Wednesday 17 January 2018 / 01:51 AM

NRL 2018 OUTLOOK: BRISBANE BRONCOS

On the surface 2017 was a successful season for the Brisbane Broncos but they never looked genuinely like threatening to take out the premiership. With some integral players leaving and big names arriving, have the perennial heavyweights got the balance right to end a 12-year title drought? 

Evaluating the Broncos 2017 campaign is tough, and at times a contradictory experience. They finished comfortably ranked inside the top four in both attack and defence (usually a marker for a contending-level team) but failed to truly dominate on either end. As a unit they were versatile and adaptable, but that left them without a specific style to hang their hat on. They were comfortable competing against all teams, but failed to carve out an identity, which found them chasing games and playing to overcome rather than stamping their authority. Despite being an undoubted top-three team all season, their premiership candidacy never felt concrete.

Falling a game short of the grand final is nothing to complain about, and it’s tough to be critical when injuries to two spine members (Darius Boyd, Andrew McCullough) and a key forward (Korbin Sims) hit and derailed their finals campaign, but despite their strong numbers and good record, something stood between them and the true contenders.

The departure of Ben Hunt leaves them in an odd transitional stage, a roster packed with quality that doesn’t appear — at least on paper — to be compatible, especially as they failed to replace their dependable halfback. Setting expectations for this year is tough, and a successful, title-challenging campaign would require some of Master Wayne’s best work. Sure, they’re talented, but just how good are the Broncos?

2017 SNAPSHOT: 3rd (16-8); Points for — 597 (2nd), Points against — 433 (4th)

BEST RECRUIT: Jack Bird is the latest high-profile signing to link up with the Broncos, moving north after an impressive start to his NRL career at Cronulla, where he became a Dally M Rookie of the Year at five-eighth, an elite, premiership-winning centre, and an Origin fixture in just three seasons of top grade. His unrelenting aggression and gritty, tough style of play adds another dynamic talent to a Broncos backline that was in need of some additional firepower. Bird has stated his desire to play in the halves or at lock, but with Milford cemented in the No.6 jersey and (despite common belief) a well-stocked forward pack, Bird will be resigned to the edge for at least the beginning of 2018.

KEY MAN: Matt Gillett remains the Broncos’ best player, and McCullough (as last year’s finals proved) their most important. But for the Broncos to reach – and possibly exceed – their potential, Anthony Milford will have to be front and centre of everything they do. ‘Milf’s’ breakout season in 2015 had him pressing for status as a top-10 player in the competition, but as teams adjusted to his darting runs and dazzling footwork, he failed to make as substantial of an impact. Overcoming an injury-interrupted 2017 will do wonders for his confidence and should see him get back to climbing into the top tier of the league’s elite. After debuting in last year’s series opener, an Origin jersey is likely on the line should his form pick up.

UNDER THE PUMP: James Roberts came across from the Titans with plenty of hype (and an award-winning season in the books just a year prior) but has failed to take the next step and become one of the game’s best at his position. He possesses the talent to become the most lethal strike weapon in the competition, but his defensive lapses and inconsistencies (and lack of passing!) have continued to plague his game. The fastest first step in the league that allows him to break tackles with ease and zoom into the backfield, ‘Jimmy the Jet’ should become an unstoppable force, and such an improvement would go close to pushing his team towards top-four contention.

SELECTION POSER: Kodi Nikorima is a handy footballer and a high-quality utility, but doubts remain over whether he is cut out to play halfback full-time. His stellar record in the role last season — winning 11 of his 13 games in the No.7 jersey (10 of the 11 wins coming alongside Milford) — is encouraging, but is a little smoke and mirrors: their offensive struggles in McCullough’s absence as the season wound down exposed a lack of direction that would usually come from the offensive conductor. With Nikorima’s proven potency as an impact player off the bench, it’s possible he may drop back to his preferred role if things don’t click early. Problem is, there is very little established talent waiting in the wings — Shaun Nona and Sam Scarlett loom as a potential alternatives, and if things don’t go well expect the Milford-Bird partnership to also get a run (although I advise resoundingly against it).

YOUNG GUN: Serving an underrated but undeniably crucial role in stabilising the Broncos’ middle third from the pine, Tevita Pangai Jr quickly gained steam as one of the best young forwards in the game, his eye-opening combination of powerful running and silky-smooth footwork making him a nightmare for tiring defenders, even flashing some tidy ball skills as he grew in comfort (including one of the finest assists of the year with the below gem). Already amassing a cult following with the Broncos faithful, more game time will only boost confidence and flash more of his immense potential. Emerging star Payne Haas will pop up at some point in the season, but with a deep roster his chance likely won’t come until midway through the season at the earliest.

BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: With enforcer Adam Blair now in New Zealand and Sam Thaiday continuing to play a more condensed role, expect explosive prop Korbin Sims to assume the role of the forward pack leader. Sims has grown in each season of first grade and at 26 will be entering his prime years when the Broncos need him to shine most. A Queensland debut isn’t too high of a goal.

THE STAT: The Broncos finished ranked a surprising second in attack last season, averaging just under 25 points per game. Bennett’s dependable defensive systems will hold up, but it’s tough to envision those offensive numbers remaining steady.

COACH SECURITY DANGER RATING: Low — Wayne Bennett is a part of the furniture in Brisbane and is as ingrained in the culture as the club’s logo. That said, expectations are always high and missing the finals wouldn’t do his approval rating any favours. Hard to see his job come under fire though.

THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – A relatively soft start where they face only three of last year’s top eight in their first 10 games and a well-balanced schedule overall with an even split between top- and bottom-half teams from 2017. The least short five-day turnarounds of any team with only one.

Glass Half Empty – Eight Thursday night games (and four away from home), by far the most of any team. Five of their last seven games are against last year’s finals teams, which could make for a tough finish if they’re still trying to secure a playoff spot.

POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 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

WAY-TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Finals contender, 4-10 range

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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