Gains: Luke Capewell (Titans), Petero Civoniceva (Panthers), Nick Slyney (Redcliffe).
Losses: Darren Lockyer (retired), Denan Kemp (Dragons), Shane Tronc (retired), Shea Moylan (Storm), Rohan Ahern (Mackay), Nick Kenny (retired).
For the first time in 18 years the Broncos enter an NRL season without Darren Lockyer, the most influential player in the club’s history. Lockyer was the Broncos’ lifeblood, proving so time and again throughout his 355-game career. Lockyer balanced calm with urgency, visualising and implementing the plays that helped notch the club four premierships with him in the No.1 or No.6 jerseys. Now he’s gone, and the burning question on all NRL fans’ lips is: can the Broncos function without him? And to what degree? Will Corey Norman or Ben Hunt, or even Matt Gillett, be able to provide adequate cover for the huge spread of talent wiped with Lockyer’s retirement?
Brisbane pushed to within a game of the grand final in 2011, ending a tremendously successful season by their new mentor Anthony Griffin. With the cheering and the celebrations for Lockyer long gone, they now need to sweep up the confetti and plan a new party. Certainly they have all the elements: a mobile, strong pack of forwards, a dependable halfback (who can also fill Lockyer’s shoes if need be), electrifying outside backs and – not to be glossed over – benchmark fan support. Plus, they’ve managed to lure back another of their favourite sons, Petero Civoniceva, for a swansong year (at least) at Red Hill. Civoniceva back in a Brisbane jersey is a huge boost for new captain Sam Thaiday, who is sure to bring back the sort of unbridled passion Gorden Tallis exuded in the role.
If coach Griffin can instil confidence in the team unit so that no-one gets nervy when they look around the dressing room pre-match and not see Lockyer’s familiar face… if they can maintain their defensive levels of 2011 that were such a dramatic improvement on 2010… if the handful of players with modest 30-50 NRL game accounts can cash in and stamp their careers… and if injuries are kind – the Broncos are capable of bucking their brands off in 2012.
How They’ll Play It: For a side synonymous with flashy attack, last year the Broncos built their platform on a watertight defence that frustrated oppositions and prevented them from making too many inroads. Then when it was their turn to attack, they were able to capitalise on their good field position. For example, in 2011 the Broncos conceded the third-fewest metres (1296, behind the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers) and missed the fourth-fewest tackles after the Storm, Sea Eagles and Dragons – heady company. (Tellingly they missed the second-most tackles in 2010.) In attack, they crossed for 47 tries from closer than 10 metres out from the opposition goal line last season (the second most in the NRL).
You can bet attacking kicks will remain a go-to play – last year the Broncos registered an NRL-high 25 tries off the boot.
Expect HUGE Things From: Josh Hoffman. While Brisbane will get plenty of punch from centres Justin Hodges and Jack Reed, it’s 23-year-old Hoffman’s time to shine. There’s more than a dash of Karmichael Hunt about his fearless carries – his blistering acceleration and dazzling footwork make him one of the hardest fullbacks to collar early. In fact, he proved the most elusive custodian in the comp last year with more than six tackle-breaks a game; better than Ben Barba, Matthew Bowen or even Billy Slater. Now with 42 NRL games under his belt, if he can stay sound (he played just 16 matches in 2011) he’ll be a spearhead.
Bonus Points: Petero Civoniceva will add to his 215 games for the Broncos after 74 games for the Panthers over the past four years. It’s a huge plus for new captain Thaiday to have such an experienced leader by his side. Even approaching 36, Civoniceva shows no sign of slowing down – in his time at Penrith he averaged 136 metres a game and his 47.5 minutes a match last year was more than all Brisbane’s front-rowers bar Josh McGuire.
Players such as Dane Gagai (four tries in six games in 2011), Dunamis Lui and David Hala (15 games off the bench in his rookie year) remain works in progress but each has the potential to become a masterpiece when finished.
