Season Preview: Brisbane Broncos

ALMOST like clockwork, the dawn of a new season brings with it another wave of questions surrounding the premiership credentials of the Brisbane Broncos.<br><br>Twelve months ago it was the departure of coach Wayne Bennett – the man most responsible for forging the club’s reputation as the most successful of the past 20 years.<br><br>This time around it’s the playing staff.<br><br>Bennett’s replacement, Ivan Henjak, saw his side stage a remarkable recovery in 2009 to fall just one game short of the grand final – having only weeks earlier appeared in serious danger of missing the finals for the first time in18 years.<br><br>In 2010 he’ll have to do it all again minus three of his biggest stars in Karmichael Hunt, Dave Taylor and Tonie Carroll.<br><br>Hunt’s decision to quit the NRL for a shot at Aussie Rules sent shockwaves through the game last year but the consequences are far more serious for Henjak who has seen the balance of his side thrown completely off.<br><br>To complicate matters, a possibly season-ending knee injury to Justin Hodges means the logical solution to filling Hunt’s no.1 jersey is no longer an option.<br><br>Taylor’s departure could prove just as telling.<br><br>Although the talented youngster has taken plenty of time living up to his potential, his stunning form late last year was a key reason for the Broncos’ dramatic surge into the finals.<br><br>As usual, captain Darren Lockyer will hold his side’s fortunes in his vastly experienced hands.<br><br>And although their stocks look noticeably thinner than in the past, Brisbane is one club that you write off at your peril.<br><br><b>Their Keys To Success…</b> There was a time when Brisbane were the great ad-libbers of the NRL, but those days are long gone. In fact, expect the Broncos circa-2010 to evolve into one of the most disciplined sides in the Telstra Premiership, having now lost the skills of Hunt and Taylor, the experience of Carroll and the bulk of prop Joel Clinton.<br><br>Even last season, with those players on board, Brisbane scored more than 70 per cent of their tries from inside the opposition 20, so they will definitely be looking to focus on field position and keeping it simple in 2010.<br><br>Similarly, one of their finest performances in 2009 came with a rare win over eventual premiers Melbourne in Round 2 when they ran 44 times from dummy-half compared to just 16 from the Storm.<br><br>Discipline is the key for them.<br><b><br>Expect Plenty From…</b> Sam Thaiday. The Broncos front-rower served a long apprenticeship under some of the best in the business – namely Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva – and has emerged as an elite player in his own right.<br><br>However, the departure of both mentors as well as fellow props Ben Hannant, Joel Clinton and Dave Taylor over the past 12 months has left Thaiday to shoulder most of the responsibility for his side’s go-forward.<br><br>The 24-year-old impressed last season and was a key member of Queensland’s series-winning side, but he will need to lift yet again in 2010 if Brisbane are going to challenge the big guns come September.<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss…</b> Karmichael Hunt. Rugby league has a proud history of unearthing some amazing young talent to replace its departing superstars, but try telling that to Ivan Henjak.<br><br>Queensland may have an abundance of quality fullbacks to choose from but Hunt was far more than just a handy custodian to the Broncos. <br><br>A strong last line of defence, he would regularly chime into the backline and provided an extra playmaking option with the ball in hand that eased the pressure on halves Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace.<br>More importantly, his departure leaves the question of who is going to replace him.<br><br>Hodges, before he was injured in the pre-season, was one option – although moving him would have severely weakened Brisbane out wide – while they certainly can’t afford to move Lockyer back to his original position given his massive influence in the halves.<br><br>It’s likely this dilemma will be a work in progress early in 2010.<br><br><b>Time To Stand Up…</b> Peter Wallace. When he arrived from Penrith in 2008, Peter Wallace hit the ground running – so much so that within three months he was wearing a sky blue jersey. <br><br>Yet such early success brought with it increased expectations and the talented no.7 has certainly struggled for consistency since.<br><br>In each of his two seasons with the Broncos, Wallace’s form has noticeably slumped in the post-Origin period (albeit with some injury concerns in 2009); but with Hunt no longer there to help, the 24-year-old must perform year-round in 2010.<br><br>It’s not too great a stretch to suggest that Brisbane’s premiership hopes rest on Wallace’s ability to ease the pressure on Lockyer as the year wears on.<br><br><b>Coach Watch…</b> Ivan Henjak was on a hiding to nothing last season. Such was Wayne Bennett’s incredible legacy at the club, with six premierships and 18 consecutive finals appearances to his name, that anything less than a top-eight berth would be seen as an abject failure.<br><br>Make the finals, however, and he had simply achieved what everyone had expected in the first place.<br><br>To his credit, Henjak emerged unscathed despite a worrying slump that saw the side sitting in 10th spot on the ladder with five rounds remaining.<br><br>Not only did Brisbane respond when it mattered most, the manner in which they flew home – winning their final five regular season matches before upsetting both the Gold Coast and minor premiers St George Illawarra in the finals – saw Henjak rewarded with a two-year contract extension to the end of 2012.<br><br><b>They’re All The Better For…</b> Discovering young hooker Andrew McCullough. The 20-year-old had played just three games heading into the 2009 season but so impressive was he last year that he quickly usurped the vastly experienced PJ Marsh for the no.9 jersey.<br><br>McCullough looks like a representative player of the future and he’ll be that much better with a full year of NRL behind him.<br><br><b>Predicted Finish…</b> Brisbane have a proud history of proving their doubters wrong, but having lost so much firepower yet again this season it’s hard to see them challenging for a top-four spot.<br><br>The quality is still there – in Lockyer, Israel Folau, Corey Parker, Thaiday and Wallace they have half a dozen state and international representatives – but depth remains the main concern.<br><br>Typically, the Broncos will hold high expectations of themselves but a more realistic goal is to sneak into the eight closer to the bottom than the top.<br><br><b>Toyota Cup…</b> It says plenty about the strength of Brisbane’s emerging player stocks that seven of this year’s Toyota Cup squad have spent the pre-season training with the NRL side.<br><br>While it leaves new coach, former Raiders speedster Matthew Wood, wondering just who he’ll have at his disposal come Round 1, it certainly bodes well for the future of the Broncos.<br><br>Last year saw five former Toyota Cup stars – Alex Glenn, Antonio Winterstein, Jharal Yow Yeh, Ben Hunt and Andrew McCullough – promoted to first grade on a regular basis and the club is hoping more will follow with Brisbane’s kids having reached the finals in each of the past two years.<br><br>Watch for back-rower Kurtis Lingwoodock, dynamic forward Dunamis Lui and speedy back Corey Norman to push for an NRL debut at some stage in 2010.