Saturday, March 9
London Broncos(22) v. Hull K.R.(42)
Twickenham Stoop @ 18.15
Stobart Super League:Round 6
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.
The Broncos had the lowest average attendance in Super-League in 2012 and the letters page of the sport’s 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 ( though today’s attendance was a paltry 1,837) 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 evening.
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 that live to the north or east. It’s 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 it’s the unreserved Etihad (East) Stand or nothing.
Super league may now be a summer game, and this was the beginning of March, but the day was cold and raw. The Broncos had finished the 2012 season 12th out of 14, but had ended the season strongly after the re-introduction of Tony Rea as head coach. They had had a successful pre-season, and so expectations at the club for 2013 were high. I had witnessed the season opener against Widnes who had finished bottom of the table so were widely expected to give the Broncos their first victory of the new season. However, it was Widnes who made the flying start to the season, beating Broncos 14-28.
Now it was Hull KR’s turn to deal another blow to the fragile credibility of the London Broncos by inflicting their third defeat, 22-42, in three home matches in front of another pitifully small audience. That this game almost directly followed an LV= Cup semi-final between Harlequins and Bath at lunchtime that attracted more than three times as many spectators and therefore produced a decent atmosphere was an unfortunate contrast.
The happier days when the Broncos drew comparable gates to the Stoop are now only hazy memories. They are already considering yet another change of venue for 2014, with David Hughes, the millionaire without whom Super league’s London dream would have died years ago, hoping to announce a decision as early as April.
The wider worry for the game is whether Super League’s London presence may shortly do the same.
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.