REVIEW: 2023 Brisbane Broncos
‘Tis better to have have had a huge lead and blown it, than to never have had a huge lead at all.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: that was an almighty bottling. A colleague assaulted me with “a classic Broncos choke job” on the following Tuesday and in the following ten seconds that I tried to compile a defence of the Broncos, I realised that all of the most public hallmarks of this franchise over the last decade have been very much public chokings on the biggest stages the sport has to offer.
The Broncos should not have let Kyle Feldt score in the 80th minute of the 2015 grand final and definitely should not have dropped the ball on the golden point kick off. The Broncos should not have let Latrell Mitchell score in the 74th minute of the 2017 qualifying final, putting the Broncos on a path to destruction at the hands of the Storm in the preliminary final. The Broncos were disintegrated by the Ben Hunt Dragons in 2018 and atomised by the Mitchell Moses Eels in 2019. While these latter examples were admittedly very far removed from the concept of choking, which implies victory was at some point attainable, they were matches firmly in the Not What You Want category, mostly serving as dackings in front of million-plus audiences.
In the following years, Brisbane enjoyed the level of anonymity that is only afforded to very bad teams. It was in 2021, Kevin Walters’ first year, that they became a team that couldn’t close out games. Then in 2022, they couldn’t close out finals, even with a 13-11 record. Then in 2023, they became the team that blew a 16 point lead in a grand final. While the Kevolution appears to have a The Arc of History Bends Towards Broncos Victory trajectory, it’s also worth remembering that The Arc of History is a line of best fit. One could equally argue that the defining quality of Walters’ regime is an inability to finish the job.
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In any defeat, there were always going to be a thousand off-ramps from the A1 route to disaster. It happens in every big game, whether it be nervous play the balls, exhausted errors, drop-outs that flop, injury niggles that become writ large, tackles that would not normally have been missed, being run over by Stephen Crichton or, in this specific case, the cost of spending so many kilojoules defending dumb mistakes in the first half and being unable to make the payments demanded in the second.
Like any horrifying aviation accident, avoidance of any one of these hazards would have left the desired result intact. It wasn’t to be. Given the choice between choking to death after an Ezra Mam hattrick and a good defensive effort of an hour and change, and being pushed into industrial food processing machinery for the full 80 minutes to be turned into a fine paste, as the 2022 Eels were, I guess I’d take the former. ‘Tis better to have have had a huge lead and blown it (or a small lead and thrown an interception), than to never have had a huge lead (or a small lead and thrown an interception) at all. Just ask the Lions.
While losing in such a manner is profoundly disappointing, even though I would then and now trade a Broncos premiership for a couple nights’ of uninterrupted sleep (both remaining annoyingly out of reach), nothing grated so much as the awful post-match commentary. The refereeing was an invertebrate refusal to enforce even a semblance of the rules to cater to the Paleozoic fossils that make up the bulk of NRL commentariat and their consumers. They will maintain their positive view of this approach until their team is on the wrong end of it, at which point they will not have time to engage in self-reflection as the rise in blood pressure will cause cardiac infarction and send them the way of the trilobite. Nathan Cleary is going to need to do a lot more than fail to break down the Broncos’ defence for the entire first half, despite being offered an endless series of opportunities by Broncos errors, and win by more than two points in a game where his team had a 300 metre advantage and 56% possession if he is to claim a title as the greatest player of all time.
To be fair, these were just the headlines and I refused and refuse to consume any analysis or re-watch the match. I am happy to concede that the Panthers are the greatest of all time - the palmares are unassailable at this point - and if any Cleary deserves credit, it’s the elder one who has gone up substantially in my estimation in a way I’ve yet to be able to articulate.
The 2023 Brisbane Broncos were still a very good football team. Perhaps as important as the results was the panache that the Broncos played with. That the Broncos can play such a fast, breakneck, electrifying, exciting brand of football is satisfactory in and of itself. Brisbane scored more tries and broke the line more frequently than anyone else, while putting up an entirely middling completion rate, but crucially also solidified into the second best defensive outfit in the competition. That they won 18 regular season games - the most since 2011 and five or six more than I thought was possible in the pre-season - and two home finals along the way was gravy. It sure beats the shit out of plodding to 17 regular season losses and zero finals games.
