In the overlapping realms of the two rugby codes, Craig Gower has done his share of world tours, his passport bulging with stamps after crisscrossing borders, clubs and formats. Having made his name in Australian rugby league – where he played 238 games during 11 years for Penrith, representing his state and country along the way – Gower moved to France to play rugby union and also played 13 matches for Italy, but missed the World Cup through injury. Now 33, he’s back playing league, having joined the London Broncos, a club that, like their star recruit, has been reinvented a few times.
“It’s been a bit of a change of fitness and the kind of training I’ve been doing but, otherwise, I’ve gotten back into it OK,” Gower says of the return to the code that made him a household name in Australia. “I didn’t play the World Cup because of injury, and I guess I still had that burning desire to play and see if I could still do it. There’s still plenty to achieve – it’s a new organisation with new players coming in. We want to get a good squad together and give it a real shot this season.”
The Broncos, though, are not strictly a new organisation – they competed in the first edition of Super League in 1996 before entering into a partnership with Harlequins rugby union and playing, perhaps confusingly, as Harlequins RL. At the end of last year, though, the club announced they would be reverting to the Broncos nickname, adopting a new strip and recruiting aggressively. So it’s understandable that, although the Broncos are not strictly debutants, their rebranding feels like a new chapter.
“With the new players coming in – I think we’ve signed 10 guys – there’s a fresh feel to the squad but we really feel that we can achieve something,” Gower says of the influx of new talent, which includes two players from Manly’s NRL premiership side in Michael Robertson and Shane Rodney, as well as two other Australians, Michael Witt and Mark Bryant, cherry-picked from the now-defunct Welsh franchise, the Crusaders.
For his part, Gower has enjoyed a soft landing in London – having resettled in Bayonne after making his last move, he considers his UK jaunt far more user-friendly.
“It’s been great – I’ve settled in really well. It’s when you live in a different country where you don’t speak the language that you really struggle,” the flyhalf says. “In Bayonne, I was living in a village and you’d have snow on the beach, so, by comparison, it’s not been too cold over here. It’s been pretty good, I reckon.”
Gower’s addition to the Broncos squad is, of course, just one plank in an ambitious project to propel London’s only Super League club toward the playoffs and carve out a niche in the capital, where league has traditionally been unloved. According to Gus Mackay, the Broncos chief executive, cosmetic changes, like the club’s rebranding, must go hand-in-hand with on-field improvement.
“We surveyed our fans and a majority of people wanted London in the name and the club thought that was a good idea as well but we initially discarded the Broncos nickname to encourage people to come up with something new and hopefully be a bit creative,” Mackay says. “But, at the final hurdle in the process, we found people wanted to go back to the Broncos name because of the associations with the success we had in the 1990s.
“We wanted to look at the things we were able to get right quickly and one of those was making sure we have a strong presence on the field. So we’ve signed 10 new players – if we can get it right with our performance, then it makes it much easier for us to market the club.”
The new Super League kicks off on February 3 and, the following day, the Broncos will be hosting St Helens, one of the traditional powerhouses and last year’s runners-up, at their home ground, Twickenham Stoop. It will be, Mackay says, the first step toward a season of dramatic and sustained improvement – last year, a promising start to the competition was scuttled when the team dropped off alarmingly and ended up 12th of 14 teams.
“We were top of Super League after five games last year but then fell away,” Mackay says, before forecast a return to the upper echelon this season. “So our performances have let us down. We’ve got to get to the play-offs and hopefully have a good run in the Challenge Cup and just, overall, be performing consistently and be competitive.”
Mackay acknowledges that, in London, a ready-made market of league-loving expats has gone largely untapped. In future, the Broncos will be hoping to more effectively co-opt antipodeans looking for a London club to support while living in the UK.
“There’s a market for it – Australians and Kiwis love their rugby league and I don’t think we’ve been fully aware of that market: people who come to London for a number of years and still want to watch some rugby league,” Mackay says. “We just want to let people know, it’s on your doorstep – you can come and watch it on a Saturday afternoon. It starts with St Helens on February 4 so, to the man on the street, here’s a big game for you to come and see.”
If the Broncos and Gower are a perfect match in that they are both making fresh starts, there is an equally satisfying rhyme in both having complicated pasts – although the Broncos are alone in being willing to revisit theirs. Gower’s last months playing in Australia were marred by a string of alcohol-related indiscretions and, although, it is the lot of professional footballers to be reminded of their high-profile mistakes, as far as Gower is concerned, he has learned his lessons and come a long way since.
“You’re always getting older and wiser and everyone makes mistakes,” Gower says. “But we move on; the past is the past and I’m just keen to get on with it.”