A white-haired pop starlet from Britain once said that the "the only way is up" and after their worst season on record last year, those associated with the Brisbane Broncos may well have adopted it as their off-season anthem.
But two disappointing trial losses to the Cowboys and Warriors on either side of an encouraging runner-up finish at the Auckland Nines has many north of the border questioning whether they have indeed yet hit rock bottom.
On paper the squad appears stronger than the one that finished the 2013 season in 12th position and in Alex Corvo they have recruited a strength and conditioning coach considered by many to have created the starch with which the Storm's success of the past decade had been built.
Ben Barba has arrived seeking redemption and the opportunity to recreate his stellar form of two years ago while Martin Kennedy, Stewart Mills, Todd Lowrie and Daniel Vidot have all moved to Queensland in search of a more settled NRL existence.
But following the retirement of Scott Prince and Peter Wallace's departure back to Penrith, the greatest question mark around the Broncos still remains: Who will be their halves pairing for Round 1?
It's a testament to the Broncos faithful that despite their team's poor run in 2013 they still earned the honour of the largest average home crowds of the year but one has to wonder whether they will search for a new place of worship if their side can't start 2014 in much brighter fashion.
Gains: Ben Barba (Bulldogs), Marmin Barba (Titans), Martin Kennedy (Roosters), Todd Lowrie (Warriors), Stewart Mills (Sharks), Daniel Vidot (Dragons), Zach Strasser (Redcliffe).
Losses: Scott Anderson (Wakefield), Kurt Baptiste (Raiders), Delroy Berryman (Sea Eagles), Joe Bond (Mounties), Luke Capewell (Panthers), Denan Kemp (Thirroul), Dunamis Lui (Sea Eagles), Corey Norman (Eels), Scott Prince (retired), Nick Slyney (London), Lama Tasi (Salford), Peter Wallace (Panthers).
How They'll Play It
With a new – and untried – halves pairing to start the season much will be expected of Barba to inject some flair into the Broncos attack. With an average of just 18.1 points per game in 2013 Brisbane desperately need to find some more penetration in attack but returns of just eight and four points in their two trials to date suggests coach Griffin hasn't struck the right formula just yet. Admittedly, Barba didn't play in either of those trial games but it's a lot to lump on a guy who continues to work through personal and professional issues. There's some extra size up front and an all-star back row to choose from but the platform will only be beneficial if the backs can take advantage.
Expect HUGE Things From
This might not be the year that Kodi Nikorima establishes himself as an NRL-quality half but he looks set to be thrown into the deep end as Griffin struggles to find a halves partner for Ben Hunt who is both fit and comfortable in the top grade. Born in Wellington in New Zealand, Nikorima won't turn 20 until April 3 but he appears set to leave the Holden Cup behind for the brighter lights of NRL. There remain question marks over his ability to stand up to the defensive rigours of the NRL and at just 174 centimetres he will be a popular target for opposition coaches but his quickness between the ears and acceleration off the mark will have him asking his own questions of the defence.
Having Josh Hoffman commit to the club and make all the right noises about his future at the Broncos eliminates what could have been a distracting influence as the season developed. Hoffman's 15 tries – predominantly scored on the wing – was seven more than any other Broncos player could manage in 2013 and his ability to be just as effective on the flanks or at the back is a nice card for Griffin to have up his sleeve. Speculation following his return from the World Cup had centred around a possible move to the Bulldogs but his public commitment to honour the final two years of his contract will have come as welcome relief to Griffin who needs a noted finisher on his roster.
The Question Marks
We're about to find out whether Ben Hunt is a half of rare talent or a kid who could never quite make the grade. The player of the year in the inaugural under-20s competition back in 2008, Hunt has spent the past five seasons trying to find his way in a side that has been dominated by more senior playmakers. Finally, at the back-end of 2013 Griffin – Hunt's coach in that grand final Broncos team of 2008 – handed the Blackwater product the reins and he showed enough in seven games to be given control on a permanent basis. At 178cm and 85kg he's a long way from the smallest half running around, he's been one of the leaders in gruelling pre-season fitness sessions, is a smart playmaker with a good kicking game and will be the back-up goal-kicker to Corey Parker. With 89 games of NRL experience already under his belt, the time has come for Hunt to take charge.
