been used and next week they go back to the Priestfield Stadium to play a game. Could we read anything into that, especially with their tie up with the Medway Dragons.

However, attracting people to watch the games is still a major challenge. Most marketing avenues have been explored but attendances regularly do not break the 2,000 barrier. There simply isn’t the appetite for the game in London, although perhaps tickets at £20 are a tad on the expensive side. Scub that, my economic model for pricing tickets of being a maximum of three times the price of a pint suggests a maximum of £12.

I’m sure the club were really chuffed when it was announced that the Chime for Change concert, headlines by Beyoncé, would be held on the same afternoon as their latest game against Castleford Tigers. That was the bad news. The good news was that she wasn’t due on stage until 8pm which meant she could at least catch the first half of the game.  So when we arrived at 1pm at Twickenham the place was already awash with females everywhere.  Lots of Beyoncé and J-Lo wannabies who were carrying a little too much in reserve to be doing any proper “bootie-shakin'” but that didn’t stop them trying.  Not one to miss a trick, the Cabbage Patch pub put its prices up by 8% just to celebrate the charitable nature of the day (I’m sure they will donate the difference from normal price to the cause?).

8914361348_4e86c28a38_bThis season the Broncos league form has been consistent with previous starts to the season. However, in the past there has always been one team who have started even worse. Alas not this season and the Broncos came into this game propping up the whole league. Their last two Superleague games have seen them ship in 110 points, scoring just 24 in reply. But in the Challenge Cup they have reached the quarter-final, and will be very confident of a place in the last four with an away tie against Championship side Sheffield Eagles next month.

London Broncos 30 Castleford Tigers 30 – The Stoop – Saturday 1st June 2013
With just twenty seconds to go, and trailing by 2 points, Castleford moved close to the Broncos line.  On the fourth tackle there was an infringement and a penalty was awarded.  Still time to kick for corner and drive home surely?  But no.  They went for the kick – a kick that would earn them 1 point.  With just 2 points for a win, surely it would be worth the gamble?  Some of the hundreds of Tigers fans also felt the frustration, although probably not as bad as Big Deaksy (having backed Tigers to win with a -2 handicap) and Cynical (simply backing Castleford to win).  A point gained?  I would think most would say a point lost.

“We are delighted to have got a point but it feels like a loss. London will feel hard done by and it’s justified because we didn’t play well enough to earn that point.” Was the quote from Tigers coach Darryl Powell after the game, although I think few Tigers fans will have shared his delight.

8916420112_2f10a9f50c_bThe Broncos laboured for their thirty points, taking the lead when Mendieka had gone over from close range however Castleford soon took the lead when Daryl Clark ran through a flimsy back line and sprinted 70 yards to score.  It was end-to-end stuff, just like the game should be. You can’t argue with the entertainment on offer though at Rugby League.  Sixty points, ten tries scored by ten different players in a game which to most seemed dead and buried with twelve minutes to go as the Bronocs held a surprise 30-16 lead.  It seemed that the appeal of a game of blood and thunder hadn’t convinced any of the expected 60,000 concert attendees from across the road to come and watch the game, and the crowd of 1,800 (really?) had a good 500 who had made the long journey down from Castleford.

Next week the Broncos travel to Gillingham for the game (question for them – why is that game priced £5 cheaper?) against Warrington Wolves.  Perhaps another “trial” for the next place they lay their hat?

Put your prices up and they will come…..or not

Mike Miles takes out a new mortgage to go and watch the opening game of the new Super League season at the Stoop.

I have experienced thrilling rugby league afternoons at The Stoop, when the sun has shone, the game has been set alight and the beer has flowed. I have also been there when the gloomy weather has cast a cloud over blocks of empty seats, the home side has given a tiny crowd nothing to get excited about, and the away fans have moaned about everything from the price of a pint to the ref’s ineptitude.