The Broncos forwards might be a no-nonsense bunch, with the side making the second-fewest offloads last year, but they have an ace in their pack in Corey Parker. The Kangaroos tourist ranked second to Feleti Mateo for promoting second-phase play in 2011, averaging almost three hand-offs a game. His creativity will be highly valued again.
Meanwhile Jharal Yow Yeh looms as the most-feared opponent for all of the competition’s left wingers. The Broncos scored more tries down the right sideline (26) than any other team, with Yow Yeh crossing 14 times and making 76 tackle-breaks.
They’re Really Going To Miss: Do we need to even go into it? Darren Lockyer was far from a stereotype as a playmaker. He didn’t stand out in one particular facet of the game. Locky could do it all: gifted runner, gap inventor and provider, sublime kicker, offloader, visionary… no-one could read a game like him. Or sense an opportunity – in his last season in first grade Lockyer led the NRL for try assists with 26 gems. Them’s big boots to fill.
It’s Time To Deliver: Peter Wallace. Not that Wallace has been under-delivering but without Lockyer and with no clear-cut successor in the No.6 he needs to take on more responsibility as playmaker. Which shouldn’t be too difficult – Brisbane dug deep into their pockets to secure Wallace from the Panthers when he was a specialist five-eighth. He remains an option in the No.6 – although that presents its own conundrum as to who would then fill the No.7.
Wallace made just one line-break in 2011 – the fewest by any halfback. All of the Broncos’ damage was done by their outside men. Wallace can’t afford to let that trend continue with Lockyer gone, so expect him to mix up his game a little more around the scrum base.
How’s Their Depth: They have accomplished utility backs in Dale Copley, Ben Hunt, Dane Gagai and new acquisition Luke Capewell ready should injuries beset the starting troops. Civoniceva’s return shores up the front row, and Kurt Baptiste should play more minutes at hooker as support to Andrew McCullough. Back-rower Mitchell Frei will make the step up to first grade. Depth-wise they’re in good shape.
Under-20s: Coach Kurt Richards says his young squad is focused on making up for the disappointment of last year when they finished just outside the top eight despite compiling one of the best points differentials (+201) in the NYC.
They must also cope with the ascension of Corey Norman, Dale Copley, Dane Gagai and Kurt Baptiste to the first grade squad full-time.
“We were just too inconsistent and suffered a lot of injuries – we were never the same side two weeks running – but we’re hopeful of better things this season,” Richards told NRL.com. “I’m pretty happy with the way they are training.... they are enthusiastic and working hard. The plan this year is to keep it simple, get more consistent and keep ourselves in games to give us more of a chance.”
Richards is tipping “fair years” for Chris Binge, who was the squad’s Player of the Year in 2011; halfback Cameron Cullen (six try assists from 10 games last season); and centre Matthew Berwick, who crossed for four memorable four-pointers in their away victory over eventual premiership runners-up North Queensland in Round 23.
Richards said Binge, who finished the 2011 season as a forceful back-rower, would also spend time at hooker to help guide the pack around now Baptiste had outgrown the NYC.
The Coach: Anthony Griffin had an outstanding year with the clipboard following Ivan Henjak’s shock axing just weeks out from the beginning of last season. He displayed a sure hand and oozed confidence – his simple strategies, like resting overburdened stars through the Origin period, saw that confidence spread throughout the club. Unless the wheels fall off completely without Lockyer – extremely unlikely – don’t expect any nervous twitches from Broncos’ powerbrokers.
Predicted Finish: Is it just us who get the sense the Broncos are building towards another golden era? The fact is Darren Lockyer had to retire some time, and while Brisbane gained full mileage out of the superstar last year they had spent parts of previous seasons covering for him through injury. With even luck with injuries we see them pushing for a grand final berth. We’re going out on a limb – 2nd.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The must have: Corey Parker will challenge Cameron Smith as the most valuable player in Toyota NRL Dream Team this year. The tireless goalkicking lock simply does it all.
The value pick: Corey Norman and Bent Hunt are in battle for the No.6 jersey; whoever wins that battle could be Dream Team gold.