ONCE the most stable club in the NRL, Brisbane has endured arguably the most torrid off-season of all this past summer – their failed 2010 campaign ultimately leading to the sudden and unexpected sacking of coach Ivan Henjak just three weeks before Round 1.
Rumours of player unrest had been circling for some time, with accusations that Henjak’s relationship with the senior group was strained at best, but it seemed the 47-year-old would survive for at least another 12 months. Even the man himself seemed unaware of his fate during the days before his demise.
Instead, the Broncos caught everyone by surprise with their announcement on February 21 that assistant Anthony Griffin would be taking over in 2011.
Griffin himself has a fine record – having coached Souths Logan and Redcliffe in the Queensland Cup before joining Brisbane in 2008 – although it will be interesting to see how he and the players handle such a dramatic change just weeks out from the season kick-off.
Henjak’s sacking also follows the loss of Australian Test centre Greg Inglis who had agreed to join the Broncos in 2011 but pulled out of the deal at the last minute to sign with South Sydney instead.
Inglis had been touted as one of the Broncos’ greatest ever recruits and his arrival was meant to soften the blow from Israel Folau’s departure.
It all adds up to the lowest point in Brisbane’s otherwise glittering history after they missed the finals last season for the first time since 1991, however Griffin will still look around the playing group with hope of a strong showing. Having struggled up front at times last year, the Broncos welcome back representative prop Ben Hannant after two years away at Canterbury, while their backline will be bolstered by the return from injury of centre Justin Hodges.
They will also look forward to seeing impressive youngsters Josh Hoffman and Matt Gillett back up with a year’s experience under their belts. Inevitably, however, their fortunes will revolve around the fitness of captain Darren Lockyer. The ageing warrior is nearing the twilight of his incredible career but it would be foolish to write this side off while ever he is in the fold.
How They’ll Play It… Brisbane lacked the grunt up front in 2010 that they have historically boasted but they have never shied away from promoting the football. In fact, they were at their best last year when Hoffman, Gillett, Folau and Jharal Yow Yeh were showing their skills out wide. Gillett scored 12 tries in his debut season to be named Dally M Rookie of the Year, while Hoffman averaged a massive 144 metres per game. Watch for both to see plenty of football again in 2011.
Expect Plenty From… Ben Hannant. The hulking prop is the man Brisbane needs to lead the way up front following the loss of so much experience in recent years. Hannant averaged 116 metres and 31 tackles for Canterbury in 2010.
They’re Going to Really Miss… Israel Folau. Whether he makes it as an AFL player or not, he was certainly an important member of the Broncos’ backline and the No.1 target man for halves Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace. Folau scored 20 tries last season and Brisbane will need to find someone to replace that remarkable strike rate.
Time To Stand Up… Ben Hunt. The impressive young half has long been touted as a star of the future (Toyota Cup Player of the Year in 2009) and 2011 is his chance to shine. Hunt showed glimpses of his best in 20 appearances for Brisbane last season and as the club looks to build on their playmaking depth he can make a huge statement in the coming months.
Coach Watch… With moves already made before a ball has been kicked in anger, Griffin takes over for the 2011 season but most interest in the coming months will surround what direction the club takes beyond this year. An improved season could well see Griffin retained but it has been rumoured that the Broncos are keen to lure back legendary coach Wayne Bennett from St George Illawarra while Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy – who was an assistant to Bennett 10 years ago – has also been touted.
They’ll Be Boosted By… The return of Justin Hodges from injury. Although the Broncos have unearthed some exciting young talent out wide over the past two seasons, they sorely missed Hodges last season. A powerful and elusive centre, he is an intimidating presence on the edges and will make his mark again in 2011. However, if he spends another long stint on the sidelines it will definitely affect the Broncos’ chances of playing semi-final football.
Predicted Finish … 7th.
Toyota Cup … Having narrowly missed the finals last season, 2011 brings some new challenges with a whole batch of fresh faces coming into the squad. The forwards have been hit particularly hard as players pass the 20-years-old age limit, but incoming coach Kurt Richards is impressed with the talent he has witnessed thus far. While the likes of Dale Copley and Corey Norman showed glimpses of their abilities at NRL level last year, the Broncos have high hopes for some emerging youngsters, with centre Aaron Whitchurch, back-rower Mitchell Frei and fullback Jordan Kahu among the players to watch. Like the NRL squad, the Queensland floods forced the squad indoors for much of the pre-season but there may well be brighter days ahead for the Broncos’ young guns.
Gains… Ben Hannant (Canterbury).
Losses… PJ Marsh (retired); Israel Folau (AFL); Lagi Setu (Mormon Mission); Antonio Winterstein, Tariq Sims, Ashton Sims (North Queensland).