Who Needs To Lift?
Asking a man to reproduce the type of sustained brilliance that Ben Barba delivered on a weekly basis in 2012 is like asking any director to deliver a movie sequel better than the original; and we all know how hard that is. But if Ben Barba can't be as good as he was in 2012 he as to least be better than he was in 2013 if the Broncos are to figure in finals football this September. Personal issues and a raft of injuries meant that Barba's year never really got out of first gear last season and Broncos fans should not expect to see those swerving, jinking, long-range excursions into enemy territory until midway through the year at the earliest. What they should expect to see though is a classy ball-player capable of creating space for his outside men and putting doubt into the minds of opposition defenders. And his team needs that influence early.
How's Their Depth?
To move Corey Parker into the front-row rotation in the final trial of the pre-season shows that Anthony Griffin is content with his back-row options if not a little concerned about the big blokes up front. Martin Kennedy adds plenty of size, David Hala is due for an injury-free season and Ben Hannant and Josh McGuire are both seasoned first-graders who grind through a mountain of work. Griffin's major selection dilemma will be fitting Sam Thaiday, Alex Glenn, Matt Gillett, Todd Lowrie and David Stagg into the back row, not to mention Parker if the experiment at No.10 proves to be a one-off.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
OK, so at $477,600, Corey Parker is a whole chunk of salary cap but when the bloke makes 60 tackles a game, is always pushing for an offload and kicks goals from all parts of the stadium, he's a banker in every sense of the word. Ben Hunt ($166,500) is going to have his hands on the ball more than at any other time in his career so could be a nice little earner while Dale Copley and Kodi Nikorima (both $107,000) should play plenty of minutes, particularly in the early parts of the season. Matt Gillett ($363,400), Andrew McCullough ($362,800) and Ben Hannant ($344,500) are the type of guys who will bring in 40-plus points every week.
You'd never know it by looking at him and he sure as hell wouldn't tell you if you asked but there's no question Anthony Griffin is a man under pressure. He's overseen the refreshing of his playing roster, brought in new strength and conditioning staff and installed a captaincy structure that for the first time in the club's history features two names instead of one. Some in Brisbane were surprised he survived the disappointing results of the 2013 season but there'll be no such stay of execution if the game's biggest and most profitable club doesn't once again show signs of becoming a powerhouse again.
If not for the departure of Caleb Timu on his Mormon mission and the apparent elevation of Kodi Nikorima into the NRL squad, the Broncos under-20s were shaping up as a very strong outfit. As it stands they still boast a host of players who have experience in the youth competition and should harbour expectations better than their first round exit from the finals last year. Brett Greinke is a back-rower or centre of plenty of promise while Brandon Lee, Tom Opacic and Paul Byrnes will be the senior members of the squad. Also keep an eye out for livewire hooker Jayden Berrell.
Prior to the trials we had them pushing into the bottom half of the eight but that confidence has taken a hit with two sub-standard defensive displays. Rugby league needs the Broncos playing semi-final football but unless there is a significant attitude adjustment that may be beyond them again. If they can't improve on 12th it will be an unmitigated disaster.
1. Ben Barba, 2. Josh Hoffman, 3. Jack Reed, 4. Justin Hodges, 5. Daniel Vidot, 6. Jordan Kahu*, 7. Ben Hunt, 8. Martin Kennedy, 9. Andrew McCullough, 10. Ben Hannant, 11. Sam Thaiday, 12. Matt Gillett, 13. Corey Parker. Interchange: 14. Jake Granville, 15. Alex Glenn, 16. Josh McGuire, 17. David Hala.
*Kodi Nikorima is likely to start the season in the season in the halves in place of the injured Kahu, who is set for an extended stay on the sidelines with a serious knee injury.