Suddenly the only premiership contender without any momentum is the side most likely in 2009, the Broncos humbling the Dragons at home to inflict the Red V’s second straight loss entering the business end of the competition.
The probable minor premiers looked frail. They were exposed as a two-dimensional side utterly dependent on lateral shifts and the creativity of halfback Jamie Soward. The Broncos easily accounted for the Dragons’ sweeping decoy moves and snuffed out their playmaker. With that the home side was left looking more than pedestrian – they looked like a pedestrian hit by a runaway truck.
Worryingly for Wayne Bennett, his forwards – the best metre-eaters in the NRL in 2009 – showed little offensive grunt or ability to make territory (just 1361 metres to the Broncos’ 1565 metres. They missed more tackles than one of then weakest defensive units in the NRL (39 to 27). And the league’s dominant attacking unit have now failed to score a try since the 44th minute of their Round 23 clash with the Raiders. That’s 116 minutes of nothing-doing.
The only thing they won on the night was the penalties 8-4.
The Dragons may be assured of their spot in the top eight but they are playing without precision and look tentative… almost like they are waiting for something bad to happen to their game. Well, it has – and they won’t hold too many fears for the likes of bottom-of-the-top-eight sides come the first week of the finals.
The Dragons were so transparent fans can only hope master-magician mentor Wayne Bennett has some new game-plan tricks up his sleeve he’s been waiting to call on for the finals. If he’s got ’em it’s time to reveal ’em!
Meanwhile it’s hard to believe this is was the same Broncos side that was crushed 56-0 by Canberra just three weeks ago. They were enthusiastic up the centre, worked for each other and in numbers out wide. They made huge metres even early on. They defended with ferocity. They always looked likely.
And Ivan Henjak did a Wayne Bennett on Wayne Bennett – returning the back-handed slap his former boss gave him in Round 4 when the Dragons beat the Broncos in Brisbane with just 15 players utilised on the night. The cushiest pay cheque Ben Te’o and Josh Maguire will ever get.
The Game Swung When… Jamie Soward kicked a fine 40/20 with just a minute-twenty on the clock – and the Dragons failed to mount any threat in the ensuing six. That was an immediate danger sign that their intensity was down.
Then, after a five-minute period of sustained pressure, Wendell Sailor spilled a bomb three metres from his line in the 26th minute. The Dragons muscled up gallantly in defence but on tackle six Broncos prop Dave Taylor was gifted a lovely short ball from Karmichael Hunt on the left edge; he wrestled out of the gang tackle of Matt Prior, Jamie Soward and Sailor to slam the ball on the line for a 6-2 lead (the sides had traded penalties to open the scoring).
Who Was Hot… Brisbane prop Dave Taylor – playing more like a wide outside centre – continued his blockbusting recent form, scoring a decisive try and offloading for the only other four-pointer of the evening.
Darren Lockyer regained the spark in his legs and hands of yesteryear, orchestrating quick attacking play upon quick attacking play. His bombs could not have been more pin-point and reaped points and restarts, with Dragons fielding them in the field of play before being swamped into the in-goal, at will.
Peter Wallace was the perfect foil for Lockyer. Andrew McCullough made a game-high 49 tackles. Corey Parker made 21 runs, 170 metres and 31 tackles.
Former Dragons Ashton Sims and Lagi Setu made 128 metres and 109 metres respectively in little more than 40 minutes each.
Justin Hodges (176 metres from 19 searching scurries) rediscovered his fire, with one run in particular a dazzler beating five Dragons defenders who by rights should have grassed the centre. Sam Thaiday (17 hit-ups, 23 tackles) was a colossus in attack and defence.
For the Dragons second-rower Matt Prior was a dynamo in attack and defence.
Who Was Not… Wendell Sailor lost his compass, time and again running straight across the field to present an easy mark for the hungry Broncos’ defence. The few times he ran straight he was monstered – on one occasion being picked up and driven back almost 10 metres. He dropped a crucial bomb, too.
So did Brett Morris midway through the second half. And the Broncos scored from that, too.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… It’s not often a prop gives a try assist to a winger while playing like a centre. But that’s what Dave Taylor did in the 56th minute.
It began with a towering Darren Lockyer bomb that was spilled by Brett Morris. The next play the ball was sent left where Taylor juggled the receive, brushed aside Jamie Soward, then offloaded to Antonio Winterstein to all but wrap up the competition points.
Elsewhere, Sailor took a slips-like catch of a Lockyer clearing kick that was extremely graceful.
And Morris surprised Tonie Carroll when he wrenched the ball out in a classic one-on-one strip.
And how many locks can a side have? Five-eighth Soward and fullback Darius Boyd poked their heads into scrums during the night.
And a sure sign of Dragons desperation – Matt Prior was collared in-goal in the 62nd minute but threw a speculative offload to Soward to avoid a line-dropout turnover. Soward was easily nabbed.
Refs Watch… A fair game from Shayne Hayne and Ben Cummins. Although they and the sideline officials missed a bunch of forward passes around the ruck area, with Darren Lockyer the main offender.
Bad Boys… No dramas.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Darren Lockyer (Broncos): Absolutely pinpoint playmaker’s game. The skipper kicked 17 times to great effect, mustered his troops with urgency at the ruck and had the defence in two minds all night; 2 points – Dave Taylor (Broncos): Made 32 tackles to go with his try and try assist; 1 point – Matt Prior (Dragons): The standout in the beaten side, Prior ran 165 metres, made four offloads, 19 hit-ups and 24 tackles.
Broncos 12 (D Taylor, A Winterstein tries; C Parker 2 goals) def Dragons 2 (J Soward goal) at WIN Stadium. Crowd: 17,044.