Kevin Walters has been given some credit and perhaps deserves more. Undoubtedly, he has had a guiding hand in rebuilding club from its lowest ebb to its current high tide. His ability to bring capital-v Vibes and to trust his troops and stay the course played out well this year, even if there were certain players who almost certainly should have been dropped more ruthlessly than they were and there were some strange decisions that were made at critical points (e.g. the Cory Paix affair) but still paid dividends.
Walters and his team wanted and delivered more defensive steel than the Broncos have shown in many years. The game plan to give the ball to the two or three of the best forwards in the game to assault the opposition and then give it to two or three of the most audacious backs in the game to find a way to score points worked pretty well. The out and out improvement in what had been the ass end of the roster, the likes of Jordan Riki, Billy Walters and even Tyson Smoothy over his brief stint, should be Walters’ crowning achievement.
Much of this year’s success was built on players having career years, an inexplicable amount of time spent in Queensland and relatively few injuries. Whether that is replicable to the same degree next year remains to be seen. If I’m only now willing to extend credit to the three-time premiership winning coach, then Kev might need a few more runs on the board.
There are few-to-no plaudits left to be written about the mainstays of the 2023 squad and little to be gained by recounting how fast they can run or how sharp they look or how hard they hit or how risky they like to play. If you have eyes, you’ll have noticed the same. I’m less concerned about losing Keenan Palasia to Gold Coast but it is a shame that Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler are leaving for Redcliffe. They are, however, not irreplacable. Deine Mariner, graduate of the Selwyn Cobbo Finishing School at Kougari Oval and 2023 Wynnum Manly Dude of the Year, is not a one-for-one replacement for the Englishman, given their respective toolkits, but he is more than capable of holding down a first grade spot. Flegler is an Origin forward and only the third best middle on the team when he isn’t doing something insanely stupid. One of Willison, Te Kura or something other huge young man will fill that void if not next year, then the year after. If Walters can turn Tyson Smoothy into something resembling a functional bench hooker deserving of a minimum salary, then let’s see what he can do with the talent at his disposal and the Broncos conveyor belt finally fired back up and running near optimal capacity.
The women’s season was less sensational, in all the senses of that word. The Broncos faced revenge games three times over, and lost their revanchist rematches with Tarryn Aiken and the Roosters, Lauren Brown and the Titans and Tamika Upton and the Knights. Otherwise, they destroyed the Cowboys, took the long way against the Eels, destroyed the Raiders, had a boot hovering over the Sharks before letting them thrash about a bit more, took the long way against the Tigers and destroyed the Dragons. A toughly fought loss to the Knights in the semi-finals seemed an appropriate end with a scoreline that slightly flatters to deceive about the Broncos’ performance and ability.
2023 was defined by scrappy play, as if the pieces were there but didn’t quite fit together properly. It was not a bad season’s work to be both as rough around the edges as they were and still somehow the fourth best team in the league, albeit at a distance to the top echelon. The Broncos would fall behind at the most inopportune times but, perhaps borrowing from the men’s side of the fence, would hit hard through the middle and then chuck the ball around a bit until the requisite points were found, either from Broughton snaking along the line, or Brigginshaw scheming with a kick behind the defence, or handing off to Hufanga in space and letting her get to work. Lenarduzzi showed she still has the spark and the work rate. Robinson and Ciesiolka were their usual high output selves, although the other wing spot should be occupied by Dam more often than Werner if it can be helped. Brill, Gray, Teitzel and Denman were all good but the next tier of talent down did feel at times anonymous, although most were better than Maddick.
Perhaps that’s the shadows that this team stands in. The 2018-20 women won the trifecta with consummate ease, their female rivals down the road made the grand final (albeit, they blew it) and their male counterparts ransacked the NRLM, completing a glorious return from the covid spoon (albeit, they also blew it). In that context, being good but not great is more prone to camouflage than spotlight. There were worthy individual moments but it took a good two-thirds of the season to prove that the team even had a concept, which proved in the end to be not quite good enough to compete with the best.
