Championship Focus: Could Kent embrace London Broncos?

Damian Irvine says that by taking two Championship matches to Ebbsfleet United Football Club, London Broncos have spread the Rugby League word to Germany, never mind Kent.

With the Cherry Red Records Stadium at Wimbledon in the South-West of the capital out of bounds due to pitch maintenance work, the Broncos temporarily set up home at the Kuflink Stadium at Northfleet in the South-Eastern county.

As an experienced Rugby League administrator who has been an influential chairman of Cronulla Sharks and a commercial director of Bradford Bulls and remains a non-executive director of Hunslet, Irvine didn’t need convincing about the appeal of the 13-a-side code.

But Ebbsfleet’s chief executive – a former footballer in Australia, he was appointed in February 2020 after spells in similar roles at Notts County, Wycombe Wanderers and Bradford Park Avenue – was encouraged at the way Rugby League was received by locals as well as the club’s German manager Dennis Kutrieb.

The Broncos played Sheffield Eagles, against whom they staged a remarkable comeback from 28-0 down at the break to win 36-28, and Featherstone Rovers, who were 42-22 victors, at the Kuflink Stadium, which normally hosts National League South (sixth tier) football.

And South Sydneysider Irvine, 46, who grew up supporting Cronulla and played for Bathurst 75, one of the largest football clubs on the regional New South Wales scene, told League Express: “Dennis came with his family to watch the Featherstone game, and was blown away by it all.

“And from talking to our own supporters and other locals who came to watch, I know they enjoyed not only the sport itself – and given the drama of that Sheffield game, who wouldn’t? – but also being among fans of both the Broncos and the visiting clubs.

“And I think it’s worth pointing out that, unprompted, many of the locals as well as our stadium staff commented positively on the respect show by the exiting Rugby League fans and their friendliness.

“It might sound like corporate-speak, but it really was a pleasure to play host to the Broncos.”

On announcing their plan to play at Ebbsfleet, originally one game before the pitch maintenance overran, the Broncos, who moved to Wimbledon from Ealing Trailfinders Rugby Union Club at the start of this season, indicated their intention to take one match on the road every season in a bid to promote Rugby League to a wider audience.

And Irvine would be more than happy for Ebbsfleet to play host again.

“For Rugby League clubs who share grounds with a football club, other than where the pitch is artificial, there will always be the need for maintenance, and it’s generally going to be during the Rugby League season when football isn’t being played,” he added.

“We were able to undertake our work before the Broncos matches, so they had the benefit too playing on a pristine pitch, and the other plus is that it enabled us to use the stadium when otherwise it might have being standing idle.

“That has an obvious financial benefit, and the other plus is that it enables us to offer some work to our part-time stadium staff, who, in our experience, can sometimes be lost during the football close-season because they find other employment.”

Ebbsfleet, who have announced plans to build a new stadium on the footprint of their existing ground, also known as Stonebridge Road, played in the National League top-flight for three seasons up to 2020, when they were controversially relegated after the league was decided on a point-per-game basis after the Covid pandemic forced the early curtailment of the campaign.

They lost out on promotion in last year’s play-off final, which was won 3-2 by Dorking Wanderers.

Ebbsfleet, known as Gravesend and Northfleet up to 2007, start this season at home to Chippenham Town on Saturday, August 6, aiming for success on the pitch and growth off it.

And Irvine believes the stability achieved by Hunslet in recent years provides a great example.

“I think Hunslet have made great progress and are a good example of a club living within its means and thinking about sustainability,” he explained.

“The aim is spend what you earn, whether through the turnstiles or commercially, rather than relying on an individual or individuals to prop up the finances, because that can change – just look at Chelsea, one of the biggest sports clubs going. If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.

“When we say sustainability, what we really mean is security, and I think fans want to know there is longevity in the club and that it has resistance to uncertainty.” 

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