These are interesting times for the London Broncos. After going in liquidation, it looked as if they were going to be thrown out of Super League, but last week an emergency meeting of the top 11 clubs voted to keep them in. Allowing a team to shrug off £3 million worth of debt and carry right on might be setting a dangerous precedent, but it's clear that the League felt that saying farewell to their only presence in the south would be just too great a loss.
To add insult to injury, the Bronco's financial difficulties have meant they've had to give up on their plans to sign New Zealand interational Vinnie Anderson, who's skipped off to St. Helens instead. However, away from the boardroom troubles, the team are actually doing pretty well. They've not managed to win away yet, but at home, after impressive victories over Warrington and Wakefield, they're looking like a strong and entertaining outfit.
Londonist caught up with Jon Wells, who plays at wing or fullback for the Broncos, to assess just how positive the players are feeling....
When and why did you move to the London Broncos?
I played for 5 or 6 years at Castleford, and a season at Wakefield up in the north of England. I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to move down south. When I was at Wakefield we had just finished tenth in the league and that season London had just made the play-offs for the first time, they were fifth in the table and from a footballing point of view it was a good move anyway. From a cultural point of view, looking at it in terms of personal development, it was an opportunity that I wasn’t going to let slip and that goes for all the guys who have come down, especially the British based players. They see moving to London as not only something new, but as joining a team with legitimate title claims, a team with a good system, good infra-structure, good support base. It really wasn’t a difficult choice for me.
You’ve just signed a contract that will keep you at the Broncos till 2008, does that indicate a belief that the club is establishing itself in the capital?
Definitely. I think that’s been the case now for a number of years and I was very impressed when I came down here. Perhaps at Wakefield I had become a bit stagnant as a player – I wasn’t developing. Everybody talks about comfort zones, and I’d spent a lot of time there. I didn’t need to move house when I left Castleford to go to Wakefield – same family, same friends, went to the same shops everyday. I’ve improved out of sight as a player in the last 18 months and I’ve been really impressed by the way the team’s been put together, the coaching strategies and the thinking behind the game and all the hard work that’s been done and I just wanted to stay a part of that for as long as I could.
Have you seen the team develop while you’ve been there as well?
For sure. We learnt from some of our mistakes last year. We had a poor season last season and tried to rely too much on home-grown, inexperienced players. Whilst the idea was right, it’s something that you need to do gradually, in little steps. We tried to do it wholesale last year and we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit. We also had a lot of injuries early on in the season, in crucial areas, which didn’t help. I think this year we’re really getting our act together, we’ve signed some quality players. We’re looking very impressive and we’ve shown what we can do already. We lost at Salford, but we had a cracking opening game against Warrington and they’re a side tipped for good things this year.
What are the Broncos’ objectives for this season? What are the team goals?
Given the outlay on personnel and given the quality of the players in terms of their skills and their experience, I think top six has got to be the target, I know it’s a cliché, everybody says they want to be in the play-offs at the end of the season, but we can legitimately say that’s where we want to be. Another thing that the players have talked about is making Griffin Park a bit of a bogey venue for teams, they’ve got to travel all that way and whereas we travel away every other week, they do it once a year, and it’s a big thing for them and perhaps their minds aren’t necessarily on the football, they’re on the journey and the time away from their families and friends. So it’s definitely something that we’ve looked at as well. If we can make Griffin Park a fortress, we should win half our games and by definition, we’re then in the top six, and that’s kind of how we’ve worked it.
You’ve signed some great players.
We’ve been spoilt really, because you would have been happy with just Thomas Leuluai, or just Mark McLinden or just Solomon Haumono and we’ve got all three of them. It’s cracking for a British-based player like myself who perhaps wouldn’t get the opportunity to play against and with guys of this calibre. We’re lucky, because we’re the side that all the foreign-based players want to join because London is such a great city.
What kind of things do you learn from those kind of players?
I think it’s the little things, perhaps a winning attitude or a winning mentality, a little bit more professionalism. Certainly I’ve learnt from spending time with Australian coaches, the intensity of training has been lifted and the general professionalism around the place has increased. A winning mentality, a professional mentality, that’s possibly the biggest thing I’ve learnt.
GB’s capitulation to the Kangaroos in the Tri-Nations Final. An opportunity for the game missed?
