Broncos v Warriors
Suncorp Stadium
Saturday, 6.30pm

History shows this game could well be the match of the round for Week One of the Telstra Premiership Finals Series. Five weeks ago at the very same venue, Brisbane and the Warriors played out what might just be this season’s best match – a 21-20 last-gasp victory to the Broncos. It was sensational stuff with above-and-beyond efforts across the park. Let’s hope this match, which could well be an elimination semi for the Warriors if team seven or team eight spring an upset, is almost as good as that Round 22 ‘speccie’.

The Broncos enter the finals series on the back of some impressive recent form and just six losses all year (two at Suncorp). The Warriors, meanwhile, have travelled under the radar because of a slow start to the year and a mid-season slump – apart from those two dips in form, the Kiwi-based club have been terrific, winning 14 matches and losing a handful by less than a converted try. The Warriors have been incredibly competitive in their away-from-home clashes, beating the Storm in Melbourne in Round 7, the Knights in Newcastle in Round 10 and shocking South Sydney in Round 20, 48-16. And, of course, in Round 22, they had the Broncos on the ropes in Brisbane. This match, in front of a packed Suncorp Stadium screaming for a Lockyer-led victory, would be the biggest upset of the Warriors’ season yet.

The sides are near full strength, with both teams welcoming back stars. Brisbane welcome back Justin Hodges – however, his inclusion is offset by the loss of flying fullback Josh Hoffman. Tearaway forward Sam Thaiday’s name is also missing from the team sheet – his early guilty plea to a dangerous throw against the Sea Eagles last weekend will see him miss two matches.

The Warriors welcome back injured trio Shaun Berrigan, Manu Vatuvei and Aaron Heremaia.

Warriors fans will be worried when they look at the stats – history shows they have the worst finals record of all remaining clubs (just six wins at 46 per cent). The Warriors also have a 12-24 record in matches played in Queensland; however, Brisbane have a miserable 1-6 record in finals fixtures at Suncorp Stadium!

Brisbane will be relying on their experienced trio of Hodges, Lockyer and Corey Parker who account for 63 per cent of the total Broncos’ finals experience.

Watch Out Warriors: The Broncos have won their past six matches – and lost just two games since Round 12 – and are warming nicely for the last finals series of Darren Lockyer’s career. Lockyer himself is in great form, too – the champion five-eighth has been a part of just four losses at club level in 2011. His combination with half Peter Wallace, who set up three of his side’s four tries against Manly last Sunday in front of 50,859 fans at Suncorp, will go a long way to determining who wins – if the Warriors gift the Broncos possession early on, the half and five-eighth will more than likely seize the opportunity.

Danger Sign: If the Broncos’ big men are allowed to carve a path through the middle, it could be good night for the Warriors in 2011. Bullocking prop Josh McGuire has a particularly good record when he leads the way forward – he’s won six of seven matches when he’s run for more than 100 metres, and made a particularly damaging impact in his team’s one-point win over the Warriors in Round 22, carting the ball forward for 143 metres. Utility back Gerard Beale has a similarly positive impact for the Broncos – they win 90 per cent of matches when he makes a line-break.  

Warriors Plays To Watch: The Warriors love keeping the ball alive – the offload has been a mainstay of their attack and a reason for their success so this season. The Warriors look to promote the ball more than any other team in the top eight, delivering an average of 13.7 offloads a game, and would be silly not to exploit the Broncos’ defence – they concede 11.5 offloads a match. Brisbane would also be wise to prepare for an attacking onslaught featuring left-side winger Manu Vatuvei. ‘The Beast’ is a regular target for the Warriors’ kickers – he has scored 10 tries in just 15 games, breaking 46 tackles in the process.

Watch Out Broncos: The Warriors are yet to be blown off the park in 2011 – excluding the aberration of a 20-point loss to the Cowboys in Round 15 – and they’ll expect to be in this game up to their eyeballs. If the game is tight as expected the Warriors may resort to hot-potato football – they are the second-most prolific offloading team in the competition (with 13.7 per match, 0.2 offloads behind Penrith) and will look to get the ball into the hands of James Maloney, Feleti Mateo, Manu Vatuvei and Kevin Locke. Despite their lower ranking, the Warriors actually make more line-breaks than the Broncos (4.1 per match to 3.9).

Danger Sign: Broken play is the Warriors’ best friend – if the Broncos give the Warriors space, the visitors could very well spring an upset. The Warriors’ outside backs, including Vatuvei, halfback Shaun Johnson and fullback Locke, are deadly in open pasture. Johnson is a handful the Broncos are well aware of – he scored a brilliant solo try, evading seven Broncos, in the clash between the two sides in Round 22. Locke’s potency comes through his effective and direct kick-returns – if the Broncos present a jagged defensive line expect him to take full advantage. The diminutive No.1 already has made a club-high eight line-breaks.

Broncos Plays To Watch: It’s no surprise Brisbane’s attack revolves around Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace – they steer the show – and when they have the ball in hand the Warriors need to be ready to defend. Lockyer, in particular, loves taking the ball at first receiver and changing the point of the attack by rushing down the short side to create an overlap. Look for either Lockyer (24 try assists, 15 line-break assists and 30 tackle-breaks) or Wallace (17 try assists, 10 line-break assists and 12 tackle-breaks) to run the ball on the last tackle and ask questions of the Warriors’ defence out wide.

Darren Lockyer v James Maloney: They mightn’t be massive men but there’ll be arguably no two bigger or more important players on the field on Saturday night. Both Lockyer and Maloney are ball-playing five-eighths who can create opportunities for themselves or their outside men. The Orange-born 25-year-old is ranked equal sixth in line-breaks for five-eighths with eight – double Lockyer’s count – but also is a high-ranker in his position for try assists (14 – equal sixth) and tackle-breaks (62 – fourth). Both Maloney and Lockyer have kicked two 40/20s this season – the most of any player this year. If the young Warrior gets one-up over the celebrated Bronco, an upset is on the cards.

The History: Played 28; Brisbane 17, Warriors 11. The honours from the past eight clashes are evenly shared between the two sides, while the six matches played at Suncorp Stadium are 4-2 in Brisbane’s favour. The Broncos won this year’s only clash 21-20, but the Warriors have the edge from last season 36-4 at Mt Smart in Round 25 and 48-16 in Round 3 at Suncorp, the Warriors’ biggest head-to-head victory over Brisbane.

Last Time They Met: The Warriors were surprise 12-8 half-time leaders in their Round 22 clash with the Broncos at Suncorp, but it was the poise of Peter Wallace and the brilliance of Darren Lockyer that earned Brisbane a one-point win. Lockyer set up a match-swinging try in the 56th minute before Wallace piloted a field-goal to break the deadlock at 21-20.

For the Warriors, young half Shaun Johnson proved a handful, scoring a sublime try in the 12th minute and evading seven Broncos in the process. The Broncos dominated with more line-breaks (4-2) and fewer missed tackles (33 to the Warriors’ 40).

Conclusion: The Broncos and Warriors have incredibly similar attacking records – the Broncos average 21.3 points scored per game to the Warriors’ 21, with both teams scoring 3.7 tries per match. The teams’ records are also close in the defensive department, with Brisbane conceding 15.5 points on average compared to the Warriors’ 16.4.

The big difference between the two sides comes in the shape of the missed-tackle count – the Warriors sit in lowly 12th with 36.4 per game compared to Brisbane’s 31.6. This match will be determined by whether each team takes advantage of their opponent’s defensive errors... and how many opportunities they’re given. This match could very well change in the blink of an eye... or the shrugging off of a tackle.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Sean Hampstead & Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 6.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL stats