Originally founded in 1980 as Fulham RLFC, life was never going to be easy for the only professional rugby league club located in southern England, competing with the multitude of teams in this code of rugby’s traditional northern heartland.
Nevertheless, forty years later the club still clings to existence. The name has changed a few times, the team has played games at several different venues around London, while numerous different owners have made genuine attempts to raise the profile of rugby league in the capital. The journey has been long and hard, yet the survival of this club is a great testament to those who have been involved over the years, through the good times and the bad.
These days as the London Broncos, remaining competitive is a constant challenge. After a spell outside the top tier, winning the Million Pound Game in 2018 saw a return to the Super League, although it proved to be brief as the team finished bottom and were relegated. However, there’s the promise of a swift return with the Broncos, who are tipped as one of the favourites for promotion according to the latest rugby league odds for the Championship.
The rise of rugby league in London
The initial buzz which surrounded Fulham RLFC during the early 1980s, with crowds of more than 10,000 attending games at Craven Cottage, eventually declined. After a decade flitting between the top two tiers, a change of name to London Crusaders brought renewed hopes, although financial difficulties almost brought a premature end to the club’s history by the mid-1990s. Fortunately, the Rugby Football League (RFL) stepped in as temporary owners.
Amidst a period of great change for rugby league, Australian outfit Brisbane Broncos identified a great opportunity to gain a foothold in England. They arrived as new owners in 1994 and established an affiliate partnership, while also changing the name again as the team became known as the London Broncos. This also brought positive expectations and a significant increase in crowds, when the club was moved to south London and the Valley Stadium.
Super League and the Broncos golden era
With the foundation of the Super League in 1996 and as the RFL switched from winter to summer seasons, the London Broncos were one of the 12 inaugural members of the new top division. Despite playing in the second tier at the time, the RFL believed that continuing to promote their code in the capital was important for the sport, which also sparked a golden era which lasted almost a decade for the Broncos.
The maiden Super League season in 1996 saw the London Broncos finish fourth, before challenging for the title throughout the following 1997 campaign, eventually finishing as runners up to Bradford Bulls. One particular highlight was reaching the last ever Challenge Cup final to be played at the old Wembley Stadium in 1999, although the Broncos were soundly beaten 52-16 by Leeds Rhinos.
Harlequins experiment and gradual decline
Still one of the most competitive teams as the first decade of the Super League era concluded, new ownership brought a partnership with Harlequins Rugby Union Club, along with a new Harlequins Rugby League name. This experiment to combine the efforts of both codes, mainly for commercial success, would ultimately prove fruitless. The team tended to start seasons well, before hitting mid-season collapses and failing to achieve success on the pitch.
By 2012 the Harlequins experiment was over, with the club reverting to their London Broncos name and a renewed image, yet the struggles continued. Financial difficulties contributed to a team that lacked strength and depth, which inevitably led to poor results. After an impressive 19 years of holding its own in the Super League since the competition had begun, the Broncos were eventually relegated from the top tier of rugby league in 2014.
Brighter future for the Broncos
The brief recent return to the Super League has shown that the club remains ambitious. London Broncos are now highly regarded as a team that puts faith in developing club-trained players, investing time and effort in producing homegrown talent. Constant work in the community also aims to continue raising the appeal and profile of rugby league in the capital.
After numerous moves over the years, a fixed abode now seems to have been secured in Ealing, at the Trailfinders Sports Ground, which has already been improved with a return to the rugby league elite in mind. Indeed, the London Broncos remain positive about their future, and while it may be some time before they relive those heady days of success enjoyed in the late 1990s, there’s hope that a sustained return to the Super League is just beyond the horizon.