Over 150,000 people will watch Rugby League live in London this year – a figure that underlines the appetite for the sport in the nation’s capital.
Rugby League continues to achieve great things at all levels – community participation, domestic and international performance and major events.
At one time, athletes such as Martin Offiah could only take up the sport by getting on the train and travelling 200 miles north. Now the journey is made to take the rewards of a career in Super League after learning and honing their skills in the London Junior Leagues and being nurtured by the local talent system.
Many predicted a dire future when the London Broncos lost their Super League status in 2014. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. The Broncos have secured a home in Ealing and are celebrating a place in the play-offs to try to earn back their Super League place.
By finishing second in the Championship they now enter a seven-game series against some familiar names from the top flight, including last year’s all-conquering Leeds Rhinos (the last team that the Broncos defeated in Super League).
A top five finish in that play-off series will either guarantee an automatic place back at the top table or give them a final chance in the Million Pound game – either way it is a magnificent performance.
Head Coach, Andrew Henderson commented: “I’m extremely proud of the players and the staff for what we have achieved so far this season. We set ourselves a target to finish in the top four, to be better than we were last season, and to start to change perceptions of this team and this club – we have actually managed a top two finish, earning ourselves four home games in the Qualifiers as we challenge for a return to Super League.
“Along with the fantastic work our partner club, London Skolars, have been doing this season, we’re incredibly proud to be leading the way representing rugby league in the south of England.”
League 1 club London Skolars have been in Wood Green for over 20 years and 2016 will be their most successful ever. Founded by former Scotland Student International, Hector McNeil, the club has progressed from the amateur ranks into the professional competitions and this year has earned a play-off place for a chance to earn a spot in the Championship (the second tier behind Super League).
Off the field, the club has a successful junior section producing future stars and has developed a new playing facility and clubhouse at New River Stadium.
Chairman, Hector McNeil is proud of his club’s achievements and confident of the future: “Skolars are incredibly proud to be carrying the flag in the south for the League 1 Top 8s. Jermaine Coleman and his squad have done a superb job putting a largely London developed squad on the field that can match it with the best at this level. Along with the Ipro Cup semi-final appearance the progression is clear to see. We think no team will fancy us in the next stages.
“We also can’t wait for the highlight of the league season and possibly the biggest game outside the finals, Friday Night Lights, the eve of Challenge Cup game where we play a floodlit game with lots of great events tagged on as well including a real ale festival, masters and juniors games that offer a full day of entertainment on Friday 26th August.”
On November 13th, England will once again visit Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as they clash with Australia in the Four Nations Tournament. Aiming for a place in the squad will be at least three players totally created in London. Hull KR full back, Kieran Dixon, Castleford back row forward, Mike McMeeken and Wigan’s NRL bound centre, Dan Sarginson.
Sarginson is very clear about his career path and the importance of London in that journey, saying: “The opportunity to play Rugby League in London was the catalyst for my career and that of plenty of other Super League players. The coaching, support and experience that I received helped me build my career.
“There are two important dates in my calendar this year – hopefully a Challenge Cup Final appearance at Wembley Stadium and then round off the year by playing for England at the Olympic Park in November. They will both be great occasions and hopefully a chance to play close to home.”
Proof positive, if required, that Rugby League is thriving in London and looking forward to an extremely bright future.
By Niel Wood