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It’s time to cast the die
Broncos and Titans are through to the NRL grand finals
NRLM: Broncos vs Warriors
This game had an atmosphere I have not felt at Suncorp in living memory1. The 2021 grand final was sterile, there would normally be far too few Blues fans for a State of Origin to be an appropriate marker, there was not yet enough on the line and the Dolphins fans were a little unsure of themselves in Conflict on Caxton and none of the recent iterations of The Big Game have been competitive enough for a meaningful comparison to this preliminary final against the Warriors of New Zealand.
I was gassed after the team lists were announced, the crowd (and me) alternating between loud cheers for the Broncos’ players and loud boos for the Warriors’, and the teams hadn’t even come out onto the field yet. The Warriors section was directly on the other side of the stadium, a noisy patch of blue and green and flags in among a generally maroon and gold hue. A guy behind me ensured the Warriors interchange all knew they were shit as they warmed up in front of us, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Bailey Sironen had a brief Daryl Strawberry moment. The collective laughter and lack of denial and total indifference at the forward pass; how embarrassing for the refs to have made such an obvious yet completely inconsequential blunder. Singing “na na na, hey-ey, goodbye” at Adam Pompey as he got his matching orders for a brutally obvious professional foul was a moment up there with starting a bullshit chant a few Magic Rounds ago. Chelsea Dagger on repeat until you couldn’t dagger anymore.
Sure, you might prefer that they don’t literally hand the opposition a few tries and even that didn’t really matter because nepo-baby and previous lost cause, Billy Walters, played a good game and scored a pair of his own. No player better exemplifies how far this team has come in three years. If the Broncos show the Panthers the respect they showed the Eels, the Storm and the Cowboys when they crushed them, it will probably all work out.
The night was fun, relaxed yet lively, easy to lose yourself in the moment and be part of a greater whole. It’s what football should be. Earlier last week I realised that, no matter the outcome on Saturday or, hypothetically, on a following Sunday, I was already satisfied with this Broncos season. It turns out all I really wanted was for my association with the club - which is really just an email that says I’m a member, a couple of my mates, this newsletter and wearing the jersey on the walk to and from Spring Hill to Suncorp - not to be an embarrassing liability.
They’re not embarrassing, they’re good actually.
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Moment of the Weekend
You know it's a good pass when you say exactly that out loud to your family even though they absolutely do not care.
NRLW: Broncos vs Knights
The history of the women’s Broncos side isn’t littered with heroic comebacks against the odds to take victory at the last gasp. In the first three premiership years, the Broncos rarely found themselves behind, let alone by a sufficient margin for long enough for the word ‘comeback’ to be applicable. That’s not meant to be a brag. Most of the best players in the league now, passed through Red Hill during that period.
The Broncos coughed up leads in the 2021* season against the Titans and the Roosters, the only two losses but the latter was extremely consequential, and were outclassed throughout 2022 in a way that is hard to believe. This season, the closest example of a comeback win was Brisbane overhauling a six point deficit to Wests in the last ten minutes to win by four. Otherwise, the Broncos cleaned out the Cowboys, Eels, Raiders, Sharks (albeit letting them back in late) and Dragons, had the traditional arm wrestle with the Titans in what is secretly becoming one of the best rivalries in the game, and were cleaned out by the Roosters and Knights.
Summarising, when the Broncos find themselves down 18-0 after 18 minutes, they don’t usually find a way back to a respectable six point loss against the defending premiers.
It was clear that defence was optional as the second half erupted into a shootout. Red zone visits for both teams turned into points but the Broncos rode a possession swingback, turning a severe deficit of ball early in the game into a surplus by the end, to be in the position to fire more shots.
The Broncos scored five tries, as did the Knights, and the difference in the final score was down to conversions. Southwell made five from five and Brigginshaw could only manage two. It was not and is not realistic to expect Brisbane to score two more tries than this version of Newcastle to make up for the lack of a kicker or even to convert a single try and win it in golden point with a field goal. That player does not exist in maroon and gold. The Broncos needed a Southwell - perhaps she could be called Lauren Brown? - and that absence is material, but the club otherwise has the tools it needs to compete with the best.
