London Broncos in-depth preview: Mike Eccles on grading gripes and Super League approach

Mike Eccles tells STEPHEN IBBETSON of London Broncos’ approach to a unique Super League campaign.

IT’S a season quite unlike any other for London Broncos.

Following a truly remarkable achievement in earning promotion from the Championship, they should be looking ahead with relish to the prospect of taking on Super League’s best and fighting to retain their place at the top table.

Instead, the joy of Grand Final glory in Toulouse was quickly dampened by an indicative club grading that placed them 24th of all professional clubs in the new ‘IMG era’ of Rugby League – almost certainly limiting their top-flight participation to a single season.

It’s a freak occurrence in the implementation of grading, but that makes it no easier to stomach for the Broncos. The bottom line is that, regardless of how they perform on the field, they surely won’t stay up.

In the circumstances, the club has been respectably measured in its public response to what many Rugby League fans far beyond the M25 perceive to be a great injustice. Only last week did owner David Hughes give his view, calling for a reprieve for his club in 2025 should they not finish bottom of Super League.

And now Mike Eccles, the architect of the Broncos’ promotion in his first full season as a head coach, has also come out fighting in defence of his club and against grading.

“The gripe we have as a club is we’ve been in Super League for about 25 years (this will be the 24th) in our existence, and they’ve graded us on probably the worst three years in our history. That’s just unfortunate for us,” says Eccles.

“With all due respect, it’s hard to take how many clubs are in front of us when you think what this club has given to the game in terms of the players it’s developed and the areas of the country where it’s given exposure to the sport.

“We will challenge certain parts of it. I think even the staunchest of heartland fans would disagree with us not being awarded maximum points for the demographic (catchment area, for which London are only graded on the population of the borough of Merton where their Cherry Red Records Stadium sits). 

“Common sense has got to prevail there. We have blokes in our squad from everywhere, so to limit us to Merton is quite odd.”

IMG themselves identified London as a key target area for growth and Eccles would welcome their support: “London is too big for any one owner to take on. It needs strategy and the right people wanting to build a strong London.”

But the coach, who has spent twelve years on the Broncos’ staff after having risen from the strength and conditioning department, also insists they have achieved plenty to date.

“The things people ask of London, the genuine questions about non-heartland teams, London have achieved all of them over the years. They’ve just never achieved them together or for a sustained period of time,” he says.

“In 1999 they filled Wembley. They signed marquee players like Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards, some of the best players to grace the game. 

“We are nomadic, but Richard Branson and David Hughes have taken Rugby League to all areas of London. The game has not done that, the money from those people has done. They’ve spread the game north, east, south, west. 

“They’ve had huge crowds. They’ve had good business models and had money coming through the door. 

“They’ve had relative success. They’ve finished second in Super League and the Challenge Cup. They’ve been promoted on merit without a single northerner in the team.

“They’ve produced players for the England team, for the NRL and Super League. 

“People forget all that. It’s not like ‘we’ve tried it’. We’ve had success in all those areas. How we put that together and make it sustainable is the question.”

The subject of players produced is a particularly raw topic. Shortly after their grading score was confirmed, the Broncos announced that they would be closing the Academy, which has produced England internationals including Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Mike McMeeken and Kai Pearce-Paul, but for which they get no direct reward in grading points.

As England’s only elite Academy outside the northern heartlands, it provided the only real route for budding Rugby League players in the south, but Eccles says it is still in place “in reality” with their new structure.

“We have had to find a drastic reduced way of still developing our own players. When the owner is pumping in the money he is, year on year, into that Academy – it’s hundreds of thousands of pounds – it’s difficult to then not be given points for that and feel we’re not getting the support from the wider game to keep that going,” he says.

“It’s important that we kept a pathway available. We’re running a Reserves, but in essence it’s still our Academy. It’s essentially an Under-19s team – that’s the way I want it to run.”

The production of their own players has never been as important to the Broncos as it is now. Almost all of their promotion-winning squad came through the club’s Academy, making Leigh man Eccles the only northerner to be seen.

