After last year’s Grand Final, there was a lot of expectation surrounding the next Cowboys-Broncos clash. On the one hand, there was a lot of emotional investment for both sides, but especially for Brisbane, and especially for Ben Hunt. On the other hand, there was a sense that North Queensland and Brisbane had to find a way to put any enmity aside for the sake of Queensland Rugby League generally. For a state that has such a strong Rugby League culture but such a small number of teams, there’s no real place for the kinds of local rivalries that abound in Sydney, especially since the Maroons get a lot of their power and motivation from being such a unified force. While the World Club Series provided both teams with the opportunity to continue or revise their Grand Final legacy – as well as to unify as Grand Finalists on the international stage – it was important that their first one-on-one match would be able to susbume some of the intensity of last year’s Grand Final into the friendly, grassroots, community spirit of QRL, without detracting from the Cowboys’ status or supremacy in the game either.
The need for an innovative solution was all the more pronounced in that the Cows and the Broncs typically play one of the earliest trial matches in the preseason as well. In previous years, this has always tended to dilute memories of the Grand Final, but in the light of last year’s standoff it had the potential to turn into something of a rematch, or – worse still – a grudge match. It was a canny decision, then, to stage the game in Bundaberg, rather than at one of the more typical mid-level trial venues. While small-scale fixtures are part and parcel of trials season, Bundaberg is particular low-key when it comes to Rugby League matches, and hadn’t hosted an NRL – or ARL – fixture since 1991. At the same time, Rugby League fandom and culture has played a huge role in rallying the town’s sense of community and resilience in the wake of a fairly disastrous couple of years, with the 2013 floods ushering in an extended period of extreme storms, high winds and more flash floods that have placed considerable strain upon the local economy.
In other words, this was a venue that couldn’t be more different from Suncorp at the end of last year, nor from the high-profile venues of the World Club Series. Sandwiched in between those two appearances, however, it took on a particular magic, especially for the local community, who turned out in droves to see some of the most prestigious players in the NRL kicking a Steeden around in their backyard. It felt right, then, that the most impressive performance in the match came from a relative unknown, Cowboys fullback Kalyn Ponga, who scored a try in the first three minutes, and more than outdid Greg Eden, possibly inspiring Eden’s more galvanising fullback performance against Wigan in the World Club Series in turn. By the same token, James Roberts was fairly quiet, something that continued with the Series, although Wayne Bennett has assured fans that he’s the kind of player who needs to grow into his new role, especially given how suddenly he found himself with the Broncos in the first place.
If anything, it was an even more minor player, Kyle Labutt, who seemed to draw the most enthusiastic response from the crowd, a Bundaberg native who put in the conversion for Ponga’s opening try, confirming this as one of the trial matches that was most focused on emerging players, especially because Johnathan Thurston was absent. Even Milford, Hunt and Wallace felt more junior than they actually are, thanks to the heavy cloud of the Emerging Maroons scandal, which not only ensures that they will be set back from top-tier football for another year but that Hunt, in particular, won’t have the chance to make up for the shame of the 2015 Grand Final at an Origin level. Putting on the Blues or Maroons jersey can be a cathartic experience for players with something to prove, and without that possibility Hunt is going to have to put in a particularly impressive 2016 season. Add to that the fact that his high tackle on Kane Linnett during the Grand Final itself prevented him from appearing the in the World Club Series, as well as the fact that this was his first appearance since the Grand Final, and there was something peculiary visceral and desperate about his presence on the field, especially since the trial match felt like something of a prologue to the Series, right down to the slippery, stormy weather conditions, which just reiterated his upcoming absence.
Nevertheless, the sheer fact of the Broncos win must have meant something for Hunt. Sure, Thurston might have been absent, but nevertheless Brisbane’s ability to stack on 38 points in the second half was impressive. More than any trial match, this one didn’t feel like anything resembling an accurate look at the season ahead so much as a memory of last year, and in that respect there was something powerful about the Broncos victory even if it was a purely gestural or symbolic win. More importantly, perhaps, there was a strong sense that the two teams that really define Queensland Rugby League – especially now that the Titans are in such disarray – were coming together for the sake of Queensland, gathering their ranks in order to consolidate for the year ahead, and for Origin in particular. Last year’s Grand Final was so epic and so mythological that Brisbane – and Hunt, in particular – could never get over it through a rematch, even on the scale of the World Club Series. Instead, the best option was for the Broncos to realise that they were really playing on the same side as the Cowboys all along, which is exactly what happened when they both gave Bundaberg its first NRL match in over twenty years.