NRLW: Titans vs Roosters
The Titans pitched an absolute heater, the first shutout for any team since round 3. That they dealt themselves 12 and decided to stand was brave but unsurprising, given how their season has unfolded and what kind of team the Titans are, but on reputation, one would think that the Roosters would have more to offer.
The numbers tell part of the story. Elliston, Hale and Mato all cleared 100 meters and Bent had 96, leading the Titans to a 250 metre victory in the yardage battle and an extra 100 metres post-contact. Pelite cleared 250 metres by herself. All four forwards made 25 tackles, with Hale a monumental 57. The Titans matched the Roosters for completion rate but kept the ball for longer and made fewer mistakes on defence.
But it turns out if the Titans got after Aiken, the Roosters didn’t have a lot of other responses. The Titans were happy to let Kelleher run with it because the Roosters struggled to get field position and not a lot happened when they had it. Sydney could not find a way to unlock Gold Coast’s defence. It’s one thing to score a lot of points and ride that in a Vlandoball way like it’s still 2021 but it’s quite another to get into the trenches and march to victory. The superstar roster that Politis and co assembled fell short when it mattered once again, brought low by the perfect mix of talented teenagers and hard-bitten veterans that comprise the Titans in a situationally efficient performance.
Things turn quickly in the women’s game. Not for them is the drudgery of a long rebuild, promulgated by failures masquerading as charlatans. The 2021 wooden spoon won the 2022 premiership. The worst team of 2022 is now one of 2023’s best.
The Gold Coast Titans are in a grand final.
There’s just three games left. All times are God’s: Australian Eastern Standard Time.
Sunday 12h50: TIGERS vs RABBITOHS in NRL State Championship
The NRL State Championship will be contested by Queensland’s Eastern Suburbs Tigers and New South Wales’ Southern Sydney Rabbitohs.
In case you’re unfamiliar with this little known southern team, here’s a little background. Southern Sydney were founded in 1908 and play in red and green. Home is the area around a suburb called Redfern, which is about five kilometres south of the Opera House. The Rabbitohs are so named because:
The club mascot is the rabbitoh, a now-disused term that was commonly used in the early 20th century to describe hawkers who captured and skinned rabbits and then sold the meat at markets, so named because they would shout "rabbit-oh!" around the markets and suburbs to attract buyers. The club is also informally referred to as the Rabbits, Bunnies or Souths.
I haven’t watched a single frame of NSW Cup this year2, so couldn’t possibly tell you anything about the Rabbitohs reserve grade side. Souths beat Norths in the grand final, 22-18, and finished the season in second, with a 15-9 record and +51 points difference, the worst of any team in the top eight. The Rabbitohs can draw on actual first grader Blake Taafe, Greece’s hooker in Peter Mamouzelos, and Tallis Duncan and Shaq Mitchell have gotten some NRL minutes this year.
As previously suggested, I don’t think Easts were the best team in Queensland Cup but they did what they needed to do to win the title. Despite my misgivings, the Tigers have named a number of Storm-contracted players, including Jonah Pezet at halfback but excluding Tariq Sims, who still had a bit of pep at this level. It appears Corey Thompson is taking the trail blazed by Tyrone Roberts of retiring from the premiership winning Cup team to avoid the State Championship (only to then turn up at the Koori Knockout and then at Burleigh the next season), so Easts will have to rely on Tahj Wood at fullback. Tristan Hope has been rightfully suspended, pushing Cole Geyer, who was a replacement for the Storm in that round 27 game against the Broncos, into the hooking role. Pezet aside, none of this is great for the Tigers.
We can review the recent track record of Queensland clubs in this fixture, which is not great. The Pride beat the Panthers in 2014, the Jets beat the Knights in 2015 and it’s been all blue since, with big losses handed out along the way, although the Bears were a Billy Magoulis chip and chase away from winning in 2019.
With a week off to prepare after a three decade drought breaking win, there is absolutely no way to know what shape Easts will come in or how seriously they will take this match. I’d be taking this obscure Southern Sydney by a lot.
Sunday 14h55: TITANS vs KNIGHTS in NRLW grand final
2001 Heath Ledger vehicle, A Knight’s Tale, is a serviceable middle-brow historical comedy-slash-action film of the kind that Hollywood used to make before it focussed on exclusively milling multi-billion dollar algorithmic IP spooge.
