London was once seen as essential to the revival of rugby league in England. But as the Broncos begin a new life at AFC Wimbledon, has the game finally given up on the capital?
It was the morning after the 1979 Challenge Cup final, and the Warrington Director Harold Genders was sitting in the room of his hotel in Mayfair. Over breakfast, he flicked through a stack of newspapers to see what the southern based journalists had made of rugby league’s big day out. The cup final was still the biggest game in the calendar and a rare opportunity to showcase the sport to millions of viewers on the BBC. The match itself had been a tense battle between Widnes and Wakefield, broken only by a scintillating sixty metre try from winger Stuart Wright. Surely, Genders thought, this would gain some positive coverage. But as he ran his finger through the various sports sections, he found nothing.
It was hardly surprising that rugby league had slipped out of the national consciousness in the 1970s. From its heyday in the late 1940s — when almost five million people passed through the turnstiles in a single season — it slumped into a malaise. Administrators pointed to irreversible changes in social habits and new leisure pursuits that had turned the crowds away. But others blamed the sport itself. As early as 1971, a group of management consultants observed how it had failed to keep up with modern consumer demands: “Hot water poured into an Oxo cube in an impossible to hold plastic cup will not tempt the housewife out of her trip to town or her wrestling on TV”. Nor, they concluded, “is it the best way to get more men into the game”.
More detrimentally, rugby league had no presence outside of the industrial north. The day after the cup final, Genders obtained a giant map of England and identified all the areas where rugby league was played. It was, undeniably, condensed. Apart from Cumbria, most of the clubs remained effectively contained by the boundaries of the M62 motorway — where they had first assembled in 1895. Widnes and Doncaster were about as south as it was possible to go to watch a top match.
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