It was. But I don’t really think it was Great Britain’s fault. They couldn’t really do a great deal about what was happening on the pitch on that day. The Australians were an unknown quantity really at that time, they’d had a lot of injuries, they’d not really played particularly well in the lead-up to the Final and then they produced the best 40 minutes of rugby league I’d ever seen, the first half was just phenomenal. The game over here shouldn’t take that badly, we should just sit back and say this is the game that we have, look at the quality that’s on show and let’s get behind it, let’s not let’s write GB off, but get behind them because it’s a fantastic game that we’re all playing
Do you think that the interest in the game is developing?
I think so, especially in London. I think that there has been a lot more column inches and a lot more interest shown on the websites and in the papers and stuff like that. I’m pleased, because I’ve committed myself to being down here for a number of years and it’s certainly something that I want to see. League is my first love, but it’s also my job and I’m absolutely delighted to see the crowds on the up. At Griffin Park now, every week there seems to be more and more faces in the crowd and season ticket sales are up and general interest is up as well so yeah, it’s fantastic, you could never have enough stuff like that. The World Club Challenge is another example, with Leeds beating the Bulldogs, I mean that raises the profile of the game and you can’t pay for that kind of exposure…it’s brilliant.
What do you think of the Andy Farrell situation? Is that a big loss to Super League?
Of course it is, it is a big loss. He’s the Great Britain captain, he’s the current Man of Steel, he’s just been voted the best player in the world. But on the flipside, perhaps Andy Farrell is coming towards the end of his career and he’s possibly had his best years. Perhaps we’d be more worried if it was a Danny McGuire, or a Ritchie Mathers or a Richard Horne or a Sean Briscoe, lads that will be as good if not better players in years to come. The sad thing is that yeah, it looks as if he is going to leave, but the good thing is that the game’s in not a bad state, it’s getting to the point where we can replace him. If I was in Union I’d be worried, taking on a 30 year old guy who’s just had a knee operation and thinking that he’s going to be the answer for the next World Cup. But as a rugby league player and as a supporter, I don’t necessarily think that it’s going to be a big deal. If he goes, he goes, people will just get on with it.
You have a law degree and have just completed a Masters in Criminal Justice studies, how did you combine that with being a professional sportsman?
The two don’t quite go together do they? I was very lucky at the time to have a coach at Castleford who was very keen on his players having other interests outside the game and a number of guys took open university courses or distance learning courses. I’d finished college, really enjoyed myself and got decent grades and I thought I’d carry it on. I never really thought too much about it, I just got on and did it. I studied at Leeds University so I didn’t have to travel too much and if there was ever a clash, my university professor was pretty cool about it all, I chucked him a couple of tickets once and that kept him quiet. I haven’t picked up a pen for 18 months though.
Has your game moved on since concentrating solely on rugby?
I think my game’s moved on now because I’ve developed as a person and I’m getting a bit older, a bit more mature, a lot more experienced as well. A lot of people have asked me whether one has held the other back, but I think the two have helped each other. Each one was a break from the other, so I think they helped each other, rather than hindered.
The Broncos website mentioned that you might be making a few appearances in the forwards this season….
No no no no no – don’t mention that! I had one game in the pre-season at loose forward and I got bashed to bits. I didn’t enjoy myself at all, although I’ve got a new-found respect for the forwards now, learning what they have to go through. At the moment I’m concentrating on fullback or wing.
You’ve spoken quite passionately about the merits of league, compared to union, and you’ve talked about it maybe being more attractive. What makes it more attractive as a game?
I’ve played and watched both games and I feel that a neutral supporter, somebody with no interest in either game, would go to a rugby union game and come back not knowing what an earth had gone on. But by the end of the rugby league game you would have a fair idea how it works, the rules are not complicated. I just think that it’s a very easy game for spectators to start to watch and pick up things very very quickly. I am biased because I do prefer rugby league to rugby union, but having played rugby union for a year and have my head spinning the entire time and not genuinely knowing what I was doing, that’s just how I feel. League is a fast, aggressive, open game with not too many rules and regulations and not too much protocol that holds it back. It’s a good game to play and to watch.
How would you sell the atmosphere at Griffin Park on matchday?
It’s fantastic. I’m not just saying this because I’m a London player. Griffin Park’s a compact ground and the stands are right at the edge of the pitch. The noise level in there is all kept in and the acoustics are fantastic. The crowds are averaging about five, five and a half thousand now, and we’ve got three sides of the ground that are open and we’re filling them regularly. Every home game we have a decent away crowd as well because it’s their team’s chance, once a year, to come down to London, which just makes for a better atmosphere, with noise all the way through the game. I can’t speak highly enough of the supporters, they really know their rugby. Despite the traditional lack of coverage down here they’re really switched on, they really know their rugby.
What’s the deal with the guys in the horse outfits?