Even though this film is older than some of the Titans players, the thing that’s stuck with me through the years are the jousting scenes. The crushing impact of the wooden lance on steel armour is palpable. The film’s climax is a final joust in ye olde London wherein an armourless and revealed peasant Ledger faces down the smarmy but ennobled count played by Rufus Sewell, his rival for the love of a woman who exists in the movie as surely as do the other props do. A long stare down precipitates a series of quick close-ups to ratchet the tension up, before sonorous slow motion of galloping horses yields to the decisive unseating of the villainous count in a cloud of splintering wood. Some mild PG taunting follows and everything is wrapped up in a neat little package. As horribly cliche as that seems now, it was also the case then.
Again, because it bears repeating, the Gold Coast Titans are in the grand final. Just as the peasant Ledger understood in his final bout, there’s no secret knowledge required to win. It’s a resolute look in the eyes, it’s the guts to spur the horse on, it’s the courage to take the brutal collision and not look away from flying shrapnel and most importantly, it’s the motivation of true love. I guess this means the prop-woman love interest is a stand-in for the people of the City of Gold Coast, who have been deprived of a man who isn’t a chauvinist under the guise of being chivalrous and has probably never bathed, and a premiership, respectively.
The Knights have not shown anything that the Titans cannot handle. There are two lances in Southwell and Upton whose impact can be weathered if necessary, although it would be preferable to turn the blow aside (and into touch) with plate steel defence, and failing that, metaphorically explode them into shards of ash. It will simply be a matter of being prepared to put bodies where they need to be to stop the lances from striking their target. From Brown across the field to Mino-Sinapati, the Titans have shown that’s what this team can do above all else.
The Knights blinked and turned their heads plenty of times against the Broncos. Newcastle weren’t prepared to take the blows. If Gold Coast can stay on their steed, then the strikes suffered are irrelevant and only one blow has to land to unseat the villain from their horse.
Whether the Titans will be weighed, measured and found wanting remains to be seen but the contest is far from a foregone conclusion. A fairytale ending awaits.
Sunday 18h30: BRONCOS vs PANTHERS in NRLM grand final
People think they hate clubs like the Penrith Panthers but they really hate the Brisbane Broncos. It suffuses everything they do and see. People are as aware of it as air in their lungs: its absence is far more noticeable, and alarming, than its presence. Of course, none of it is rational because none of this is rational. Advantages of money and power, invaders from another place into someone else’s culture, something about Super League, starving other clubs of media attention, arrogance? It all makes otherwise sensible people take leave of their senses.
The Panthers have spent four years at the top of the sport, yearning for both respect and popularity. While many have intellectually acknowledged their accomplishments, emotionally, Penrith have been met with a withering belittlement or worse, complete indifference. Being the Broncos, it doesn't matter how absolutely incandescent the football is or handsome the boys are - have you heard the one octave-higher register of cheers for Riki or seen the Lisztomania for Carrigan? - or the benign Dad Energy of the coach, but clad them in maroon and gold and you'll only get jeers for their lack of success and eye rolls about #PenaltyBroncos when they turn it around. Indeed, that incandescence and handsomeness has probably dulled what would otherwise be much harsher opprobrium.
It took four years to get from one of the ten worst teams in NRL history to being the sole challenger to an all time dynasty3, a potential epitaph some of the more derelict clubs in the league would chop their arms off and sell their mothers for. In that time, and possibly because of exactly what I’ve described, plenty of people who have bitched about the dominant drudgery of the 2020s Penrith Panthers will be nonetheless supporting them on Sunday. I’m not making a case for anyone to change, and leaving Twitter means I don’t have to see the mental contortions, but I am merely laying out a colourful palette of facts from which a truthful picture of context could be painted.
We know who these clubs are, what styles they play and that styles make fights. Brisbane are fast and strong and clever in one way but have weaknesses. Penrith are fast and strong and clever in another way and have different weaknesses. Penrith have enough runs on the board to prove that their style wins football matches. Brisbane, putting aside inane and inaccurate commentary about the lack of “big game” experience, don’t have that record. Brisbane’s variance in their body of work is much wider than that of Penrith’s, potentially lifting the Broncos higher or dropping them much lower than the Chocolate Supersoldiers will have to countenance. The opening diatribe about hatred and handsomeness is cover for the fact that every grand final match preview will more or less boil down to these three points, elaborated on for better or worse by the author.
