Can we already rule out the Broncos in 2019?
After being belted by the Roosters, Brisbane has dropped to 13th on the ladder and don't look like Premiership contenders. So where has it all gone wrong?
From Premiership favourites to a club under attack from all angles – the Brisbane Broncos’ rough 2019 start is a huge talking point. Their limp 36-4 thrashing by the Sydney Roosters means the worst Brisbane season start since 2013 when they missed the finals. So what exactly has gone wrong for the 1-3 side and where to from here for the Queensland powerhouse?
It was one of the NRL’s most infamous sagas – legendary coach Wayne Bennett was essentially a dead man walking in his own Brisbane Broncos club despite having a year left on his contact and all this played out in the media during the 2018 season. Having been told under no circumstances would he be receiving a new deal from Brisbane CEO Paul White, Bennett was linked to coaching gigs in Sydney from 2019 onwards giving the untenable status at Brisbane. Penrith and Wests were rumoured to have made Bennett’s sizable offers but in the end Bennett found a home at Redfern, replacing the Souths coach who himself was on his way to replace Bennett’s colossal shoes in Brisbane.
Anthony Seibold may have had only one year’s head coaching experience but he was the man Brisbane identified to lead them to their next Premiership dynasty. Having cut his coaching teeth in Europe before becoming an assistant at Manly, Melbourne and Queensland, Seibold first became Michael Maguire’s assistant at Souths before replacing him for 2018.
Seibold transformed Souths seemingly overnight. A dynamic attacking style led by previously unheralded hooker Damien Cook reinvigorated the monstrous Souths forwards who had lost their way towards the final stages of Maguire’s tenure. Cody Walker – an enigmatic Queensland five-eighth who thrives off unstructured play – became a consistent game-winner while Greg Inglis thrived with increased leadership responsibility. In his one year as Souths head coach Seibold won the Dally M Coach of the Year award and took Souths from 12th to a Preliminary Final.
This season however it may appear Souths have gotten the better deal from this controversial coach swap – they’re flying high while Brisbane are floundering. But all may not be as it seems.
THEN TO NOW – WHERE ARE THE BRONCOS AT?
Last year Seibold started similarly rocky at Souths – it was only after round 6 did his side start to show consistency to his up-tempo attacking strategy. They went from inconsistent performances to a side at one stage stringing together nine straight wins and from round 6 to round 18 scoring at least 18 points a game.
Brisbane in 2019 have started 1-3 and seemingly in disarray but a comparison to last year shows Seibold’s Broncos aren’t a world away in comparison to Bennett in 2018 a month in.
2018 - W 2 L 2 Points For 52 Points Against 87
2019 – W 1 L 3 Points For 69 Points Against 93
Brisbane were 5-5 after ten rounds last year before they started their own hot streak. The Broncos in 2019 may be needing a similar spark- especially during Origin season - to get their top four chances back on track. But it’s not as if the Broncos were on fire to start 2018.
We’ve heard endlessly of the potential Brisbane have in their forwards – it’s undeniable on paper and indeed why veterans Sam Thaiday (who like Bennett was told he wasn’t receiving a contract extension before opting to retire) and Josh McGuire (released early to join North Queensland) were ruthlessly moved on to open space for the next generation of Bronco forwards to progress through.
The strategy may well pay off medium and long-term however this season it hasn’t exactly done wonders for their performances short-term. Yes, they showed up Jason Taumalolo and North Queensland in round 2 but it’s been disappointing otherwise. Matt Gillett is showing signs of getting back to his best on the edge following a broken neck but it does appear the Broncos are missing veteran leadership through their middle.
23 year old Matt Lodge was relied upon to become a leader – instead he inexplicably attacked Cameron Munster’s legs in round 1 and was suspended two weeks. 20 year old Payne Haas failed to cooperate with the NRL Integrity Unit pre-season and was suspended four weeks. 23 year old Tevita Pangai Junior had a barnstorming round 2 sandwiched between two relatively anonymous performances before laying out Cooper Cronk off the ball in their round 4 loss to the Roosters and now faces up to three weeks suspension along with rumours of a big money switch to Bondi.
All this has deprived the Broncos of the forward pack they envisioned would take them to the top. And the kicker is all of these suspensions were avoidable. The Broncos have the cattle but until the forwards take responsibility, they’ll continue to suffer and some fans may regret the particular loss of McGuire.
The Broncos have taken some steps in their last two off-seasons to add veteran middle leadership on the cheap in Sam Tagataese and Shaun Fensom but with both players handed lifelines before they faced retirement, it hasn’t paid off in their on-field selection. Take a look at the Broncos bench against the Roosters:
Gehamat Shibasaki – centre/utility – 21 years old, 2 NRL matches
Jaydn Su’A – back rower – 21 years old, 27 NRL matches
Thomas Flegler – prop – 19 years old, 4 NRL matches
David Fifita – back rower – 19 years old, 15 NRL matches
That is an extremely raw bench and something Seibold has inherited with this Broncos roster. He needs to find a way to either find experience mid-season or to instead perhaps better manage his bench so he has a calming influence to bring on if his side doesn’t get off to an ideal start.
