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Richard Branson made sure that rugby league was the only sport played in Britain on the day of Diana’s death

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The tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997 sent the entire UK into mourning and in the aftermath only one sporting match was allowed to be played: a Super League match full of Australian rugby stars hosted by Sir Richard Branson.

When the beloved royal figure died in a car accident in Paris on August 31, 1997, her death shocked the world – and one of the UK government’s first responses was to cancel all sports clashes on the day of her death.

Except one.

Virgo entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson with close friend Princess Diana four years prior to her tragic death

The London Broncos, starring Australian star Terry Matterson (pictured), were part of the only sports competition held on the day of Princess Diana's death in 1997

The London Broncos, starring Australian star Terry Matterson (pictured), were part of the only sports competition held on the day of Princess Diana’s death in 1997

The London Broncos would play in the final game of the Super League regular season against Bradford at the iconic Twickenham Stoop.

Branson, a director with the Broncos and a close friend of Princess Di, contacted the then British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and was given permission to let the match go ahead as thousands of fans had already made their way to the contest.

“It’s a story,” then Broncos co-owner Barry Maranta told the… Sydney Morning Herald on the 25th anniversary of Diana’s death.

The London Broncos were previously known as the Crusaders until the powerful, wealthy NRL club the Brisbane Broncos took control of the Super League club in 1994.

Shaun Edwards played for the London Broncos in 1997. He would play an incredible 542 top matches

Shaun Edwards played for the London Broncos in 1997. He would play an incredible 542 top matches

By 1997, they had also become mighty in the British league.

Maranta and his co-owners wanted to bring a little spice to their games to differentiate them from the heavily traditional league and rugby union games in Britain at the time.

“We had cheerleaders, singers, bands. I had brought the principles of American football to rugby league. No one else in British sport has done that,” Maranta said.

Tulsen Tollett, right, who played in both Australia and the UK, fending off a Bradford defender while playing for the Broncos in 1997

Tulsen Tollett, right, who played in both Australia and the UK, fending off a Bradford defender while playing for the Broncos in 1997

This was right up Branson’s alley. The Virgin entrepreneur was not a fan of the stuffy demands of the more ‘normal’ British sporting habits.

He refused to wear famous ties, and when he happened to attend a Broncos game, he was fixated on the more casual, party-like atmosphere.

Branson loved it so much that he stunningly turned down the chance to join the board of EPL powerhouse Manchester United and instead became director of the Broncos.

When his good friend Diana died in the very early hours before the scheduled clash against Bradford, Branson intervened.

 

Sir Richard Branson (right) with Princess Diana on the day his airline Virgin named a plane after the Princess of Wales

Sir Richard Branson (right) with Princess Diana on the day his airline Virgin named a plane after the Princess of Wales

Diana, pictured just two months before her tragic death, was one of the royal family's most beloved figures in recent memory

Diana, pictured just two months before her tragic death, was one of the royal family’s most beloved figures in recent memory

With thousands of fans already on the train to the match, Virgin’s owner contacted Straw, who then let the match go ahead despite an EPL clash having already been canceled on the day.

Permission was given on the condition that the typical Broncos fanfare of entertainment and cheerleading be scrapped, but there was one moment before the game that no one could forget: Branson’s emotional eulogy.

With the sold-out crowd of nearly 10,000 standing in solemn silence and a huge contingent of British media watching, the entrepreneur read out a letter Diana had sent him when he was involved in a car accident of his own.

Sir Richard Branson gives a photographer an 'A-ok' sign during the club's 1997 match against Bradford

Branson appears at a Virgin event, in casual shirt and jeans, in 2019

Sir Richard Branson, pictured in the 1990s and more recently, has a famous sense of casual attire

When he was done, he asked the crowd, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could write that letter to Diana?”

The Broncos were rightly too good and won an exciting game 28-24.

There were plenty of Aussies NRL stars in the game, with native icon Tony Currie coaching the Broncos, and Matthew Elliott – who coached 404 Super League and NRL games before going to the media – heading to Bradford.

Aussie star Terry Matterson (left) playing for the London Broncos in 1997

Aussie star Terry Matterson (left) playing for the London Broncos in 1997

Tulsen Tollett and Shaun Edwards starred for the Broncos, while Manly’s current CEO Tony Mestrov played the second row and Terry Matterson, Eels star Ryan’s uncle, starred.

Matterson previously played for the Brisbane branch of the Broncos and was later inducted into their hall of fame.

Bradford’s side included Kiwi star Robbie Paul and Super League legends Brian McDermott and Steve McNamara – who currently coach a bevy of former Aussies at Catalans.

Kiwi star Robbie Paul (left) takes a break while playing for Bradford against the Broncos

Kiwi star Robbie Paul (left) takes a break while playing for Bradford against the Broncos

Just a week later, Branson officially became the majority shareholder in the Broncos.

He had to sell the club in 2002, but they made it to the Challenge Cup final in 1999 and went to Leeds 52-16.

“And Richard walked into Wembley without a blazer or tie,” Maranta said of that match.

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