Because it's just one game, it’s fair to say grand finals are a dice roll4. A lot of things can happen and no one knows which specific thing is going to happen. Still, the dice are weighted more to the traffic lights on black than the maroon, gold and white and that’s fine. The Broncos can win, they might not but they won’t go down not knowing. As was painfully apparent when St Helens beat Penrith in February, this is why we play the games.
It’s time to cast the die.
If you want a chuckle, go check out the Roosters’ NRLW signing tracker. With the exception of Millie Boyle, almost every single player was on a one-year deal. That means, not only did the Roosters try to buy the competition and failed (again), if the NRLW expands next year, their roster is about to be picked about by the new clubs. Try holding on to Aiken and Kelleher when there’s more security and bigger bucks available at other clubs. Watch the expansion chat disappear as Nick Politis quietly strangles it behind the scenes.
I don’t quite know what to make of this: QRL takes pride in new rugby league journey. This kind of thing - that is, openly saying that non-cishet people are fine - is overdue, seems sensitively done but also feels like an ad for a $50 cap.
Why Broncos should thank Dolphins for helping them reach NRL grand final. I subscribe to the overall thesis, but I don’t think “it’s impossible to tell exactly why the Broncos are back in the big dance” is really such a mystery, especially as the article ennumerates a number of the reasons how the Broncos got back to the top this year.
U17s Country beat City twice by a grand total of five points.
Not rugby league: MLB Prospects Are Getting Promoted Faster Than Ever. Why?
Correction: Last week, I said the Dolphins would likely drop their Perth home game for the extra one at Suncorp. I skipped a bit in the release that implies that Sunny Coast would bite the dust because it was too small and therefore too hard for fans to get tickets. Not sure that Perth is better for the Dolphins’ fanbase in terms of ease of access, and that adding more capacity to Sunshine Coast Stadium might be better, as it is on the small side for a semi-regular NRL venue, but there you go.
This is the last The Weekly-style newsletter of the year (and there’s a non-zero chance this is the last newsletter). Irrespective of how the grand finals go, there are four more drafts left, one to review each of the NRL club’s seasons. Then, after 90 posts over six and a bit months, that’s all you’ll hear from me in 2023. I will be taking a couple of months off before planning begins for 2024.
Even with the implosion of most social media platforms (deleting Twitter/X is actually highly recommended), it’s been a good year to start a newsletter about Queensland rugby league. We got new teams in the NRLM, NRLW and QCup, two NRL grand finalists and the Maroons won three of four Origin titles. Kyle Laybutt, exploring the NRL’s 18th team, the Titans are empty and, for some reason, the Magic Round Stats Drop were all relative hits. I’m in the low hundreds of subscribers (although growth curtailed since the Cowboys got bad again) and each post gets at least a few hundred views, which is either much less5 or much more6 than I was getting on pythagonrl.com, depending on the topic.
I’m expecting the operation take another step up next year with the new season and now that I’ve got a better idea of what people want and what’s possible to produce. I have more than a few interesting ideas for future features, but I just didn’t quite have the time or energy to get to them this year. In addition, I’m considering a reader survey, another rivalry survey and making some tweaks to Wins Above Reserve Grade.
Thank you for supporting The Maroon Observer in its inaugural year. Your views and email opens and subscriptions and occassional emails back are all appreciated.
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I don’t recall the last Origin I attended but it must have been in the last decade sometime (no further back than game 1, 2014) and the last Broncos final I went to was a 13-6 victory (that I had remembed as 12-10 for some reason) over, ironically enough, Penrith in 2017. Corey Oates got murdered (actually, it was an accidental head clash with Milford being tackled by Nathan Cleary) and Panthers fans were upset that the ref stopped the game to address the fencing response on the field. Their class knows no bounds, as does the accuracy of my memory.
Hard to watch it when it’s never bloody on TV amirite?
I'm sure you can guess my feelings about St George’s 11-in-a-row in a 10 team Sydney-only practically whites-only comp or Parramatta’s trio of premierships played by part timers with no Queensland clubs and how those dynasties measure up against winning 3-in-a-row in the modern, international and fully professional NRL.
2017 being an obvious exception.
E.g. Peter V’Landys is a French skunk enamored with the broadcasters.
E.g. anything Queensland Cup related.