First-year Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin believes his side’s defensive determination – and an attacking X-factor, possibly in the shape of fullback Josh Hoffman – could prove the catalyst to a winning run deep into this year’s finals series.
With centre Justin Hodges sidelined and other premiership contenders boasting top-shelf No.1s, Griffin knows Hoffman will likely play a huge role in their title push. He likes what he’s seen from the 23-year-old recently and is aware his high level of impact will need to be maintained over the coming weeks.
The Broncos have won four matches in a row – and lost just three games in three months – to sit pretty in third spot on the competition ladder as momentum builds at Red Hill. In the past month Brisbane have thumped Cronulla, North Queensland and Newcastle and scraped home against the Warriors in an impressive period. But Griffin believes this Sunday’s clash with South Sydney will be the side’s toughest test yet.
The Rabbitohs slipped, sloshed and slid to a memorable 16-12 victory against the Broncos in Perth in Round 16 in what was the wettest match of rugby league in recent memory. Rabbitohs’ coach John Lang described it as the best win he’d experienced at the club. Griffin knows the Broncos need to lift to create a rabbit-proof defensive line.
“Souths did a job on us over in Perth and they were far too good for us that night and they’re probably the form team of the competition at the moment so we’ve got a very big day coming up on Sunday,” Griffin tells NRL.com. “Conditions weren’t real good but they played with a lot more energy and intensity than us that night and they just totally out-enthused us.
“That was a long time ago... but we’re just very wary of Souths. I think they’ve scored 40 points on average the past four weeks. We’ve got to make sure we’re very good defensively to shut them down.”
Griffin also stressed the importance of controlling Rabbitohs playmaker Chris Sandow – “the number one halfback in the comp at the moment” – as South Sydney continue their charge at the finals. The former Storm assistant coach believes his side’s defence is key to their chances for the rest of the year, not just against Souths on Sunday.
“I think we need to continue to work hard defensively – I think Monday night [against Newcastle] was our best defensive effort in a while,” Griffin says. “Up until then I think we’ve been thereabouts without really dominating that area of the game but I think apart from that error at the scrum against Uate, we were pretty clean.
“If we continue to work hard to be effective defensively we give ourselves a good chance [of making it deep into the finals].”
Griffin admitted his first season as an NRL head coach had been a positive one so far with the club already assured of a top-three finish and a home final. The Broncos currently sit on 36 points, just two behind Manly, and could leapfrog the Sea Eagles if results this weekend go their way before the final round’s head-to-head meeting.
“Yeah it’s all good at the moment, we’re pretty happy with how it’s all going,” Griffin admits.
“It’s nice the fact that we’re already in a good position – third – but the important thing is we keep building our game and this weekend is going to be a very good test against the Rabbitohs.”
With lanky and elusive centre Justin Hodges out until Week One of the finals with a grade one hamstring tear, Griffin needs another back to step up and electrify his team and keep the momentum going. Fullback Josh Hoffman could very well be the best man for the job, after a sensational season that’s yielded six tries, four try assists, three line-break assists, nine line-breaks and an average of 159 metres gained per match. Last match Hoffman proved particularly dangerous, setting up a try, carving a path through the Knights’ defensive line on two occasions and running for a game-high 187 metres. It’s the type of form that might’ve seen Karmichael Hunt benched, had he still been at the club, and it’s good news for the Broncos’ fans and coaching staff as the team nears the finals.
“Josh has been in pretty good form – he’s done a pretty good job for us and hopefully that continues on Sunday coming up against a guy who’s been in excellent form in Nathan Merritt,” Griffin says. “He’s progressing nicely – I think it’s his third season of NRL now and he’s really playing some good football. Josh is like a lot of [our young recruits] since their under-20s year, we’ve had high expectations of him and he’s starting to really live up to those.”
Griffin says a player like Hoffman – just as comfortable acting as a ball-player as he is as a ball-runner – could very well prove the difference between teams in the finals series.
“Possibly [he could be an X-factor], yeah,” Griffin says. “I think any team who’s going to be a force in the finals and win the competition has to have a great fullback – it’s such an important position. All the good fullbacks like (Billy) Slater, (Darius) Boyd and (Brett) Stewart can all pass, kick and run and Josh has all those three things in his skills-set… it’s something that gives us a lot of options.”
Straight-shooting Griffin says a premiership would be a fitting way to farewell retiring Broncos, Queensland and Australian captain Darren Lockyer, but added he’d remain a champion whatever happened.
“Whichever way it finishes for [Lockyer], he’s finished on top and is playing some really good football and he’s been very consistent right through the season, from our club stuff to the rep stuff with Origin and Test football,” Griffin says.
“He’s proved to everyone just the calibre of person he is by the way he’s performed this year – as much as it’d be a nice fairytale finish for him [to win the competition in his final season] I don’t think he needs that to justify the champion he is.”
Late NRL news:
• Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk is poised to make a shock return to the NRL tonight against Manly in Sydney, with his ankle injury healing quicker than expected. The match could well be the grand final preview.
• Dragons’ centre Mark Gasnier returns for his side’s vital clash with the Warriors, but his outside man Jason Nightingale might be the one the Kiwis watch closest. The winger proved the star in the match between the two teams in March as he scored two tries and broke nine tackles to lead his side to a clinical 25-12 victory. Warriors forward Micheal Luck is on the verge of a significant personal milestone as he requires only 23 more tackles to record 800 for the fifth consecutive season.
• Knights’ coach Rick Stone believes his spluttering side has addressed their issues with errors that have marred their performance in recent weeks. Newcastle play the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night in a clash that could make or break the Knights’ season. Newcastle need to keep an eye on livewire Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba – he needs two more tries to overtake Rod Silva (18 in 1999) for the most ever tries by a Canterbury fullback in one season.