“It wasn’t a strategy to have no northern players. It was only when it got pointed out that I realised,” adds Eccles.

“As long as I’m here, that’s what it will be (a team of Academy products). It’s not discriminating against northern players or overseas players, I just want the majority of the team to be our boys, who have come through the club.

“Our Academy players have been doing journeys up north every other week, spending ten hours on a coach, often with kick-offs at 12pm. They’re getting out of bed at half four in the morning. Once they make the first team, they’ve put so much in. That’s so much more sacrifice than most other kids do up north. It means more to them, naturally.”

That’s why the capital club has brought even more homegrown players back since promotion. Three of their eight additions to date – Eccles would like two more before the season begins, with former Wakefield winger Lee Kershaw still on trial to see if he brings the “right balance” to the team – are such players, in Sadiq Adebiyi, Gideon Boafo and James Meadows.

The coach says: “I trust those players. I know what they can achieve. I think they’ll be better in a London jersey. 

“Look at Lewis Bienek, he went up north and played in Super League. He did okay, but the rugby he was playing for us last season was unbelievable, his best rugby. 

“Rob Butler went to one of the biggest clubs in the competition in Warrington and it didn’t work, then he went to Wakefield and it didn’t work. He left (us) an England Knight and for me his performances at the back end of last year were the best of Rob Butler. 

“Again, it means more for them to play for London. I think I can get the best out of them, hit the right triggers with them. That’s why I’ve brought the other three back. 

“Sid’s been unlucky, he didn’t quite get a crack at Super League with Wakefield but I think he’s a Super League player. I’ve seen Sadiq absolutely dominate through the years in the Academy, dominate players who now play international rugby. But he could just never kick on through the injury history he had. 

“I think players like him are ready to go on. We produced them in a Super League Academy and it was always the intention for them to play Super League together. I’m glad I can give them that. The same for Jimmy and Gideon.”

London’s recruitment has done little to inspire confidence externally that they can compete strongly this season – they are 1/3 to finish bottom with Betfred – and Eccles acknowledges that their grading has “not done us any favours at all” in attracting talent, to go alongside the traditional challenge that comes with promotion, only going up in mid-October. He jokes about the club recently being invited to Sky Sports: “They said ‘send your marquee players’. We don’t have marquee players!”

He also says talk of them being a part-time side has been disadvantageous: “We’re not, we’re full-time. We’ve five part-time players.”

In practice, the full squad trains on Thursday evenings and Saturdays, with most players also in on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and the part-time contingent on Tuesday evenings.

Eccles adds: “It was important to me that I didn’t turn my back on the players who have got us promoted. I assured them going into the play-offs that they weren’t going to do themselves out of a job by getting promoted and going full-time.”

So with so many things stacked against them this year, what does success look like for the Broncos? “I haven’t labelled it this year. I did last year – behind closed doors, I said ‘we’re going to get promoted’.

“This year I haven’t done it. It’s important that the players are allowed the freedom to develop without the pressure of the result. It’s my job to keep the pressure off the players, to allow them to develop, because we’re a development club. 

“Success is how well those players do develop across the year. I’m not going to determine where we finish in the league or the number of wins or anything like that. 

“It’s quite an odd one really. I want to get stuck into Super League. I want to develop the players. And I want a team that can hold their own at Super League level. As always with me, I want a team that the fans can be proud of.

“It’s exciting, they’re all Super League players now. If you list the number of Super League or NRL appearances in our team, we’re not talking a lot. We’re going to embrace that challenge. 

“One of the best things about last year for me was proving people wrong. That is the same mindset again, we’re here to prove people wrong.

“Every single one of our players and staff has got something to prove. That’s what excites me. Even the more experienced people have either been released from a contract elsewhere or they feel they haven’t been given an opportunity. 

“I’m the same. We’re all in the same boat. That’s who we are. We haven’t got any superstars. We haven’t got any egos. They’re going to have the chance to take on the world’s best in round one, St Helens. Go and enjoy it, embrace it. They’ve nothing to lose, as long as they give their best.”