Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. He’s baaack!
He may not be able to help them out at five-eighth but Petero Civoniceva’s return to the Broncos after four years at Penrith is a quantum boost for the club’s leadership following the retirement of heart-and-soul captain Darren Lockyer. Big Petero played 215 games for the Broncos over 10 seasons from 1998 and he still has much to offer entering his 15th NRL year. Even approaching 36 years of age (on April 21) he retains the biggest motor in the game – in his past four seasons he’s averaged a whopping 136 metres each outing, and in Game Three of last year’s Origin series he put the field to shame with a game-high 20 hit-ups and 190 metres. On a one-year deal, Civoniceva will provide great back-up to newly appointed skipper Sam Thaiday. He fortifies a Broncos front-row rotation that needed to call on nine players in 2011 – his 47.5 minutes a game for the Panthers was longer than all Brisbane players bar Josh Maguire last year. Whatever they’re paying Petero, he’ll prove worth it.
2. Stellar outside backs
The Broncos rival the Sea Eagles for talented personnel outside the five-eighth position, with their international centres Justin Hodges and Jack Reed in particular their trump cards.
Hodges has the best right-foot step in the game, plus a menacing ‘don’t-argue’ fend. And he is brutishly tough to bring down – his 113 metres a game and 102 tackle-breaks were the second most by any centre last year. Partner Reed rocketed to success in his rookie year, presenting a constant threat down the left edge of the field. Speedy Reed scored 10 tries (third most by any centre) and was a solid defender, particularly one on one. His standout trait is his tenacity at hunting plays – he registered the most ‘good chases’ by any player (57) in 2011. His mercurial rise was sealed when he was called into the England team for the Four Nations, where he was among their best. On the wing Dale Copley and Jharal Yow Yeh are a balanced coupling: Yow Yeh graduated to the green and gold last year after a penetrative season that yielded 14 tries and he forged a reputation as a supreme finisher and steamrolling runner (74 tackle-breaks).
He was the target of most of Darren Lockyer’s attacking kicks and that’s certain to continue, whoever dons the No.6 this year. And this could be the breakout year for fullback Josh Hoffman, whose injury-plagued 2011 ended when he suffered a serious knee in Round 26. In his 16 games Hoffman proved the most elusive fullback in the competition, averaging 6.3 tackle-breaks a game – a better strike rate than Billy Slater, Josh Dugan, Ben Barba or Matthew Bowen. If the Broncos can get stability in the halves you can guarantee their outside backs will continue to cut oppositions to shreds.
3. Thank you, fans
The Broncos have been the benchmark NRL club for fans’ support for as long as anyone can remember – and they just keep getting stronger. Last season they averaged a whopping 33,209 fans through the gates every game at Suncorp Stadium – including corralling 50,859 for their showdown with the Sea Eagles in Round 26. Such backing hands the Broncos a decisive edge even before the referee blows his whistle for time on. Ask any player: they’ll tell you it makes the pain and sacrifice all worth it.
4. Anthony Griffin
It’s not often a rookie NRL coach exceeds expectations after being thrown in at the deep end but Anthony Griffin proved he has the X-factor with the clipboard to stay at the helm of the Broncos for as long as he wants the job. Griffin became a household name overnight when he was appointed head coach after Ivan Henjak’s sacking last February, just weeks out from the 2011 season. It was a gamble by Broncos powerbrokers, but their faith was rewarded immediately. Griffin showed he wasn’t afraid to take risks and notably rested several stars rather than have them back up after State of Origin. Most importantly he turned around the Broncos’ fortunes, guiding them to the grand final qualifier after their disappointing 10th-place finish in 2010. He did so by putting the steel back in the Broncos’ tackling: in Henjak’s second and final season oppositions broke through the Brisbane defenders like they were wet paper bags. The side missed the second most tackles and conceded both the second most line-breaks and metres of territory. But in just one season Griffin arrested that and the Broncos ended 2011missing the fourth fewest tackles and conceding the third fewest line-breaks and metres. They may even get better in 2012.
5. Mobile forwards
The Broncos may not boast the biggest forward pack but they punch above their weight and are among the most agile and skilful. Josh Maguire (105 kilograms) will make his presence felt again after finishing 2011 with the most metres by a prop each game (146); Alex Glenn (100 kilograms) made the third-most tackle-breaks by any second-rower (75); new skipper Thaiday averaged more runs than any other back-rower (16.5); hooker Andrew McCullough (91 kilograms) was the NRL’s third-most prolific runner from dummy-half (183 darts); and lock Corey Parker (100 kilograms) had a career-best season, tallying the third-most offloads (56) as well as adding 138 metres and 41 tackles a game. Throw in Civoniceva and it’s a safe bet the Broncos will ride tall in the saddle again in 2012.