Not even Storm Freya could keep London Broncos’ loyal hordes of followers away.
Even as the wind howled and the rain blew through the stands, as the wet mud and gravel squelched underfoot, and as chips were turned to salty mush by the ever-worsening downpour, still they cheered and revelled in the sheer joy of a competitive Super League team in London.
And they were rewarded. The Broncos battled as the gale battered rain against their skin, matching reigning champions Wigan Warriors in every department, turning around a 10-0 deficit to emerge 18-16 victors.
This was a statement victory for London, a proclamation that the-once laughing stock of professional rugby league are no longer here to make up the numbers.
It was the nature of the win that leaves such an impression. After two Wigan tries in the early exchanges, one could be forgiven for anticipating something of a rout.
The travelling fans certainly seemed to, but as the contest wore on, their singing slowly lost its zeal and volume. In contrast, as the Broncos gained a foothold in the game, so the home support found its voice.
Danny Ward’s side rallied to score twice and lead 12-10 at the interval. Kieran Dixon’s magnificent run at the start of the second half extended their advatanage, and the hosts held firm despite a late Wigan onslaught to claim a famous victory.
Long way to go
There can be a tendency to dwell too long and too keenly on such monumental results. After all, the 2019 Super League is just five games old, and there remains a long and winding road ahead.
“It was a magnificent win for London, but the importance of it won’t be known until late September,” he told Elephant Sport.
“If the Broncos stay up, this was an absolutely humongous win. If they get relegated, it was just a good win. They have to stay up, that’s the whole target of the season. I’m delighted, I thought it was fantastic, but I’m not going over the top.”
This season is London’s first at rugby league’s top table since 2014, when the Broncos managed just a single victory in a dire campaign.
But in their five games thus far this time around, the club have doubled that total, with this triumph over Wigan adding to their opening-day defeat of Wakefield Trinity.
Combined with their victory over the Toronto Wolfpack in last season’s Million Pound Game to gain promotion, there is a buoyant mood around the club once again.
A nomadic existence
The Broncos are currently based at the Trailfinders Sports Ground, where rugby union’s Ealing Trailfinders play their home games.
It is something of a ramshackle affair, a mishmash of temporary stands and hastily-assembled broadcast gantries. The main stand looks more like it belongs at a leisure centre than in a Super League stadium.
However, despite the imperfections of Trailfinders in terms of facilities, there is a homely feel to the place, its dissymmetry a fitting reflection perhaps of the club’s own lack of assuredness in its own identity.
The club’s odyssey has taken in Craven Cottage, Crystal Palace National Sports Centre (twice), Polytechnic Sports Ground, Copthall Stadium, Twickenham Stoop (three times), The Valley (twice), Griffin Park, The Hive and, finally, Ealing Trailfinders — remarkable given its mere 39-year existence.
Ballheimer suggests that a ground of their own would be the ideal solution, but given the impracticalities of such a step, Ealing is as good a home as any.
“It’s a great deal better than a lot of them were,” he says. “To be perfectly honest, a good home would be their own ground, where they are responsible for the food, the bars, who plays there, when they play there, who looks after the pitch, how the pitch is marked, and everything else.
“Having their own ground would be so massive, but it is utterly impossible.
“Ealing is better than Brentford, definitely better than the Hive, better than Harlequins because it’s more accessible to the general spectator — it’s that much closer to central London.
“It’s good but it’s not perfect. If it was perfect it would have a capacity of 10,000 and there would be 6,000 London fans coming every week. But that is a pipe dream.”
Doing the right things
It’s arguable as to whether the transient nature of the club’s existence has stunted their growth as a force in rugby league.
Could it be that the constant name and ground changes have disillusioned potential supporters? It’s a claim that is difficult to qualify, and Ballheimer believes that while such ground-hopping has had an effect, the club’s future is bright.
“I think the nomadic nature of the club has been a problem,” he says, “but London is doing better now than they have done for seven or eight years. Last time they were in the Super League, London were frankly an embarrassment.
“They are getting better. They are doing things right. They’re getting fans coming to the games. They are getting a better atmosphere — every crowd so far this season has been over 2,000. This is a massive increase and improvement on their last Super League season. There are signs.”
The match against Wigan certainly backed up Ballheimer’s assertions, with a feel-good atmosphere that only manifests amidst a happy club and fanbase.
Loyal followers still trek from across the capital; pints flow freely and pies are consumed with a sense that those attending are eager to make the most of the club’s Super League return — to simply enjoy.
However, even though there are green shoots peeking through at London Broncos, there remains a sense that rugby league itself is in something of a malaise.
The sport has always lacked the fanfare and media attention enjoyed by rugby union in its professional era and, according to Ballheimer, the powers-that-be have a responsibility to do more to market the sport to a wider audience.
“Rugby league needs a complete rethink about how it is run and what its aims are”
“The sport needs a complete rethink about how it is run and what its aims are. This goes far beyond London Broncos. It needs to consider whether it wants to be a national sport or the sport of the north of England.
“If it’s the sport of the north of England, and the media is all based in the south, what chance do they have? If it’s not a national sport, why should Sky invest millions of pounds in covering it?
“I honestly believe that Super League should insist there is a London franchise, because there has to be capital city representation in the national league. I barely watched a Super League game in the four years London weren’t in it because it meant nothing to me.”
If one thing is for certain, it’s that London has a power to bring new fans to a sport.
American sports have already begun to harness this phenomenon, with the NFL staging matches in the capital and the O2 Arena hosting NBA games, while Major League Baseball is set to host its first London series this summer when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to town.
The city of 8.7m is a hive of sporting curiosity, forever willing to embrace new ideas and influences.
For rugby league to ignore that would be a crime, and perhaps the authorities should be doing more to appeal to those in the capital and the south of England, and not cling so tightly to the sport’s northern traditions.
For all the relative success of the London Broncos over the last 18 months or so, there is still a sense that potential is being wasted, that the club is swimmingly admirably against a tide.