Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
On the surface it was a successful year for the Brisbane Broncos in 2017: a top-four finish and a preliminary final appearance, despite a rugged run with injuries in the second half of the season.
But after some key roster changes over the summer, this shapes as a tricky transitional campaign for Wayne Bennett’s Broncos. Gun halfback Ben Hunt is Sydney-bound, leaving Kodi Nikorima with the No.7 keys, while Adam Blair, Jai Arrow and Herman Ese’ese headline the significant turnover up front.
Jack Bird, Matt Lodge and Sam Tagataese are the key additions to Brisbane’s squad, but all three need big seasons to compensate for a talent-stacked departure longue. Meanwhile, Bennett will be relying on Darius Boyd, Anthony Milford, Andrew McCullough and Korbin Sims to put an injury-interrupted 2017 behind them and hit the ground running.
The perennial heavyweights can never be discounted – especially with names like Boyd, Milford, Gillett, McGuire, Roberts, Bird and Oates driving their on-field fortunes – but plenty of variables have to fall the Broncos’ way if they are to end a 12-year premiership drought.
BEST RECRUIT: Jack Bird is a blue-chip talent and a proven big-match performer, already boasting a grand final winner’s ring and five Origin appearances at the age of 22. A gifted five-eighth, Bird looks set to slot into the left centre spot vacated by Tautau Moga, though he will be given a roving commission by Bennett. The key for the ex-Cronulla utility is to find ways to involve himself in every game, while he is also on the comeback trail from shoulder problems that saw him play just six matches for the Sharks after mid-May and is set to miss the start of the NRL season.
STRENGTH: A line-up dripping with game-breakers and representative stars, directed by arguably the greatest coach of all time who has missed the finals just three times in the past 26 seasons.
WEAKNESS: A lack of depth across the board and question marks around the ability of Milford and Nikorima to direct the team around the park. Seven members of the club’s 2015 grand final squad are no longer at Red Hill.
KEY MAN: The halves need to gel, but fullback and captain Darius Boyd is the glue the holds the Broncos’ game-plan together at both ends of the park. They struggled in his mid-season absence last year, while a bit-part role in the finals severely dented the club’s title bid. A recurrence of Boyd’s hamstring issues in the pre-season are a major concern.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Bennett has showed his hand early, declaring Kodi Nikorima will be the Broncos’ halfback for 2018. It’s the confidence boost the Kiwi utility needs after being shuffled around the team sheet last year. A real live-wire with a cool head and a sound kicking game, Nikorima has to take the pressure of trump card Anthony Milford.
YOUNG GUN: A 118kg wrecking ball with brilliant footwork and natural ball skills, Tevita Pangai Jr has the potential to develop into one of the best forwards in the NRL. After coming off the bench in all 32 first-grade appearances to date, the 21-year-old will get the chance to play a more prominent role with several members of the Broncos’ engine-room moving on.
UNDER PRESSURE: Matt Lodge’s off-field history guarantees he will be under a glaring spotlight in 2018 – a tough prospect for a 22-year-old playing first-grade football for the first time in three years who is expected to fill the void left by Adam Blair. Undeniably talented, the ex-Tigers front-rower should realise he is incredibly lucky to be getting another chance in the NRL and work overtime to repay the Broncos’ faith. The disquiet over his return to the big time – while others such as Todd Carney and Ben Barba remain ostracised – will only subside when he decides to speak publicly about his abhorrent actions in New York.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Sam Thaiday rates as a Broncos legend with 279 games for the club, and a modern great courtesy of 34 Tests and 29 Origins. But the veteran lost his representative spots in 2017 and has effectively been told by the club that he will not be required beyond this season. Coming off a subpar season form-wise, the crowd favourite will be desperate to finish on a high rather than becoming excess baggage in a young forward pack that needs his leadership.
THE COACH: The 68-year-old Bennett’s aura has barely diminished, consistently leading the Broncos to near the top of the NRL pile despite frequent obstacles, and still finding the energy to guide England to within an ace of a World Cup triumph. Only Craig Bellamy’s position is safer amongst the game’s coaches.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Wayne Bennett (1988-2008, 2015-current)
Anthony Griffin (2011-14)
Ivan Henjak (2009-10)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $12.00
PREDICTED FINISH: Fifth
GAINS: Jack Bird (Cronulla Sharks), Troy Dargan (Parramatta Eels), Matthew Lodge (Redcliffe), Patrick Mago (North Queensland Cowboys), Shaun Nona (St George Illawarra Dragons), Andre Savelio (Warrington Wolves), Sam Tagataese (Cronulla Sharks), Jake Turpin (Melbourne Storm)
LOSSES: Jai Arrow (Gold Coast Titans), Adam Blair (New Zealand Warriors), Herman Ese’ese (Newcastle Knights), Keegan Hipgrave (Gold Coast Titans), Ben Hunt (St George Illawarra Dragons), Matiu Love-Henry (New Zealand Warriors), Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers), David Mead (Catalan Dragons), Tautau Moga (Newcastle Knights), Francis Molo (North Queensland Cowboys)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Darius Boyd
2 Corey Oates
3 James Roberts
4 Jack Bird
5 Jordan Kahu
6 Anthony Milford
7 Kodi Nikorima
8 Korbin Sims
9 Andrew McCullough
10 Joe Ofahengaue
11 Alex Glenn
12 Matt Gillett
13 Josh McGuire
14 Sam Thaiday
15 Tevita Pangai Jr
16 Sam Tagataese
17 Matt Lodge