The Broncos seem to have more than most of the NRLW clubs of their ‘23 squad returning for ‘24, with only Brigginshaw, Ciesiolka, Robinson, Brill and Brianna Clark signed out to 2025. With multi-year contracts in place for the first off-season, the tumult of transfers should be at its most settled since the inception of the NRLW. That offers the opportunity to build some coherence, but a similar opportunity is offered to all but the Eels and Roosters, and so it remains to be seen what can be manufactured out of the component parts. That’s as much a task for the coach as any.
If both teams share a commonality, other than a propensity to kick down the door of middling teams and play fast and loose on offence, it’s that they’ve been found one to several steps from the summit. There are two premiership-winning men whose job it is to get their respective sides to take those final steps and finish what they have begun. 2024 will show us what they’re really made of.
NRLM Player of the Year - Reece Walsh. The only season preview I wrote this year was for Beyond the Fence, in which I called Walsh the club’s only important signing as a replacement for the replacement level work of Te Maire Martin and the sub-replacement efforts of Tesi Niu. That set the bar far too low for a player who, if he can redouble his efforts in 2024, will trigger a tectonic shift in how the league goes about its football. Honourable mentions to Payne Haas, for obvious reasons, Patrick Carrigan, for obvious reasons, Adam Reynolds, for obvious reasons, and Ezra Mam, for obvious reasons and being my favourite player.
NRLW Player of the Year - Ali Brigginshaw. While this is the lazy answer, Brigginshaw demonstrated once again that a) outside of goal kicking, she’s the best and b) despite her age, you can never write her off. In games where the offence refused to get going, Brigginshaw would just chip and chase to herself, in the mode of peak Wally Lewis, and let the cards fall where they may. Honourable mentions to Julia Robinson, whose absence was sorely noted mid-season, and Mariah Denman, as the most impressive middle.
Men’s Win of the Year - The lifting of the burden as the Broncos defeated the Storm, 26-0, in the first week of finals is a higlight whose luminance will be obscured by what happened a few weeks later but should not be underestimated as a marker of how far this team has come and how good they were. Pitching a shutout against a team that the Broncos haven’t beaten at home in nearly two decades, and lost to twice in the regular season, is good stuff.
Women’s Win of the Year - In a year where the Broncos did not beat of any of the teams better than them, and most of the remaining wins were somewhat disjointed, the Broncos defeated the Dragons, 46-12, in round 9 stands out as the best proof that this team might cohere into a team in 2024.
In 2023, Brisbane had feeder arrangements with the Souths Logan Magpies, Wynnum Manly Seagulls and Norths Devils. This doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the Hostplus Cup team, however, we will consider the full structure of the clubs as part of the Broncos’ farm system.
Norths announced that they were joining the Dolphins for 2024, and were immediately dropped by the Broncos, transferring Jock Madden and Xavier Willison to Wynnum for the remainder of the season. The Devils will be replaced by the Burleigh Bears, returning to the Broncos’ fold for the first time since 2009.
Souths Logan Magpies
Queensland Cup: 2nd, 14-4-2, +196, defeated in week 2 by Wynnum [season review]
QRLW: 1st, 7-0, +130, defeated in the semi-finals by Wynnum
Colts: 8th, 6-7-1, -86, eliminated in the first week by Redcliffe
WU19s: 12th, 1-5, -56
Mal Meninga Cup: 11th, 2-4, -12
Wynnum Manly Seagulls
Queensland Cup: 6th, 12-8, +112, defeated in preliminary final by Burleigh [season review]
QRLW: 4th, 4-3, +52, runners-up to Burleigh
Colts: 7th, 9-5, +134, eliminated in the first week by Sunshine Coast
WU19s: 6th, 4-2, +42
Mal Meninga Cup: 3rd, 5-1, +72, defeated in preliminary final by Redcliffe
Queensland Cup: 12th, 8-10-2, +21 [season review]
QRLW: 5th, 2-4-1, -24
Colts: 10th, 4-9-1, -180
WU19s: 13th, 0-6, -94
Mal Meninga Cup: 8th, 3-3, +6
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