5870537612_df59290cdc_bThe Broncos had the lowest average attendance in Super-League in 2012 and the letters page of the sports leading weekly, League Express, were frequented by those moaning about the award of a franchise to a team outside the sport’s northern heartland.

It could be argued that getting 3,000 ( today’s attendance was 2,856 ) to The Stoop is a reasonable achievement compared to attendances at far more historic clubs in the north and those of other sports in the capital.

However, if the Broncos are not playing well, and today they never played well, it can make for a desperate atmosphere.

It cost me £20 for a seat anywhere in the Etihad Stand. This is a £5 increase on last season. As a new OAP I got in for a tenner then but the age limit has now been raised to 65! And you still have to pay an extra £3 to buy a ticket online and a further £3 to use a credit card! A strange way to attract punters, especially when you can so easily buy a ticket on the gate….

There was only one catering van at the end of the Etihad Stand, and the prices must put a few potential punters off. A quarter –pounder was £3.70, a humble portion of chips £2.50. A cheaper alternative was the bar under the LV= Stand where choices of pies were £2 each and a cup of coffee £1.20. It was also warm respite from a bitterly cold day.

London Bronocs 14 Widness Vikings 28 – The Stoop – Sunday 3rd February 2013
Being London’s Super League club is a huge challenge. Being at the Stoop means the Broncos are on the rugby union corridor that leads from Richmond to Cornwall. The Stoop is a 10-mile drag south-west of central London, making it a painful slog for all those fans who live to the north or east. Its easily reached via the M25 and M3 , but for away fans coming down the M1 it’s another hour’s crawl around the western edge of London. Trains run regularly from Waterloo and the station is only a ten-minute walk from the station but it still makes The Stoop a lengthy trip for all but south-west Londoners, of which I am one.

Twickenham is cut in half by the A316 dual-carriageway, with the RFU’s concrete behemoth cut adrift from the rest of the “village”. Parking is available in neighbouring car parks, including Richmond College next door. Twickenham stadium is blessed with large car park spaces so you could park there and take the 5-minute walk over the A316.

With four modern stands, three of them built since London Broncos first played here 17 years ago, the Stoop is basically a new stadium. The colourful seats are comfortable enough with unobstructed views and almost all are covered. But the low trajectory makes views of the far side difficult, and that’s not helped in the Etihad Stand where the front row of seats are 20 yards from the touchline. For some reason the Broncos have made the LV= (West) Stand season ticket holders only, so its the unreserved Etihad (East)Stand or nothing.

Super league may now be a summer game, but this was the first week of February and the day was very cold and overcast. The Broncos had finished the 2012 season 12th out of 14, but had finished the season strongly after the introduction of Tony Rea as head coach. They had had a successful pre-season, and so expectations at the club were high compared to last year. Widnes had finished bottom of the table so were widely expected to give the Broncos their first victory of the season.

However, it was Widnes who made the flying start to the season, beating Broncos 14-28. They led 18-0 at the break after three converted tries. Kieran Dixon, twice, and Chris Melling, crossed for London, but further scores from March and Winterstein sealed the win for the visitors. In truth, at no stage did the Broncos look like hauling back Widnes’ lead in an error-strewn game.

Drive back into central London on the A316 and you pass one of rugby league’s former homes, the Polytechnic Stadium by the Thames at Chiswick. The 1930s cantilever stand once restored by the supporters is now derelict, the pitch overgrown and the banking demolished. It is one of the game’s ghost grounds.

The Broncos may have come a long way from Chiswick to the Stoop, but next year there will have to be yet another ground to call home. In the meantime, The Stoop will have to do.

Broncos leave it late to rise off the bottom

Michael Miles heads on down to The Stoop for the Broncos must win game against Widnes.

London Broncos 28 Widnes 24 – The Stoop – Saturday 9th June 2012

I cannot remember ever having been to a rugby league game before. Granted I have the excuse that the game is almost wholly northern-based but there has been a London-based team under various guises for a number of years. I only live a few miles from the Twickenham Stoop, and was beginning to suffer live-game deficiency, so it was about time I went to find out what was going on.

