Championship Focus: Things looking up for London Broncos – but not for the Skolars

RUGBY League expansionists will like the sight of resurgent London Broncos pushing for a Championship play-off place.

But a look at the final League One table will be less appealing.

For London Skolars finished rock bottom, and without a point, the first team to do so in any division since West Wales Raiders in the third tier in 2018.

Like the now-defunct Llanelli club five years ago, Skolars also lost at the first hurdle in the Challenge Cup.

Joe Mbu’s side went down 42-4 in their second-round tie at divisional rivals Rochdale Hornets, a venue they weren’t to return to in the league after pulling out of the match on Wednesday, August 23.

It had been rearranged following a late postponement, due to a waterlogged pitch, on Sunday, July 23, with Skolars en route to the Crown Oil Arena.

Rochdale were subsequently awarded a 48-0 win, meaning that after a 62-20 loss in their final game at North Wales Crusaders, the capital outfit’s points difference was minus 643.     

Of course, failure to fulfil a fixture is a serious matter, and is now in the hands of the RFL’s compliance team.

Skolars will point to the logistical difficulty of a part-time club playing a match more than 200 miles away on a midweek evening.

But some will say clubs enter the competition knowing that could happen from time to time and that Workington Town managed to play at Oldham, a round trip in excess of 280 miles and arguably as arduous, given the roads concerned, on the same night.

Going forward, there will inevitably be concerns about the future of Skolars, who entered the semi-professional ranks in 2003, and fears they could go the same way as West Wales Raiders, Oxford, Gloucestershire All Golds and Hemel Stags, who have disappeared from the League One scene over the last five years.

For the 2023 season, Skolars’ average attendance over their nine league games at the council-owned New River Stadium in Wood Green, part of the North London borough of Haringey, was just 271, a fall of 29 from 2022 and 168 down on 2019 (2020 and 2021 having been affected by the (pandemic).

While London is considered a key area by IMG, the global media company brought in by the Rugby Football League to transform the sport, running any kind of professional sports club there is a notoriously expensive business, and talk of a potential takeover of Skolars has gone cold.

Mbu, the 39-year-old former Skolars, London Broncos and Doncaster forward, returned for a second spell as coach in November 2021, following the departure of long-serving Jermaine Coleman to Broncos, and he has had to deal with a big turnover of players.

A number followed Coleman across the city, while his Broncos successor Mike Eccles moved for versatile Australian back Jarred Bassett after his 19 tries in 16 appearances helped Skolars finish ninth in an eleven-team League One table with six wins last season.

“We understand where we are at the moment, we’re going through a bit of a transitional period, and the players are doing the best they can,” said Mbu in a recent interview with Rugby League World magazine.

“All season we had to keep changing the side, and with that, you lack continuity in team selection and so cohesion too.

“We have to stick together and move forward going into the next couple of years.”

Twenty-two miles to the South at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, Wimbledon, the Broncos, financially underpinned by oil magnate David Hughes, are plotting a route to the second-tier play-offs under Eccles, the club’s long-serving former strength and conditioning specialist, who replaced Coleman, originally on an interim basis, in May 2022.

They went into their round-24 match at Sheffield Eagles in fifth place on the back of three successive wins and seven in eight.

The Broncos were last involved in play-off rugby in 2018, when they were unexpected 4-2 Million Pound Game winners over Toronto Wolfpack in Canada.

While considered unfortunate to have lasted just one season in Super League, the club has found its readjustment to life in the Championship challenging.

But securing a top-six spot, and the chance of a Super League return, would be a significant boost.