More than either of the other two Queensland teams, it feels as if you can’t take a position on the Broncos without coming clean about whether you’re a Blues or a Maroons fan. In part, that’s because the Titans and Cowboys are much newer teams. But it’s also because neither of them feels tapped into the Queensland heartland in quite the same way as Brisbane. Townsville is just a bit too remote – in a way, it’s the Country QLD team – while the Gold Coast is just a bit too transient in its population, diffuse in its geography and, of course, too continuous with New South Wales. In fact, during the peak tourist season, there are probably more Blues supporters at the Gold Coast than there are Maroons supporters. All that would go some way towards explaining why the Broncos are so heavily identified with the Origin clash, but there’s another, simpler reason – Suncorp Stadium, the Broncos’ home ground, is also the most notoriously brutal stadium in the Origin saga, with three-quarters of the Blues victories in the last couple of decades hinging on Brisbane wins.
As a staunch NSW supporter, then, I’d expect to meet the Broncos in the same way I meet the Maroons: with a healthy amount of suspicion and scepticism. But…I don’t. Against all odds, I don’t really identify the Broncos with the Maroons at all, and I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. The first has to be the retirement of Darren Lockyer, which has severed the connection between the Broncos and the Maroons somewhat. With the exceptions of Justin Hodges and Darius Boyd, most of the key QLD players are now sourced from elsewhere in the State (Thurston, Myles) or from the Storm (Smith, Cronk, Slater), perhaps explaining the greater push in the post-Lockyer period to bring Melbourne’s AAMI Stadium into the Origin ring. At the same time, I think there’s a bit of a perception, among NSW footy supporters, that Brisbane is unofficially our “country” team. Obviously, that’s a perception that arose before the Titans absorbed some of the northern NSW League fandom in the late 00s, but even the string of Gold Coast teams in the 80s-90s didn’t quite fit the profile that Brisbane seems to have taken on for some of my country friends – from Bathurst, Orange, Scone – who see the Broncos as the closest they can get to a home team.
To me, then, the Broncos aren’t aligned with Origin so much as Country Origin, which also means that they’re aligned with the Raiders, the other major contender for NSW’s “rural” team. Along with Anthony Milford as the most recent Raiders-Broncos crossover, Mal Meninga is obviously the common denominator here as coach of QLD and former Green Machine legend, but while his presence tends to fuse the Raiders and the Broncos into satellite Sydney teams, that’s not to say that either teams are necessarily Blues-friendly. If anything, I know born-and-bred Sydneysiders who back the Maroons purely because they’re also Raiders fans. It’s more that the Broncos resemble the Raiders in being a team that only source a minority of their players from the local CBD, instead relying on rural outlying areas and out-of-state recruitments.
Now, admittedly, I’m stretching the definition of rural Queensland a bit by including the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, which are still part of the Brisbane commuter sprawl, even if they’re not part of Brisbane itself. But the way that Brisbane relaxes so effortlessly and gradually into the surrounding countryside – as opposed to the comparatively fixed boundaries of Sydney and Melbourne – is what gives the Broncos their special character as a footy team. As a Sydney NRL fan, I’m always very aware I’m situated in series of very discrete football zones, arranged more or less concentrically around the inner city. That’s part of what gives Sydney clashes their territorial dynamism, but it also staggers the progression from NRL to CRL, more or less relegating CRL to the major country towns. In Melbourne, on the other hand, there’s such a fortress mentality that you pretty much feel as if League stops the moment you step out of AAMI stadium, casting you adrift in an AFL wasteland that always makes it feel a bit like the Storm’s antagonist is Melbourne itself, no matter what NRL team shows up on the night.
In Brisbane, however, there’s more of a sense of the Broncos emerging naturally out of the local Country League teams. You sense a freer and more flexible relationship with reserve grade and local feeder teams, which is perhaps why Brisbane seems to foster so many young guns, with Ben Hunt, Matt Gillett and Ashley Taylor taking the spotlight at the moment. At the same time, older hands like Sam Thaiday and Anthony Milford seem to take on more of a mentor role against the Brisbane backdrop, presumably taking their cues from Lockyer, by all accounts one of the best mentors in the game at his peak. Even Ben Barba seems to have been somewhat nurtured by his time with the club – despite leaving in somewhat insalubrious circumstances, there was a sense that Brisbane had at least helped him get back on his feet. Of course, you could argue that all these factors are alsowhat make Broncos such an incubation-pad for Origin as well. If Brisbane currently feels a bit underrepresented in the Maroons squad, that’s probably only because the next generation of Broncos are about to come of age, buried in the team’s ranks. In that sense, it’s a bit of an all-year-round Origin camp. Still, even with that on the horizon, watching a Broncos game tends to be a cosy experience, and turns Suncorp into a cosy experience, when it’s a home game, which I guess is one of the reasons why Origin Suncorp always feels so brutal by comparison, at least for a Blues fan. And perhaps that’s the laconic genius of the Broncos: they lull you into forgetting Origin, only to double your shock when the Maroons gather under their roof.