What is more, Twickenham Stadium has a large car park, and from there it is a five –minute hop over the A316 to the Stoop.

It is only £15 to get in, and remembering to use my new status as a senior citizen, this came down to a very reasonable £10. I hadn’t eaten so availed myself of a pasty and a pork roll from the “Divine Burger” stall. This, perhaps, was not my most sensible decision and I could taste it in my mouth the rest of the afternoon.

I was trying to recall the finer rules of the game from the days when my Saturday afternoons were spent listening to Eddie Waring on Grandstand. Oddly enough it reminded me more of American football than its Union counterpart, what with the stop-start emphasis on gaining yardage. There are no time-wasting line-outs and scrums are hardly worth the name. The emphasis is very much on keeping the ball in play and moving.

At the start of play the London Broncos were bottom of the league, with Widnes only one place above them. Were there relegation from Super League then this would have been classified a four-pointer, and the standard of play at times was that of two teams struggling for form and points.

The pair were level at the break 12-12, and then all-square at 18-18. Then Widnes

looked to have won it with a late try and conversion to push themselves 24-18 ahead.

Back came the Broncos with another try, but the conversion was missed. The game looked to be up, but Kaugusi changed all that, with young winger Dixon adding the extras to seal a narrow win.

To watch Broncos jumping and celebrating at the end you would have thought they had won more than only their third league game of the season.

Would I go again? Yes, I think I would, especially if trying to get through a live football and rugby free summer.

But, I will stay away from the pork rolls.

 

Skolar’s steal Gateshead’s Thunder

Back in the 1970’s Michael Palin and Terry Jones produced a comedy series for the BBC called Ripping Yarns.  One particular episode focused on a football team called Barnstoneworth United who had fallen from glory and have lost every game for seasons.  It was funny, because nothing like that every happens these days, does it?

Well it appears it does.  The real life Barnstoneworth United are actually currently playing in the world of Rugby League.  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Gateshead Thunder.

Back in 1999 Gateshead RFL were given a silly name and a golden ticket to join the Super League.  They even got to rename their stadium (Gateshead International Athletics Stadium) into a tough sounding name – The Thunderdome.  Alas the experient failed, and after a planned forced merger with Hull failed, the club withdrew and reformed lower down the leagues.

After a few false starts they worked their way up to the 2nd tier of English Rugby League before falling back into the Co-Operative Championship 1.  And that was when the fun started.  Since 21st March 2010 the club have played 47 games in this division and they have lost 46 of them.  Their last win?  At home to the London Skolars.  The only game they haven’t lost in the last 26 months?  A draw against the London Skolars.  And today, they were playing the London Skolars.  Despite heavy defeats such as 132-0 to Blackpool Panthers or 94-0 to the Swinton Lions, the travelled with spirit down to North London.  After all, London’s second Rugby League team were just above them in the table.

The London Skolars were formed out of an “old boys” network – college students who enjoyed playing the game after they left education.  Originally they were called Student Rugby League Old Boys but changed their name as part of an ill-fated attempt to win sponsorship from Skol beer (hence why they are the Skolars and not Scholars).  They have also found losing a hard habit to break, winning only a handful of games in the past few seasons (mainly against the Thunder).

This is a tough league for the Southerners.  Their most “local” game is now away to Doncaster, some 180 miles away, whilst they also have 500+ mile round trips to Whitehaven, Barrow, Workington and today’s visitors Gateshead.

But with little football options open to me this weekend I had penciled the meeting of the two bottom sides, especially as it was only 30 minutes from home.