Oh, they’re the team mascots…god…I don’t even remember what they’re called…Buck..and …somebody.. I don’t know…Buck and Roo!
And the cheerleaders…I was wondering how young they were…they look very young…
The Cowgirls. They’re old enough. Don’t feel embarrassed. I think everyone in the ground struggles to concentrate when they’re doing the dance routines. Your eyes do wander….
Which team are you most looking forward to playing this season?
You always like to test yourself against the best, and I guess that’s Leeds Rhinos. I like playing against Hull, they play a very good brand of rugby, much like ourselves. We throw it wide quite a lot, we’re not too technical, not too tactical, we just enjoy ourselves playing and I see Hull as another team who play like that, so when Hull come to town, you want to get there for that one, it’ll be a cracking game.
Probably Lesley Vainikolo, basically because I can’t get my hands round him, he’s that big. You know, his arms are like my legs and he’s very difficult to stop, he’s about 18 or 19 stone or something stupid and he’s pretty quick as well. Very, very powerful, so he’s a very difficult player to play against.
Whereabouts do you live in London?
I live in Isleworth. It’s alright, it’s nice, the fact that it’s near to Richmond is probably its best point.
Do you think you’ll move back North at some stage?
Well, I’m enjoying myself so much done here that to be honest I call it my home now. I’ve finally had all my mail re-directed and London is where I consider my home to be now. Every now and again it’s nice to get back up to see the family, but all my friends are pretty much scattered up and down the country now anyway, they’ve moved on and done different things. The things that would tie me to the North are getting fewer and fewer. There’s that many reasons to stay here and that many things to do, it’s a fantastic place to be.
Where do you train?
Brunel University. All you really need is a patch of green grass, two sets of sticks and a gym, and that’ll pretty much do us.
Favourite bar or club?
The pubs on the river down by Richmond are pretty good in the summer. It’s a really good atmosphere, everyone’s dead laid back. I have to say that I don’t get out too much as we have a pretty strict coach…he rules with an iron fist.
Favourite music venue?
Nowhere at the moment, but I could say Hammersmith Apollo as I’m going to see the Kings of Leon there in June. I’ve got tickets to Audioslave in June at the Brixton Academy and I’m going to the Razorlight gig next week at Alexandra Palace.
Been to see any good shows?
I went to see Jerry Springer the Opera two weeks ago and it was fantastic.
I like Regent Street, I like the shopping. In terms of a nice place to wander round, Gloucester Road and Cromwell Street are good, I spend a lot of time there as our physio’s offices are there. It’s a very affluent area and I like pretending I live there! I like Carnaby Street as well, it’s got its own little atmosphere and there’s different kinds of people wandering around.
I would say Richmond Park, but we do a lot of hill running there so every time I go back I get bad flashbacks.
Favourite pastime in London?
I would say discovering the city itself. I’ve made a real effort in the last few months to get out and see London, which is probably something I didn’t do in my first year here, as I was still a bit nervous about the place and the move. But I’ve settled right in now, so Notting Hill is the next one on my list to go, next time I get a day off. I had a look round Baker Street and Marylebone Street yesterday and I went to Soho and Chinatown, not just having a wander but actually spending a bit of time there, having dinner, having a real good old look. You spend a lot of time doing it, but it’s something I’m enjoying.
Strada, an Italian place just up the road in Richmond, that’s pretty snazzy – I enjoyed that last time I went there.
Ever spotted any stars?
Ricky Tomlinson on his bike, he lives round Isleworth way…. I’ve seen Jonathan Ross at the airport, I’ve seen Chris Moyles, who walked past me in the pub, just off Covent Garden
Ever been sick on the Tube?
Ever had a ride on one of those rickshaws in the West End?
Yeah – when I was pissed. I was sick on one of those…..and I got ripped off.
Blimey! Have you ever prevented a mugging?
No, I’m still waiting for my opportunity.
Ever eaten at an Aberdeen Steak House?
I haven’t and I have no intention of doing so.
Good lad. And finally, have you ever been to Stringfellows?
I haven’t. I’ve seen the outside of it, and god it looks grotty, that’s what probably stopped me from going in. It was on my list of places to go, you know, it’s supposed to be world famous, I must go there, but I went past it the other day and it looked terrible.
Thank you Jon, and good luck for the season.
Thanks to Jon Wells, Chris Warren and Sue Harris at the London Broncos.
Their next game at Griffin Park is this Saturday, when they'll be welcoming the mighty Wigan Warriors. Kick off is 6.05pm, click here for details on buying tickets.