Hooker Andrew McCullough could be the man to bring new energy to the forward pack – his style of play is different to Damien Cook in that he relies more on slight of hand rather sheer pace but as seen at Souths, Seibold is prepared to rely on his number nine to take high responsibility for attacking raids and perhaps entrusting McCullough – who has made over 25% fewer runs in the first four rounds in 2019 compared to 2018 while also making zero runs in the first half against the Roosters- to change things up could take some pressure off his halves.
The three key back members – fullback Darius Boyd, five-eighth Anthony Milford and halfback Kodi Nikorima – are facing serious questions over their immediate futures and rightly so.
Boyd is the veteran presence at fullback and provides the experience which the losses of Thaiday and McGuire stripped away, but he would be unhappy with his 2019 start. Boyd has struggled to insert himself in attack, instead taking a back seat. He’s also made only one line break so far and has rarely threatened to add to this tally. His involvements in defence too haven’t been up to his high standards, particularly when James Tedesco stood him up when scoring. Boyd is a leader and knows he needs to step up to take the pressure off younger teammates.
It hasn’t been doom and gloom entirely though in the backline – Jack Bird’s 2018 season was destroyed with injury and left Seibold with a huge-money player stripped of confidence. Jack didn’t make a Bird of his attempted put-down against the Roosters – the knock-on preventing a morale-boosting try before halftime – but under Seibold he’s looked far more like the NSW and Premiership-winning star from 2016.
His combination with Corey Oates – who has racked up the tries already this year – has been a positive and will continue to develop especially given James Roberts’ injury woes. “Jimmy the Jet” has experienced a flare-up of a niggling Achilles injury which will now see him sidelined indefinitely as they hope to avoid surgery. This robs Brisbane of a key strike option and will give Kotoni Staggs first crack at the centre opening. Staggs is another huge young Bronco talent but at 20 years old, it’s another case of Brisbane relying on youth over experience.
Milford and Nikorima meanwhile are seemingly the poster boys for the apparent Broncos woes. Milford is on a hefty pay-packet but has struggled to live up to his billing as NRL’s next superstar. This goes back to Bennett’s tenure so it’s not solely a 2019 problem. Milford is a confidence player and it is clear things so far aren’t going the Queensland representative’s way this year. He should take confidence though in the progression Cody Walker showed under Seibold’s tutelage – it shows Seibold has what it takes to coax the next level out of a free-running five-eighth.
Nikorima however may be the Bronco under the most pressure. Since Ben Hunt’s departure at the end of 2017, the famous Broncos jersey has been in the Kiwi’s possession however he’s yet to truly claim it as his own. First Bennett and now Seibold have worked with Nikorima – so it’s not as if the playmaker has suffered from quality of coaching. But Nikorima hasn’t consistently shown he’s capable of marshalling games like his processor Hunt was.
It’s easy to remember Hunt’s mistakes however the Queenslander was a Broncos product who earned his stripes and was in a position to command a multi-million dollar Dragons deal along with representative jerseys through his evolution from bench utility to chief playmaker. It may be a drastic call to bench or drop Nikorima however the heat will be on the New Zealand star if he doesn’t show progression under Seibold.
WHAT COULD SEIBOLD HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE?
Seibold does have two potential short-term replacements at seven if he chooses to make the biggest call in his brief Brisbane tenure and move on from Nikorima. Sean O’Sullivan was signed from the Roosters in the off-season and while he’s only played one NRL match, the Broncos hierarchy saw enough in his potential to lure him from Bondi. O’Sullivan’s spent time learning from this generation’s most-organised halfback in Cooper Cronk and former coach Trent Robinson gave him praise for both his intelligence and leadership – traits which would serve him well as a full-time NRL halfback.
Troy Dargan is another intriguing – if unproven- option. Dargan has played for NSW Under 20s and showed great potential in his first season in the Intrust Super Cup for Norths. He’s been in the Broncos setup longer than O’Sullivan and was considered by Bennett as a bench utility last season – much like how Hunt and Nikorima got their Brisbane starts.
Nikorima as a bench utility would bring better balance to Brisbane’s interchange options and allow him to play in any of the spine positions based on game situation. It would however mean yet another loss of experience and would be the biggest symbolic move of Brisbane’s post-Bennett era.
WHERE TO FROM HERE
Brisbane may consider themselves fortunate to get a chance to get back on track when they host the Tigers on Thursday to start round 5. A win and they’d be in the same 2-3 spot they were last year when they ended up one win shy of the Minor Premiership, finishing fifth in the tightest NRL top eight to date. Seibold’s last game against the Tigers resulted in a Souths 51-10 demolition. This time he’d settle for a one point win to get the pressure off his side. A loss though may be the breaking point for Brisbane’s lineup.The Broncos are currently $2.50 to make the top four (BetEasy) and a win against the Tigers will only see that price tighten. This is currently the biggest challenge Seibold has faced in his NRL head coaching career – will his Broncos rise to the occasion against the tough Tigers?