London Skolars 48 Gateshead Thunder 22 – The New River Stadium – Sunday 27th May 2012
If you ever wanted proof that the weather dominates our lives here in England then let me take you back two weeks to when London Skolars last home game against the South Wales Scorpions was called off by the referee 30 minutes before kick off due to the rain which had made parts of the pitch unplayable.  Two weeks on and there would have been some who would have wanted this game off due to temperatures hitting the high 80’s at pitch side.  The Thunder had brought a fair few fans, which considering the run of form they are on was mighty impressive.

I had barely paid my £2.70 (good to see northern prices) for my Tetleys when the Skolars were ahead.  Ade Adebisi powered over from short range.  One of the Skolar’s fans (you will know who I mean if you have ever seen them play) launched into his huge SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSKKKKKKKKKKKKKKOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRSSSSSSSSSSSS chant which caused another fan to complain that it had caused his hearing aid to malfunction and start buzzing.  The try set the pace and tempo for the first half which saw Skolars score four tries to the Thunder’s three.

Throughout the game the crowd in the main stand (only stand) were kept amused by the mascot, who appeared to be a cross between Buzz Lightyear and Captain Haddock, but with a mortar board on his head.  I say his, but actually it was a her inside the costume – her pony tail and expertise in skipping giving the game away.

The second half saw the home side dominate, running in a further five tries, the pick of which was the one below which was a flowing move after a Skolars interception.

In the end the Skolars ran out easy winners 48 v 22 but the Thunder players or fans never gave up.  Who knows what the future holds for them, but on a sunny day in the London Suburbs they contributed to an excellent game of rugby and long may their spirit continue.

Broncos bring the oval ball to the Garden of England

“Build it and they will come”..I love that saying.  It is the mantra of the out of town stadium designer, when trying to convince a club that selling their current character-filled stadium to a supermarket and moving to identikit soul-less arena on the edge of an industrial state is a good idea.  But sometimes a change can be as good as a rest and everyone benefits.

London Broncos are at a watershed in their professional Super League lives.  Last November it was announced that their “partnership” with Harlequins RFU was coming to an end and that they would revert back to the name they had carried since 1994.  More worryingly was the indication that Harlequins would also want their tenants to vacate the Stoop in 2013. The Stoop in Twickenham was the Broncos sixth London based venue and they have struggled to light up the locals with a love for Rugby League.  Last season you could almost guarantee a pair of tickets for each game via competitions in Metro and The Evening Standard.

This season, under their new old name they had again struggled to attract more than 3,000 for home games.  With the Stoop needing to go through its end of Rugby Union season maintenance the Broncos announced they would take the game to new parts of the South East.

First up was a trip east to play at Leyton Orient’s Matchroom Stadium for the game versus Bradford Bulls where 2,844 fans came along – around about the average at the Stoop.  Then they were going into the heart of Kent for the game versus Hull to be played at Gillingham FC’s Priestfield stadium.

This was not just a marketing exercise to woe the hearts and minds of the locals.  This was also a “thank you” for the work done by the Medway Dragons in trying to spread the Rugby League word in the Garden of England.  And of course any sports clubs trying to break virgin ground meant I had to be there.

So on such a flimsy reason that is why Lolly and I pitched up to the home of the Super Gills at 1.30pm on Sunday 20th May.  “This was history in the making” I explained to CMF why I was dropping her and Littlest Fuller at Dickens World.

The joint clubs had done an excellent job in marketing the game locally, and had offered adult tickets for just £10 and children’s ones for a ridiculous £1 it was unsurprising when we arrived they were nearly queuing round the block to get in.  The visitors Hull had also travelled in numbers, using the excuse of a trip to south of the Thames to pull out their Sunday best.

London Broncos 12 Hull RLFC 14 – Priestfield – Sunday 20th May 2012
This was a betting no brainer.  Play off chasing Hull were firm favourites.  Having won a little bit of cash on the 90 minute draw last night in the Champions League final I went on Hull to be winning at half time by at least 15 points.  So when after 25 minutes the Broncos were still leading by a Kieran Dixon try and a Witt conversion you could understand not only my anxiety, but the collective frustrations of Superman, Wonderwoman, Batman, Mario and a human Twister.

