UpFront: Growing pains as expansion clubs struggle for a way forward

One step forward, two steps back?

That might seem to be the case for Championship Rugby League beyond the heartlands.

There was relief for expansionists when London Broncos, the former Super League club, recently ended the threat of relegation to the third tier with a sixth win in eleven matches under interim coach Mike Eccles.

But within days, there was apparent concern when Championship rivals Newcastle Thunder announced a return to part-time status next season.

The club went full-time ahead of the current campaign, having operated a hybrid system in 2021, when they played in the second tier for the first time since 2009 after moving up from League One through a bidding process.

While Thunder have an often-quoted ambition of reaching Super League by 2030, some think a disappointing 2022 campaign and the return to being part-time (the two are linked), means realising that ambition is a good deal further away than it was at the start of the year.

The Broncos were playing in the top-flight as recently as 2019, since when two permanent coaches, Danny Ward (in July 2021) and Jermaine Coleman (in May of this year), have departed.

Coleman, appointed in September, had to deal with the transition from full to part-time, and could conjure only one win, and a draw, from his twelve games at the helm.

The Broncos’ survival-sealing victory came 38-12 at the expense of relegated Workington Town, an expansion club themselves on their formation in 1945 and a Super League side in 1996 but who are currently trying to overcome financial difficulties.

That the Broncos had lost 32-18 at Workington in June provides another sign of the forward steps taken under Eccles, and it will be interesting to see whether he gets the chance to try to continue that progress in 2023.

Thunder also have an interim coach, director of rugby and former Widnes Vikings chief Denis Betts, who has been doubling up since Eamon O’Carroll stood down in June.

Whoever is at the helm next year will, like Coleman was at the Broncos, be tasked with climbing the table while managing the change from full to part-time.

There is a school of thought that Newcastle may now find it easier to attract the kind of operators most successful sides need to supplement homegrown products and younger players who have quality but lack experience.

Seasoned personnel tend to come from the heartlands, and most have family commitments, homes and jobs outside the game, which they understandably can’t consider giving up to move to the North-East on a contract which might be full-time, but only lasts a year or two.

Part-time rugby may be much more appealing.

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