At this time of year, every footy match counts, and every showdown feels like a step towards the finals. The more the top contenders seem to solidify, the more it feels as if anything can happen. There’s a sense of reckless unpredictability in the air. And if last night’s clash between the Broncos and the Bunnies is anything to go by, it’s more than justified. Kicking off Round 25 in style, a storming Brisbane outfit smashed Souths 47-12 in what retrospectively feels like a bit of a grudge match in light of the 36-0 loss they suffered at the hands of the Bunnies at the opening of the season. For my money, we won’t see a bigger gamechanger this weekend, nor a more groundbreaking match for the Broncos this season, even if they make it all the way to the Grand Final. Because this was the moment that Wayne Bennett’s revitalised team really introduced itself to us a totally new outfit. That’d be a pretty epic prospect in itself, but this late in the season it felt like a statement of purpose. Coming up from behind, the Broncos just might take out the trophy yet. Nine years without a title is nothing if not motivating, while losing to the Roosters – as they did last weekend – can sometimes be just what a team needs to gathers its forces as well.
While you can analyse the Broncos surge last night in terms of a whole number of factors, it all boils down to one critical ingredient: the Ben Hunt-Anthony Milford halves combo. I’m about to start a series of posts on key halves in the NRL, starting with Hunt and Milford, so I’ll leave most of my reflections for my first post, instead of clogging up too much space here. Suffice to say that if last night cemented the Broncos as one of the current premier teams, then it also cemented Hunt and Milford as one of the premier halves combos. No less than Reno and Hodkinson, Reno and Keary, or Teddy and Brooks, Hunt and Milford are now officially a force to be reckoned with, although their particular dynamic is distinct from those other classic pairings in some ways as well – a uniqueness that I’ll discuss a little more over the couple of days. All that needs to be said here on the matter here is that a good halves pair also needs a classy wingman, and Adam Blair more than met the challenge last night as well, tapping into a halfback dynamism that didn’t really exists at Wests before he made the move, which is perhaps one of the reasons why he wasn’t flourishing there either.
Leaving aside the Broncs for a moment, then, let’s turn our eyes to Souths, who are down to a measly seventh after a cracking start to the year. Obviously, it’s a mug’s game to assume that a Grand Final victory guarantees anything for the following year. If anything, the precise combination of players and talents that makes for Grand Final magic rarely occurs two years in a row, especially with all the player trading that occurs these days. In the case of Souths, it was particularly unlikely that the team would soar to quite the same heights following the departure of Adam Burgess. Still, the sheer propulsive power of that Grand Final Victory also felt as if it must have stood for something as well. Put it like this: if ever a Grand Final win was going to guarantee a Grand Final win the following year, it was 2015. In years to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if 2015 was canonised as one of the great Grand Final wins of all time – and I say that as a staunch Bulldogs supporter. So it was a bit of a wakeup call to see Souths pummelled so mercilessly last night. And merciless it was. Clearly, the score speaks for itself, with Ben Hunt completing his first hattrick to add insult to injury. At the same time, there was an irreverence towards Souths that was perhaps even more crushing than the score. Brisbane weren’t just smashing them, they were playing with them, taking the control of the field in the 13th minute with one of those forward pushes that makes you know just who’s going to be in control for the next seventy minutes – an even more incredible achievement in that it took place at Allianz Stadium, in the heart of one of the most rabid and racous footy fanbases out there. Against that backdrop, Hunt had license to put in one of his cheekiest performances to date, stealing the ball out from under Glenn Stewart in the 46th minute with an audiacity that made you wonder how it would have looked if Stewart had had the old Sea Eagles posse to rally around him. Here, a severely depleted Souths unit barely had time to bat an eyelid.
And depleted is the key word here, since every major pitfall Souths seem to have suffered over the last season was heightened during this brutal putdown. Three problems, in particular, were taken to their logical conclusion. The first was Inglis. Without Inglis, there’s no Souths. Simple as that. Dylan Walker may be a hard man, but he’s not that hard, no matter how often he scowls at the opposition. Despite being an Origin centre, Inglis, on the other hand, is about the hardest fullback in the game. In fact, you could say that QLD smash the Blues at Origin because they’ve effectively got two fullbacks, with Slater and Inglis fusing into a single formidable unit. Swapping over from his regular work as five-eighth, Walker simply didn’t have what it took, with Jordan Kahu showing him a thing or do as he slid into a try in the 24th minute and took Walker along for the ride in a brutal drag along the field. You can’t image anyone dragging Inglis along the field, let alone dragging him twenty metres along the field and across the try line. At that moment, the Broncos must have known that they’d won the game. Without a fullback who’s got what it takes to stand his ground – and I’m not saying that Walker didn’t give it a valiant effort – it’s hard for a footy team to cohere, and last night was the first time this season that Souths have felt like a collection of miscellaenous talents rather than a single squad.
If Inglis was down for the count, then it wasn’t long before John Sutton and Issac Luke followed suit, thanks to an ankle injury and a shoulder charge respectively. As far as the latter is concerned, it was only a matter of time before this happened, since – to my mind – Luke is the ultimate shoulder charge player. He’s also one of the most emotional players, and the buildup to this Grand Final must be reminding him of what he missed out on last time around, especially with his time with Souths coming to a close. With Inglis out and the team depleted, it stood to reason that someone was going to cop an emotional shoulder charge from Luke, and even his appearance in front of the NRL judiciary a few weeks ago – an appearance that was admittedly a bit ridiculous, but still might have taken him out of this very game – didn’t prevent him taking things that little bit too far and getting put on report for a big hit on Corey Oates. At the same time, though, Luke delivered one of the best moments of the game, stepping out of dummy half to down a try in the 56th minute, with the balls-to-the-wall spontaneity that makes him a great player as well as a massive liability – something I’ll discuss a bit later in a post dedicated to this most volatile of footy stars. Meanwhile, John Sutton was taken off the field shortly after the match began, which I found kind of poignant given how his profile has waned following Inglis’ assumption of the captaincy and the US Bunnies scandal earlier in the year. I like Sutto, and always feel he’s been a bit hard done by – especially when it comes to Origin selection – and I hope he finds his way back to the peak footy he was playing a year or so back.
If there was a high point, it was Adam Reynolds, who often felt as if he was playing in a different match, delivering the best cross-field kick of the game to a Bunnies outfit that were nevertheless unable to prevent it falling into Brisbane’s hands almost immediately. Watching Reynolds move up and down the field was a real lesson in the synergy between halfbacks and fullbacks, with Walker never quite feeling as if he knew how to jack into and boost Reynolds and Keary’s dynamism, which suffered somewhat as a result. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve neber seen Reynolds make a dud move, and last night was definitely one of those moments when he was on point despite everything. Still, all in all, a bad night for the Bunnies, but a brilliant night for the Broncos, as well as a great setup for when Souths take on the Roosters and the Broncos take on the Storm, in what already feel like two of the most hyped showdowns this season. I’m pumped.