Hull simply could not get going in a first half littered with mistakes and some dubious refereeing.  However on twenty seven minutes they finally drew level after capitalising on a penalty close to the Broncos line and allowing Ben Crooks to crash over the line. Danny Tickle’s simple conversion levelled the scores and with the half time hooter sounding I ripped up my virtual betting slip.

The second half was more of the same.  Broncos kept the tempo up and the pressure on but couldn’t find the killer pass or kick to the corner on the 5th tackle.  But it was Hull who finally took the lead when Richard Whitting went over and another Tickle conversion put the visitors 12-6 up. Tickle was on hand again with just twenty minutes to go with a penalty to make the score 14-6.

It was at this point that Hull expected to start turning the screw and piling on the points.  However, it was the Broncos who came right back at them and Robertson’s try and a Rodney conversion brought the deficit down to 2 points with just under ten minutes to play.

Despite keeping possession of the ball the Broncos simply couldn’t break the last line of Hull defence and the visitors ran out winners by 2 points.  But the Broncos were also winners.  A crowd of nearly 4,000 had been much more than they could have expected.  A large travelling support had helped but it was also some good local marketing and the novelty value of watching a sport that is rarely on offer in the region that ultimately led to the game being classed as a “tick in the box”.

Tigers maul their wildcat neighbours – The Long Good Friday parts 1 and 3

This was to be the day of all days.  The plan was to take in three (THREE!) Rugby League games, fitted around a trip to Oakwell to watch Barnsley v West Ham.  Originally on the agenda was the Humberside derby as Hull Kingston Rovers took on their bigger neighbours Hull RLFC at Craven Park.  As the ground (recently chosen as one venues for next year’s Rugby League World Cup) was a new one on me I was well up for this. However, at some point between early February when the fixtures came out, and early April when I got round to trying to buy a ticket the game appeared to have been switched to the KC Stadium and my interest waned a little as I have been there a few times already.

Game two became game one and just forty five minutes after leaving the TBIR Northern HQ in Lincoln I was pulling up outside the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster at 3pm.  In fact I appeared to be one of the only cars there, and if it wasn’t for the sight of the London Skolars coach I would assume it was wrong place at the wrong time.

Doncaster is a football town.  However, the opening of the Keepmoat stadium five years ago has breathed life into the rugby league team and they are now proudly trying to work their way up the Rugby League ladder, playing this season in the National Championship 1.  The club have had an emotional life, which has seen numerous name changes, grounds, owners and flirtations with mergers, bankruptcy and the odd promotion.  But today it is about steady progress and playing at an excellent venue such as the Keepmoat certainly helps.

The Skolars history by comparison to Doncaster’s has been sedate to say the least.  They were formed in 1995 as a club for graduating students who still wanted to play the game. They have made steady progress up the leagues, and whilst they will always live in the shadow of London’s other rugby league side, the Broncos, they continue to play the game in the right spirit.

Unfortunately, the Skolars found Doncaster in a rampant mood.  Five tries from Tom Hudson among a total of eleven tries saw Doncaster well out of sight by half time, although the Londoners did score three of their own in a 58-16 win. After a stop at Barnsley for the nPower Championship game with West Ham, it was on to Wakefield for the main attraction of the day.

Back in 1895 the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed with 22 clubs agreeing to form a breakaway league from the Rugby Football Union, unhappy with the Southern bias and lack of progress on issues of professionalism.  Included in the original list of clubs was Wakefield Trinity who could trace their roots back to 1873 when they were formed by members of the Holy Trinity Church.  In 1879 they moved to a spot of land on the outskirts of the town, which due to its relative rural surroundings was called Belle Vue.  Some 123 years later the club, now a member of the 21st century money driven Stobards Super League are still proudly running out at the ground.

