There are a few places that seem to be death to professional sports teams.
For English Rugby League our graveyard has been London, ever since the days of Fulham coming into existence. Successive boards and benefactors have bankrolled teams, with sometimes world beating players pulling on a London Broncos shirt, only to play in front of a handful of spectators. A general rule for life used to be that if Richard Branson can’t make a success of something, it’s not worth saving, and although his image these days is a little tarnished, this still rings fairly true.
The London Broncos equivalent over here in Australia would be Melbourne Storm if you looked purely at geography. They are cast adrift far south of any other club, surrounded by clubs of other codes and on paper should really struggle. However, they have captured the minds of a niche market, and get along very well down there. They play in a stadium small enough to make a modest crowd look great, yet big enough to accommodate a big crowd if necessary. The actual London Broncos team of the NRL is arguably the Gold Coast Titans.
The Gold Coast is a funny place. There are plenty of inhabitants, a lot of retirees, a “glitter” strip of bars, hotels, nightclubs all along the beach. A massive rebel bikie gang problem and drugs everywhere. It’s also the place where most of Australia’s 18 year olds go when they finish their last ever week of full time compulsory education. “Schoolies Week” is a debauched 7 days of alcohol dance parties, illicit drugs, hotels and Air BnB’s getting trashed and at least one tragic death every year. Cue the usual “he was a lovable, cheeky, easy going kid, he must’ve fallen in with a bad crowd” headlines. Into all this a few years back, was introduced the Gold Coast Titans. Hardly a great place for a professional sports team.
Now, the Titans aren’t the first foray into an NRL team on the Gold Coast, oh no, from 1988 there was a team playing called the Gold Coast – Tweed Giants. The ARL had a clause in place stating that the only club allowed to play in South East Queensland was to be the Brisbane Broncos, so the team with the Gold Coast name (which is actually in Queensland) had to append the “Tweed” bit into their name and play in the NSW premiership.
They tottered along for a couple of seasons, once beating Brisbane who Wally Lewis was playing for at the time. Probably the Gold Coast player English fans would be most familiar with would be “Rambo” Ronnie Gibbs, who played for Cas for a while in the 90’s. He was last seen crippling Gary Pearce by diving at his standing leg as he was kicking up field the bloody thuggish bastard.
So with two seasons under their belt and only about 10 wins out of 40 games played they were in serious financial debt. Nobody wants to watch a team of journeymen lose three times more often than they win, and cash was tight. They were then taken over and financially bailed out by the Seagulls Leagues Club, who provided some cash for a signing spree, including the aforementioned Wally Lewis. They still could only command crowds of around 7,000. Tiny compared to “Big Brother” Broncos just up the road with their enormous stadium and 30,000+ crowds. It’s one of those horrible facts that Wally Lewis’s last act as a professional rugby league player was to captain the Seagulls to a wooden spoon.
By 1996, the Seagulls Leagues club had had enough. Their team had either finished last or in the bottom three each year that they played, and funds were running low. It looked like the end, but the NRL stepped in and, recognising the benefit of having a club in the area, put NRL staff in charge of the club and bankrolled them. This practically new entity became the Gold Coast Chargers.
‘When the Superleague and ARL war was on, the club actually prospered with the average crowds lifting, and some great young players coming through the ranks. They made the finals that year, and were unlucky to be knocked out by eventual winners the Newcastle Knights (with Lee Jackson at hooker!)
The resolution of the SL/ARL was should have been a massive boom for the Chargers, as the Hunter Mariners were folding, and their owners “News Limited” helmed by Billionaire Rupert Murdoch offered to relocate to the Gold Coast, retain the Chargers name, strip etc, bring their best players and $5m in cash too. It’s a weird echo of what would happen the very next year with Gateshead and Hull really. Unbelievably the Chargers turned them down. Missing out on players such as Marcus Bai, Richard Swain and Brett Kimmorley, plus the cash and Murdoch’s muscle meant that 1998 would be their last, and they folded. Hardly anyone shed a tear.
The Titans formed in 2007, and the only link to the previous teams is the geography they play in. However, the similarities are striking. They struggle for crowds, they buy players rather than develop them, and are still firmly in the shadow of the Broncos—despite once boasting layers like Preston Campbell and Scott Prince, who was linked with Hull FC a few years ago. They are a stopping off point for players really, and we’ve recently been lucky enough to take Mini and Stevie Michaels off them, with Albert Kelly coming via Rovers. They’ve had the cocaine scandal, breached salary caps and have only troubled the finals a couple of times in 10 years.
This year looks like being yet another struggle, with them way off the pace. It’s a real mystery, as sometimes they look like world beaters and have screwed my tipping many weeks, other times they are abject. They have one of the best young halves in the business in Ash Taylor and two of the very best forwards in Kevin Proctor and Ryan James, yet their strength in depth seems abysmal.
I’ll make a bold prediction right here and now. The Gold Coast will NEVER have a championship winning sports team. The AFL Franchise there the Gold Coast Suns and they are about to go under and are being propped up by the AFL financially as they struggle to attract a crowd, and the North Sydney Bears backers are eyeing up the Titans for a takeover, which would see the foundation club’s name and colours return, albeit a lot further North than before.
Thank Mint that Hull remains a hotbed of Rugby League – I’d hate to be in one of these outposts wondering if I’ll have a team to support next year.
Until next time, Up the Cream, Gerremonsard and Come on you ‘Ull.
Rich – Twitter @pommyrich