So far, the two most eventful games of the 2016 season have occurred this round – and both on Friday night. If the Good Friday match between the Rabbitohs and the Bulldogs was the most epic drubbing of the year, then the showdown between the Broncos and the Cowboys a couple of hours later was the closest win since last year’s Grand Final. In fact, with North Queensland once again scoring in the final minute and the match moving into Golden Point, it looked as if we might be witnessing a blow-by-blow replay of the Final, until a field goal from Anthony Milford in the last twenty seconds sealed the deal for the Broncos in one of the greatest Grand Final rematches of all time.
Since last year’s loss was so agonising for Brisbane – and so humiliating for Ben Hunt – the team has probably been a bit underrated in the lead up to this year’s competition. It’s important to remember, however, that despite the way things went down against the Cowboys at ANZ Stadium last year, 2015 was still a resounding success for the new-look Broncos. After three seasons of coming eighth at best, Wayne Bennett delivered a second-placed team and Brisbane’s first Grand Final appearance in nearly a decade, while at the representative level, two players debuted for New Zealand and another got the chance to play for the Maroons at an Origin level, With the Kangaroos put on hold, veterans Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday were given an extended off-season, while the growing rapport between Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt, Darius Boyd’s increasing assurance and relaxation at fullback, and a solid squad of young guns, meant that Brisbane started the 2016 season as one of the very best lineups in the competition.
In fact, as Friday’s clash confirmed, the only team that can really give the Broncos a run for their money at this stage – with the possible exception of the Bulldogs – are the Cowboys. From the very beginning, then, the game had the peculiar excitement of seeing the two best teams in the competition go head to head, with both putting in a near-perfect game at moments, which perhaps explains why they almost got to the end of Golden Point without conceding anything. Sometimes that can result from two sloppy teams, sometimes it can result from two brilliant teams, and if we’d been faced with our second tie in two weeks, it would have been for the very opposite reasons that left Canberra and Newcastle so frustrated last weekend when they met at Hunter Stadium.
For all those reasons, the clash between the Broncos and the Cowboys was the most visceral to watch this season – and that’s enhanced by the special rivalry that these teams possess within the competition as a whole. As Brent Tate pointed out in the latest issue of Big League, these two teams enjoy a special competitive relationship that at first glance seems similar to the local barnies that drive intra-Sydney NRL, but that is actually less about rivalry or animosity and more about mutual respect and the overall status of QRL. When the Cowboys and Broncos face off, there’s a sense that they’re both playing for QRL generally, and competing to see who can best represent Queensland, which is perhaps why their games also have a Maroons-like intensity, especially when they take place at Suncorp. Whether because their catchment area is more diffuse, because they’re closer to New South Wales, or because they’re so new, the Titans don’t seem to be a part of this competitive relationship, just as they don’t quite seem to be a part of the culture of QRL in the same way as the Broncos and Cowboys either.
Adding to the suspense at Suncorp, and to the special relationship between Brisbane and North Queensland, were controversial no-try rulings from the bunker for both Matt Gillett and Ethan Lowe. Indeed, from this game on, Round 4 has been all about the bunker, with ambiguous decisions being handed down in most of the games that have taken place over the Easter weekend. In many ways, it looks as if bad calls from the bunker – or at least opaque calls from the bunker – are going to become a part of the rhythm of the game, and one thing that Friday night’s match made clear is that the timing of an ambiguous call can make or break a team’s spirits. Whereas the no-try call on Gillett occurred relatively early in the game – and so galvanised the Broncos to overcome it and build a strong momentum in the first half – the call on Lowe occurred much later, and didn’t seem to contribute to North Queensland’s motivation in the same way.
Of course, the real bunker scandal came during Golden Point, when Thurston’s try was disallowed for no apparent reason. While J.T. sought clarification at the time and in the immediate aftermath of the game, it wasn’t until forty minutes later that the bunker tweeted that it was a – supposed – knock-on from Kyle Feldt that had rendered Thurston’s touchdown ineligible. That kind of discorrelation between what the players can perceive and what the bunker can perceive has to be disorienting and demotivating, especially at such a critical moment in the game, and I’d lay good money that the resultant frustration and confusion impeded Thurston’s form for the rest of Golden Point.
If that wasn’t enough, the bunker had also disallowed a try from Michael Morgan at the 65th minute, thanks to a supposed decoy run from Ethan Lowe at Alex Glenn, although that also wasn’t particularly clear on the ground at the time. For all the brilliance and panache of the Cowboys’ performance, then, it had to be one of the most frustrating conclusions to a game in Thurston’s career. More generally, it begs the question of how players are meant to remain focused, structured and motivated when the refereeing has become so remote. After twenty minutes or so of confusing calls, it felt as if even Thurston’s genius as a leader was unlikely to bring things home for the Cows this time around.
Still, you can’t attribute everything to the bunker. Without a doubt, the Broncos put in one of the best performances of the competition on Friday night, perhaps only rivalled by the Bulldogs’ drubbing of Souths a couple of hours earlier. After a couple of pretty quiet weeks, James Roberts chose this game as his moment to shine, making tough stabs at the line whenever he could, as well as proving himself instrumental in two early line breaks that helped the Broncos get out of the stable with a head start of six points, most spectacularly when he dodged between James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo, eluding Taumalolo once again a short while later to offload to Anthony Milford for a deft try. Normally, the Cows’ big men are dexterous when they need to be, but Tamou and Taumalolo seemed almost clumsy when faced with Roberts’ footwork.
For all Roberts’ contribution, however, it was the halves who were dominant. Ben Hunt continued to erase the memory of last year’s dropped ball with a perfectly placed kickoff, but it was Milford who was really in his element, not just in his final field goal but in his dexterity, judgement and imagination across the game as a whole. While Thurston may have scored in the eightieth minute, it was Milford’s eighty-metre try in the last couple of minutes at the game that kept the Cowboys at bay, and while Morgan is a worthy adversary – he’s scored five tries down Milford’s side of the field in the last year – this really felt like the game in which Milford started to really make his claim for the greatest in the game. Given how uncannily his last-minute field goal recalled Thurston’s last year, I wondered whether people might look back on this game at the moment at which Milford started to inherit something of J.T.’s stature and supremacy in the game.
Still, that’s all a long way off, since Thurston was still very much dominant last night, even if the frustrations of the bunker threw off his focus and concentration a little in the last part of the game. While J.T. is one of the least antagonistic players on the field, he’s one of the most nettled by bad calls, unfair plays and unprofessional conduct, and one of his challenges over the following year will be adapting to bunker calls that may not seem right or transparent at the time. Apart from that, though, the Cowboys and the Broncos came away on remarkably equal terms – the win may have been a salve for Brisbane’s loss last season, but it was a symbolic victory more than anything else, since it’s clear that we’re dealing with the two best outfits in the competition, and that they’re only likely to grow in stature, strategy and conviction as the 2016 season rolls forward.