However, with more money being poured into the game, the league started to put stricter criteria on the grounds that are used.  Some clubs such as Wigan Warriors have benefited from their close association with Wigan Athletic and share the DW Stadium.  Others have invested in new purpose built stadiums such as the new St Helens and Salford City Reds Stadium.  And then there is Belle Vue.

Back in 1962 the ground was the film set for This Sporting Life, reflecting the life in the town and the place at the heart of the community the Rugby League club played.  Since then, very little has been added to the stadium. The club have tried to bring the subject of a new stadium on the local council’s agenda but as of yet nothing has been agreed on.

The Super League is not totally a meritocracy.  You have to be given a licence before you can start playing and competing.  There is promotion and relegation, but a club can lose its licence if facilities are not up to scratch.  And that was the danger that lurked overhead for Wakefield in the last year.  With a review of the “franchises” in 2008 the club were able to sigh a huge sigh of relief when they were awarded an extension until 2012.  However, in February 2011 the club were forced into administration with debts of over £300,000 but that didn’t seem to matter too much as they were again awarded a licence until 2014 when Widnes Vikings were awarded one at the expense of the Celtic Crusaders.

But here we are today, with the club still fighting for survival both on and off the pitch.  It is derby day, and fierce rivals Castleford Tigers had made the short trip to Belle Vue for a Friday night encounter.  Coming into the game both teams had won just two of their opening nine (eight in Wakefield’s case) games, and left them at the bottom of the table with Widnes and London Broncos. What better way to end my Good Friday extravaganza than to sample some Yorkshire hospitality, a few Citra Golden Ales, some Parkin and the blood and thunder of a local derby.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 16 Castleford Tigers 34 – Belle Vue – Friday 6th April 2012
The drive from Barnsley took less than 20 minutes.  I was guided into Wakefield by the towering floodlights, drawing me in like a moth.  As I got almost within touching distance I could hear the crowd being whipped up into a frenzy.  Time to park I thought.  Sorted, a space in a safe spot and just a short walk from the ground.  That was apart from the huge wall in my way.  It appeared that despite the ground being so close, it was a fifteen minute trot away, with the rows of terrace housing forming an impregnable barrier to the ground.

Finally I got in the ground, just in time to see Castleford take the lead.  Richard Owen scythed through the Wakefield defence in the sixth minute to put the first points on the board.  The huge crowd standing behind the goal seemed to rise as one to celebrate and berate – friends standing shoulder to shoulder on the old-fashion stand.

Taking stock of the ground you can see why the club have tried to explore the options to move.  One end is taken up by a block of Executive Boxes which looked completely out of place.  The old main stand, with its paddock in front was something that hasn’t been seen in football for decades, but to show the difference between the two games, kids were allowed to sit on the pitch-side wall without any fear of over zealous stewards.

The home fans around me were families. Men, women, children, parents and grandparents.  They all knew the players, they all shouted and screamed for their community.  Unfortunately for the locals after Fox(ie) levelled the try count after twenty minutes,  it was the Tigers that were the more rampant in the first half as Castleford scored additional tries through Owen again and then Millington.  The performance of the Wildcat Dolls was uplifting for the home fans and temporarily took my mind off the score.

Half time saw various activities on the pitch ranging from the Dolls dancing, giving their all to the delight of the crowd, to a Sumo up and under competition – all good fun and showing that Rugby League is trying to put Customer Experience at the heart of its game.

The second half started much the same as the first with Castleford scoring two quick tries through Ferres and Snitch which effectively ended the contest.  The drizzle continued to fall yet not one person left the ground as the blood and thunder of the tackling never let up.  Castleford were out of sight by the time that Wood touched down in the final few minutes, meaning the bragging rights would be heading down the M62 for a while.

You cannot ever fail to enjoy a Rugby League game.  But add in the spice of a local derby, the magic of the floodlights and the history of a ground like Belle Vue and you can understand why this game is still so important to towns like Wakefield and Castleford.