A new era for Rugby League in London in 2022

Rugby League is set to break new ground in London in 2022, not once, but four times.

It will begin on the last Sunday of this month, when London Broncos will host Widnes Vikings in southwest London at their new Plough Lane home, the stadium they will share with AFC Wimbledon.

On Saturday 28 May the Betfred Challenge Cup Final and the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup Final will be held at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north London, moving away from Wembley for the first time since the Final returned there in 2007.

“Imagine the statement we can send to the nation with a full house of almost 60,000 at Spurs, live on the BBC. That is a major focus for us all at the RFL in the early months of 2022,” says RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer.

On Thursday 3 November the action moves to east London, when the Copper Box Arena will stage a Wheelchair Rugby League double header, as Spain take on Norway and England take on Australia in Round 1 of the tournament, with more games to follow at the same venue the following week.

Then, on Saturday 12 November, attention will switch to the Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, also in north London, for the second semi-final of the Rugby League World Cup.

As Jon Dutton, the CEO of RLWC2021 points out: “Staging marquee moments in the capital during the tournament was a key objective when we commenced the host bid process in 2018.

“We were very impressed with Arsenal FC and chose the Emirates Stadium to stage its first non-football match due to its central location, size and freshness to the sport. We are also delighted to be opening the wheelchair tournament at the Copper Box Arena with a game that will feature England and Australia. Sales for both events have proved popular and overall London remains as the top postcode buying group”.

A new team in SW17

SAM ROBINSON was born in Widnes but left at the age of 18 to attend university in Bristol.

He then moved to Surrey to join an investment management company, for whom he has worked for nine years while becoming an adopted fan of London Broncos and converting his Surrey-born girlfriend to also love Rugby League.

Here he writes about the Broncos’ impending move to a new stadium at Plough Lane in Wimbledon, which the club will share with AFC Wimbledon.

The 2022 London Broncos will take to the field at a brand-new state of the art stadium, with a new coach, new playing roster and the additional challenge of reverting to a part-time professional team.

The Broncos have been based at Ealing Trailfinders since 2016, a ground which saw the Broncos promoted to Super League in 2018 and where they fought bravely before being relegated in 2019.

2022 will see the Broncos relocate 14 miles south of the river to their new home at Plough Lane in Wimbledon. The move to Plough Lane represents a notable milestone of being the tenth different ground the Broncos have occupied since they were initially founded as Fulham RLFC in 1980.

Wimbledon, whilst being perhaps most well known for being the host of the oldest tennis tournament in the world, could also present a fantastic opportunity for the nomadic Broncos to build long-term foundations.

A criticism often levied of the Broncos’ previous base in Ealing was around accessibility and transport links. But there are no such concerns with the new base in Wimbledon, which is close to Wimbledon Station, the only station in the capital with an interchange between rail, Underground and Tramlink services. As well as good transport links from within London, Wimbledon is also quite accessible to the surrounding home counties. This gives the Broncos a significant catchment area from which to attract a new generation of supporters.

Wimbledon also presents an exciting away day for visiting spectators. The vibrant southwest London district is a hub of activity where fans can choose to enjoy pre-match food and drink in a wide variety of establishments, from fast food to fine dining. For supporters electing for more than a day trip, the area offers a superlative number of tourist hot spots – such as the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, and the stunning Wimbledon Common – in addition to the city of London being a short train journey away.

The stadium itself, Plough Lane – or as it’s officially known ‘The Cherry Red Records Stadium’, is where the Broncos will kick off their 2022 Betfred Championship campaign against Widnes Vikings on Sunday 30 January.

The stadium is a 9,215 capacity all-seater stadium, which was officially opened in November 2020. The Broncos will be ground sharing with EFL League 1 team AFC Wimbledon.

A vote undertaken by the Dons Trust concerning the proposed groundshare resulted in 91.7% voting in favour of the proposal. It is hoped the move will see increased collaboration between both teams with joint events such as a ‘sporting quiz challenge’ already scheduled.

But a potential bright future off the pitch can realistically only come to fruition with a successful team on it. In 2022 the Broncos will be led by a new head coach – Jermaine Coleman, with the appointment perhaps a signal of the direction and vision of the club moving forward. Coleman was previously the head coach of London Skolars, a duty which he combined with leading the Jamaican national Rugby League team. He is keen to establish an identity with the Broncos, with a focus on having more London-based players in the squad.

Super League currently has an abundance of players sourced from the south of England and Coleman’s extensive knowledge of players at all levels from this region gives rise to the hope that he will be able to tap in to this extensive, but underutilised talent pool. The aim is to unearth the next generation of southern Rugby League stars who he hopes will remain in Broncos’ colours.

As Coleman and the Broncos look to build their playing roster for 2022 – a significant step was taken to provide a degree of stability in a turbulent off-season with the retention of club captain Will Lovell, who in October penned a two-year contract with the Broncos and by doing so become Coleman’s first signing. Lovell embodies the identity Coleman is looking to establish at the Broncos, having progressed through the Broncos’ Academy and having established himself as a first-team player.

In addition to retaining the Broncos’ club captain, Coleman has wasted no time in utilising his extensive network to persuade previous homegrown Broncos stars Iliess Macani and Lewis Bienek to join the club. He has also been able to successfully retain highly-talented young prospects Rian Horsman and Oli Leyland on two-year contracts following impressive breakthrough seasons.

Whilst an important component of the new Broncos’ identity is being able to incorporate London and southern based players into their roster, it is also imperative if London are to be successful on the field that they can attract players from the heartlands. It’s a predicament the Broncos have always faced, but now it will be ever more challenging given the club’s part-time status.

Broncos fans, however, will be delighted to see Coleman secure key heartland signings – such as hooker Declan O’Donnell from Workington and Brad Foster from Doncaster. Coleman has also managed to secure key oversees personnel, such as the signing of experienced Papua New Guinea International Wellington Albert and former Newcastle Knights Under-23 player Rob Tuliatu in his efforts to beef up the Broncos’ front row.

The 2022 Betfred Championship season looks to be one of the most competitive yet, with teams particularly towards the upper echelons of the division moving quickly to secure marquee signings. Joey Leilua, Nene Macdonald and Kyle Wood are quality additions to what is set to be an enthralling competition. The Broncos’ prospects in 2022 much depend on how quickly Coleman can get his playing roster to adapt and gel to part-time Rugby League.

The Broncos will be harbouring ambitions of reaching the end of season playoffs, and the round one matchup against Widnes Vikings – a team with similar ambitions – will provide a key indicator of the Broncos’ credentials for the 2022 season

The Broncos’ long-serving Chairman David Hughes has stated on the club website: “This is not a project for today; it is a project for tomorrow”.

It will be crucial for the Broncos’ fans to back the Chairman and their new coach over the next couple of seasons as they look to build the roots to establish a successful and sustainable London Rugby League club.

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