London Broncos' Head Coach Mike Eccles during the Betfred Championship match between London Broncos and Halifax Panthers at Plough Lane, Wimbledon, England on 24 July 2022.

London Broncos: the rise, fall and journey back to the Super League

Imagine a rugby league club sponsored by Virgin with Richard Branson as its chairman. A club which saw famous actors and members of Take That regularly attend games. A club where your club captain – an all-time great of the sport – dated a chart-topping singer. 

It sounds like something out of a badly written Hollywood movie, but for London Broncos in the late 1990s, it was reality.

The rugby league side, run by Branson and owner David Hughes at the time, assembled an impressive side headlined by league greats Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards. 

In Super League’s second season in 1997, the Broncos finished second. Two years later they would reach the Challenge Cup final, falling to a 52-16 defeat to Leeds Rhinos at a packed-out Wembley stadium. 

If this was a badly written Hollywood movie, perhaps they would have regrouped, gone again, and triumphed.

But sport never quite pans out like that and the story of the London Broncos is no different. 

Financial troubles, groundhopping, and name changes began what was a slow and steady decline for the capital’s only professional side.

In 2014, after a season which saw them win just one of 27 games, the Broncos were relegated to the Championship.

Other than a fleeting one-year return to the top flight in 2019, that is where they have remained.

This year is a fresh start for the London Broncos and the man tasked with getting them back to their best is Director of Rugby and Performance, Mike Eccles, whose job remit sees him in charge of day-to-day coaching but also the club’s long-term strategy.

Eccles, in his own words, is an “accidental coach” having joined the club as part of the strength and conditioning team in 2012.

He said: “I’d done a level two coaching qualification to support my job within the performance department but that wasn’t to advance into coaching at all.

“The opportunity came last year to jump into that lead role and I probably found it more natural than I expected.

“They say you absorb more subconsciously than consciously and I’ve been around so many good coaches at London Broncos and at my time in Salford with the Red Devils and I probably hadn’t realised how much I had learnt.

“It was very much in an hour of need – we were in a poor spot and I thought I’d do this four weeks and step aside. That kept going till the end of the season and now I’ve signed a three-year deal in this role.”

London Broncos warm-up ahead of a Championship match. Image credit: London Broncos

Now heading into his first full season in charge of the championship side, Eccles acknowledges the difference in coaching this Broncos side compared to the majority of rugby league clubs.

He added: “To be successful, London Broncos need to have a very unique identity. 

“What is really important is that we understand the benefits of being in London and completely cut off from the rest of rugby league but also the limitations of the demographics. 

“We need to understand who we are – without wanting to be too cryptic.”

One player who understood and thrived as a part of that unique identity was Tulsen Tollett – a mainstay of London Broncos’ successful side of the late 90s.

Tollett said: “It was a project at the beginning when I first went across and it wasn’t anything that you would be expecting having played in Australia.

“But I really enjoyed it because it was different. It had more of a down-to-earth feel about it – like you were part of one big family. 

“I enjoyed the anonymity of it all. It was more about the fact that you could go places and do things without being noticed. 

“When you were up north people knew who you were but I enjoyed the fact that I could go about my business without those outside stresses – it was really liberating.”

Tollett’s stay at the Broncos reached its climax with the 1999 Challenge Cup Final and, despite the defeat, the day brings back only good memories for the former Broncos player.

He added: “If the game had been 60 minutes, we would have won it. 

“We went into the game with everyone injured – we had guys who played second row and back row playing in the front row because we had no players. 

“I had to get acupuncture leading up to the day of the game just to be able to get on to the field because I had torn muscles around my ribs. 

“We got overrun in the end because we ran out of people but it was a day that I will never forget regardless of the result.”

Tollett would retire just two years later due to injuries, with the Broncos never reaching the same heights again. 

Their decline has been a subject of much contemplation for Tollett and, ultimately, he believes the recruitment is what let his former side down.

He said: “I think in London you have to have players who fit the psyche of being able to play under the radar. 

“If you get any big egos there it won’t work. You can’t have a big ego playing in London – you won’t get that notoriety which you want and expect.”

This is a sentiment which strikes a chord with the present-day and Eccles, who is keen to ensure the right characters are brought into his squad.

He explained: “I’ve been at the club a long time, when the club has spent a lot of money on a lot of high-profile players and has been unsuccessful.

“But I’ve also been at the club when we’ve done the opposite – where we’ve produced a lot of our own players and brought people in who are younger, hungrier, and with a point to prove and that has led to success.

“I want us to get back to that model. I want as many homegrown players as I can.”

To supplement those players, Eccles’ aim is to continue to maintain a core leadership group of senior pros who have remained at the club for several years.

He added: “It is really important to me and I’m delighted that we will be going into next season with a clutch of those players.

“Will Lovell, who is our club captain, has been at the club for a long time. So has Iliess Macani, Jordan Williams, who was outstanding last year, and Sam Davis. 

“The more people who understand our identity and have lived and breathed not just the struggles and difficulties but also the positives of playing down here, the better we will be for that.”

The Broncos are also acutely aware of the changing landscape of rugby league in England with IMG brought in as part of a plan to reimagine and restructure Super League.

Plans to grade clubs and scrap relegation and promotion are reportedly on the table, something that could leave the Broncos in some kind of sporting purgatory – locked out of the pearly white gates of England’s premier competition.

Eccles said: “There is one eye on the IMG report and the grading of clubs but my remit here at this club is to coach whilst the club are dealing with things off the field.

“We’ve got the best stadium in the championship now and we’ve got a really great academy infrastructure in place. 

“Collectively, either on merit or via a grade A license, we hope to get into Super League in the next two years – that is the plan.

“I’m a big believer that the time is now. 

“You hear it in sports a lot of the time – people saying ‘we are planning for this, we’re planning for that’ and whilst you’re doing that you’re missing the jump. 

“We’ve got to be realistic and recognise it’s unlikely we’re going to get back to Super League within 12 months but we need to be up there and back in the mix at the top end of the Championship. 

“The focus is not on promotion, the focus is on being substantially better than we were last year. That is the message.”

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Featured Image Credit: London Broncos

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Mike Kelly
Mike Kelly
27 November 2022 11:16 am

This brought back so many great memories for me, I had just split from my wife and had my two girls every other weekend, I noticed a voucher in a Sunday paper me cheap and kids free so as I was struggling to entertain my girls we went for it.
From the south coast we went to our first Rugby League game, we loved it Laura and Rachel could get involved meet the players we were hooked all three of us were season ticket holders for two seasons watched them play in France and was at Wembley with them too great memories.

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