As with every season since they last lifted the greatest prize in the game, 2018 started with high expectations for the Brisbane Broncos and veteran coach Wayne Bennett, but on a warm, sunny afternoon at Suncorp Stadium in front of over 47,000 rabid fans, it all fell to pieces once more.
While few would have expected Broncos to march to an unlikely Premiership crown this season outside the greater Brisbane area, expectations for the one-club town are always disproportionate and the mere fact their season came to an end at the hands of returning son Ben Hunt and a Dragons side many tipped to struggle will have ruffled some feathers north of the border.
It remains to be seen whether or not we’ve seen the last of master-coach Wayne Bennett in Brisbane, he does have 2019 left on his current deal, but a first-up finals loss to the Dragons sits as an ugly way to end yet another season.
There will also be a little consternation at Red Hill given the similarities in the way the season ended to the way it began. Despite being considered one of the benchmarks in the league at stages throughout the year, Brisbane started the campaign with a 34-12 hammering at the hands of the Dragons while the 48-18 loss at Suncorp which ended the season will live long in the memory.
As ever, expectations were high in Brisbane that their Broncos would be back amongst the very best the league has to offer and while they didn’t quite manage to keep pace with the trend-setting Roosters or Storm, the Broncos did compile a handy resume of highlights on their way to booking yet another finals experience.
With thoughts drifting back to Brisbane’s last premiership in 2006, the one-town team ended a 12th season chasing the ultimate prize our game has to offer. Along the way, they put together a handful of extremely impressive results, including a 24-20 win at ANZ Stadium against the high-flying South Sydney Rabbitohs, a 28-22 win on home soil against eventual minor premiers Sydney Roosters and a 50-18 thrashing of Penrith at Suncorp Stadium which ultimately led to the Panthers sacking Anthony Griffin.
We’ll touch on them more in the best performers category, but the likes of Jamayne Isaako and Tevita Pangai Junior as genuine match-winners was impressive to watch and should keep the Broncos in good stead moving forward while veteran winger Corey Oates maintain his good try-scoring efforts through yet another campaign.
Take your pick. Aside from the obvious lowlight of being battered on home soil and unceremoniously dumped out of the finals by a Dragons side many tipped to struggle, there was the issue of giving convicted thug Matt Lodge another crack at an NRL career, a whole host of injuries to key players, the rumours marquee signing Jack Bird already wants out and the bitter feud developing between club management and supercoach Wayne Bennett which culminated in a head-to-head battle of the barbecues and plenty of amusement.
Losing Jack Bird for much of the season made it very difficult to integrate the exciting utility into the side and saw rumours surface the star wanted to return to Cronulla. Bird only managed eight games across the whole campaign while other stars Matt Gillett (five games) and Jayden Su’A (15 games) also struggled to stay on the park.
Brisbane’s crippling injury toll made building partnerships and a solid attacking structure difficult and became evident far too often throughout an inconsistent campaign.
Losses to the Gold Coast Titans, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and struggling Cowboys added to the frustrations at Red Hill.
The necessary upside of going through an injury-plagued season is the opportunities handed to young players to come into the first grade setup and make a difference and for Brisbane, no players stood up more than young Jamayne Isaako or Tevita Pangai Junior.
On his day, Pangai Junior is a genuine match-winning quality forward and a joy to watch while Isaako brings a top-class goal-kicking game, is solid under the high ball and capable of playing anywhere across the backline and maintaining a try-scoring threat.
Having played a lone NRL game in 2017, Isaako managed all 25 games for the Broncos in 2018, scoring 11 tries and kicking above 82% for the season. The future is bright for young Isaako and thankfully for Brisbane, the club managed to lock him into a four-year contract as the season wore on.
Obviously keeping all hands on deck will make a big improvement for the Broncos in 2019, but in terms of the key issues they faced on-field, the continued growth of a stable halves partnership will prove invaluable.
Paired together with Jack Bird’s fitness issues, Kodi Nikorima and Anthony Milford showed plenty of glimpses of their individual talent throughout the season, but there were also a few too many times they failed to take a game by the scruff of the neck and dictate terms behind their forward pack.
There’s little doubting the actual talent either man has, and it will be interesting to see if they start 2019 as the preferred halves pairing, but there will be little surprise if Wayne Bennett decides to shuffle the deck once more and try Bird or another option alongside Milford.
Improving their defensive structures and cutting down on the points they leaked across the campaign will also be an important issue for the coaching staff over the coming off-season.
2019: A brief glance ahead
Gains: Sean O’Sullivan (Sydney Roosters).
Losses: Marion Seve (Melbourne Storm), Korbin Sims (St George Illawarra Dragons). Sam Thaiday (retirement).
As things stand, Brisbane’s only recruit for 2018 is young Sean O’Sullivan from the Sydney Roosters. O’Sullivan is predominantly thought of as a halfback and could be the man to solve Brisbane’s halves woes though he did find game time in the NRL this year as a bench utility so his value can’t be underestimated,
Sam Thaiday’s retirement sees then end of a fine career for a great club servant and his passion and enthusiasm for all things Broncos will be hard to replace. Korbin Sims also departs, linking up with brother Tariq at St George Illawarra, but given his hit-or-miss form, he’s replaceable.
More importantly, Brisbane have locked down Matt Gillett (2022), David Fifita (2020), Payne Haas (2024), Jamayne Isaako (2022), Jaydn Su’A (2020) and Tom Opacic (2020) so the building blocks are well and truly in place.
It will be interesting to see if Corey Oates ends up staying with the club given the interest he attracts elsewhere, but of their off-contract talent, tying up a deal for Tevita Pangai Junior would appear to be a priority.
There is plenty of potential in this current Brisbane side, but sorting out the coaching conundrum and having all hands behind the scenes pulling in the same direction is a must if they’re to make the finals again in 2019 and have a genuine crack at ending the longest premiership drought in club history.
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