For a lot of fans, last night’s Preliminary Final was the standoff they were expecting for the Grand Final. On the one hand, the Broncos had skyrocketed to the top of the ladder with a conviction that seemed almost unstoppable. On the other hand, the Roosters had built up a momentum over the last couple of years that seemed to have guaranteed them a place in this year’s Grand Final, especially once they had the minor premiership under their belt. Watching last night’s match at Suncorp, then, was a bit like witnessing the Final that might have been, making tonight’s match between the Storm and the Cowboys even more interesting to consider. At the moment, the Broncos feel like the best team in the competition – beating the Roosters can have that effect – and how the chips fall tonight will go some way towards their confidence leading into ANZ next weekend. For my money, one of tonight’s teams needs to win by a fairly large margin – at least equivalent to Brisbane’s victory of 31-12 – to get the same amount of adrenalin going if they’re going to match the Broncos’ energy when they meet for the showdown next week. Grand Final aside, though, what were some of the decisive factors that lead to Brisbane’s victory last night?
At this stage, pretty much everyone know what Brisbane’s strengths are – but they bear repeating. Since Wayne Bennett has arrived back at the Broncos, the team have taken on a new conviction, with Darius Boyd in particular coming into his own in a way some spectators thought might never happen. Last night Boyd’s game was particularly fine, as he drew on his experience at Origin wing and centre to show us just how far a fullback’s range can reach when he puts his mind to it. Over the 2015 season, you would be hard pressed to find a back who’s managed to match Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s mobility, and while RTS still managed to clock up more metres than Boyd last night, Boyd somehow felt as if he was outrunning him when it really counted, most spectacularly in that opening set when he simply positioned himself to convince Shaun Kenny-Dowall that he was RTS, and picked up the offload to bring in Brisbane’s first try at the fifty second mark.
Along with Boyd, Hunt and Milford have evolved into arguably the premier halves pair in the NRL, and their performance last night was one of their most sophisticated across the season. Again, you can see Bennett’s influence on Milford in particular, who was a bit of an impulsive, emotional and even volatile half before this year, but has managed to rein his talents in and refine his craft as never before. In some ways, that was even more conspicuous last night as the Broncos halves bucked convention to put in a largely aggressive game, moving away from the defensive moves typical of finals footy for a pummelling series of attacks over the first half. Ironically, that kind of assault often depends on patience, quietness and understatement, and it’d be hard to find a subtler halves moment this year than occurred in the 18th minute, when Hunt received a pass from Andrew McCullough, made as if to pass to Adam Blair, and then just as quickly stepped across him and flipped it on to Milford, who then burst through the ruck so quickly that the Roosters never had time to regroup.
If the young guns performed well, then it was also a great night for the ultimate Broncos veteran, Justin Hodges. Love him or hate him, you’d have to concede that Hodges has given his all for his team, and last night felt like one of the crowning glories of his footy career. Similarly, whatever you think of him, it’s hard not to hope that a player of that stature will go out with a bang, and even if the Broncos don’t make it in the Grand Final, last night felt like a fitting farewell for Hodges, strong enough even to withstand the defeat that might come next week. For one thing, it was a match featuring the only two teams Hodges has ever played for: the Broncos and the Roosters. For another thing, it was the first time Hodges had played under Bennett since 2008, and seemed to mark the final stage in the reconciliation between these two big personalities in the wake of their clash in the early 00s. Add to that the fact that Hodges was both club captain and one of the longest current veterans with the club – if you take it back to his debut in 2000 – and it felt right that he was blessed with such a decisive victory, at Suncorp of all places. Even the fact that he was sent off for a high tackle on Aiden Guerra didn’t quite take away from the buzz either, since this might even be a better send-off than a Grand Final win – certainly a better send-off than a Grand Final loss – while there’s something about that tackle that’s also true to the spirit of Hodges’ game as well, which always strayed along the margins of good taste.
If it was a spectacular night for the Broncos, though, it was a sorry night for the Roosters. For the second time in a row, the NRL’s self-styled boutique team has failed to make it through the preliminary final, intensifying the status anxiety, insecurity and identity crisis that abounded in the wake of SBW’s return to Rugby Union. If the Roosters had put in a more gallant performance, things would be different, but last night the decisive moment – the moment that plays such a critical role in finals footy – came a shocking fifty seconds in, with Shaun Kenny-Dowall passing the ball straight into Darius Boyd’s hands. For Roosters fans and Boyd haters – and they’re often the same thing – it was a terrible moment. That gleeful expression on Boyd’s face is going to haunt the Chooks for years. And while you can give some of the credit to Boyd’s dexterity, there’s no doubt it was a moment of insanity on SKD’s part as well. Sure, RTS is so agile and omniscient on the field that you can see why SKD would have assumed he’d be just where he needed him to be, but the fact that RTS was so far away from where the ball ended up has to make you wonder what SKD was thinking as well.
And from that moment on, it felt as if the Broncos were targeting SKD. Not only was he smashed by Hunt, but Blair brought one one of his biggest tackles of the game to the luckless Roosters centre, who almost repeated his opening gaffe with another risky pass at the thirty-five minute mark. Luckily, this time RTS managed to get in place, but even so it felt like SKD was something of a liability, which was all the more unusual in that he played such a decisive role in the Roosters’ victory over the Storm in the first week of the finals. From that hattrick to last night’s hattrick of disasters, SKD feels a bit like an embodiment of the Roosters’ inconsistency this season, as well as their inability to keep their players’ behaviour and media presence under wraps as seamlessly as in earlier seasons. It’s no secret that SKD has been accused of domestic violence, nor that the Roosters have scrambled to excuse his actions, but the whitewashing somehow hasn’t been as convincing as with earlier players. Watching Blake Ferguson come in and restore things with two tries in the second half – and become the unofficial Roosters Man of the Match in the process – you had to wonder whether his rehabilitation was a bit of a last gasp for an outfit that’s made a career out of restoring players to NRL acceptability. However Trent Robinson interprets it, you can be sure he’ll revise the Roosters next year accordingly – after all, he’s nothing if not perfectionist, which must have made last night’s loss to the Broncos even more pointed.