Broncos' Road To The Finals
Thaiday steps aside as captaincy changes hands
Less than two weeks into 2014 and there was already a major announcement coming out of Brisbane's Red Hill headquarters. After a heart-to-heart with coach Anthony Griffin, Sam Thaiday made the agonising decision to step down as Broncos skipper following a disappointing 2013 season which saw the Broncos finish 12th with a 10-1-13 record – the worst in their history. Experienced due Corey Parker and Justin Hodges were named the first co-captains in Brisbane's history, allowing Thaiday to concentrate solely on his on-field performance.
Barba's promising signs at the Nines
The most scrutinised signing of the off-season got his first outing in new colours when Ben Barba turned out for the Broncos at the Auckland Nines in February with mixed results. Coming back from an ankle injury the former Dally M Player of the Year was well below his best but showed glimpses of the spark that had lit up the NRL in 2012. Although he sat out the final due to ankle soreness, Barba's appearance in Brisbane's runner-up finish in the tournament was an indicator that there was much to look forward to in 2014.
Roosters break Broncos' hearts
Gritty wins over the Bulldogs and Cowboys to start the season had the Broncos faithful salivating at the thought of knocking over the reigning premiers in Round 3 and through 75 minutes the crowd of 33,381 looked like going home deliriously happy. Locked up at 12-all at half-time, the Broncos led 26-18 heading into the final five minutes only to be steamrolled by the Roosters who scored two late tries through Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Boyd Cordner in the dying seconds. Coach Anthony Griffin spoke with pride about his team's performance, but it was a disappointing end to an emotional night for Brisbane following the mid-week retirement announcement of 24-year-old winger Jharal Yow Yeh, who had a lap of honour prior to kick-off.
Broncos' Hunt for a halfback ends
The underlying factor in Brisbane's encouraging start to the season was the form of new halfback Ben Hunt. Coach Anthony Griffin had promoted Hunt to the starting side in the latter stages of the 2013 season, although it was only when the former under-20s star was handed the No.7 jersey on a permanent basis at the beginning of 2014 when we saw his true potential. The nuggetty halfback was already drawing comparisons to Cooper Cronk as little as three rounds into the season after receiving praise from Roosters counterpart Mitchell Pearce. His outstanding form earned him a call-up to Maroons' squad for Origin II as injury cover for Daly Cherry-Evans and also saw the Blackwater Crushers' junior move to one point behind Jarryd Hayne and Sam Burgess on the Dally M race when voting went behind closed doors at the conclusion of Round 16. Hunt would end the regular season with 13 tries, 21 goals, 20 line breaks, 19 try assists and 19 line break assists from 24 games to cap a truly remarkable year for the 24-year-old.
Cruel finishes foil Bronco wins
After winning three of their first four, the Broncos seemed to be on the up and were bolstered by the return of star centre Justin Hodges who returned from an Achilles injury prior to their Round 5 clash against the Eels. Hodges would start from the bench, but his return couldn’t save the Broncos from giving up another match-winning lead, as a try to Nathan Peats in the 69th minute and Chris Sandow field goal moments later sealed a shock 25-18 win for the 2013 wooden spooners. It was a case of déjà vu for Brisbane the following week as they let another lead slip inside the final 10 minutes. This time it was the Titans who took advantage as Aidan Sezer snatched the Steeden from Ben Barba's grasp to claim a 73rd-minute winner for the locals. Another heartbreaker ensued in Round 8 for Brisbane as the Rabbitohs hopped over the top of the Broncos with a last-minute Adam Reynolds penalty goal handing the visitors a 28-26 win.
Coach Griffin gets the hook
When former Broncos coach Wayne Bennett announced this season would be his last at the helm of the Knights, the Broncos board moved swiftly to secure the services of the seven-time premiership coach on a three-year deal beginning in 2015. Despite leading the Broncos to a much-needed victory over the Warriors in Round 19 only days earlier, Brisbane's results did not meet the board's expectations and Griffin was told that he wouldn’t be required beyond 2014. It was seen as a harsh decision by many as Griffin had been involved with the club since leading their under-20s side to a grand final appearance in 2008, nurturing names such as Ben Hunt, Alex Glenn, Josh Hoffman, Josh McGuire, Andrew McCullough, Jordan Kahu and Jharal Yow Yeh through their fledging days of first grade. But results speak loudest and the Broncos board believed Bennett was the man to restore their place at the top of the NRL pecking order.
Walking the finals tightrope
Following another barren run of form, the Broncos found themselves in 10th spot on 22 points at the conclusion of Round 21. Knowing that anything other than a win over the Bulldogs the following week would all but end their season, the Broncos turned on the style, running in seven tries to two in their impressive 41-10 drubbing of the Doggies. A loss to the Rabbitohs in Round 23 kept Brisbane stuck in 10th place and the prospect of having to win their remaining three matches in order to sneak into the finals. They would also have to deal with an ankle injury to fullback Josh Hoffman that would keep the Kiwi custodian out of action for the remainder of the regular season. Back at Suncorp Stadium the following week, the Broncos faced an improving Knights side that had won six out of their previous eight games in what was now a genuine do-or-die contest and their 48-6 win helped Brisbane's for-and-against rise from +53 to +95 as they moved up one place on the ladder to ninth. More of the same would be required against the Dragons in Round 25, with Brisbane's final home game of the season taking on a finals-like atmosphere in another must-win match. A 30-22 win punctuated by a controversial sin-binning of Matt Gillett moved Brisbane back into the top eight on 28 points with a +103 points differential, seven points better than the Warriors who were also on 28 points heading into the final round of the season.
Hodges reprises No.1 role, Barba finds form
Josh Hoffman's injury against Souths opened the door for Justin Hodges to reprise his role at fullback, a position he last played in Brisbane's run-in to the 2006 Grand Final and again early in the 2007 season. Hodges was an instant success at the back, playing a starring role in Brisbane's win over the Knights and parlaying that form into another eye-catching display against the Dragons. Hodges' shift to fullback allowed Ben Barba to continue at five-eighth, a position he had held since Round 19, allowing the 2012 Dally M winner to become more involved in Brisbane's attacking movements. The decision to keep Barba in the No.6 was instantly vindicated against the Knights as Barba bagged an 11-minute hat-trick much to the delight of Brisbane's fans.
An anxious weekend of waiting
If you win, you're in. The equation was as simple as that for the Broncos ahead of their final round match against the Storm at AAMI Park in Round 26. The maths may have been simple, but finding the correct formula to defeat the Storm in Melbourne, something they'd only achieved once over the past four seasons, presented a true test of Brisbane's finals credentials. The 22-12 defeat left Brisbane's finals' hopes hinging on other results – they would now require the Raiders to defeat the Eels and the Panthers to beat the Warriors by three points or more. The Broncos' season survived another day when the Raiders triumphed 33-20 in Canberra and when Penrith accounted for the Warriors 22-6 in the final game of the regular season, Brisbane were handed a finals wildcard. Finishing in eighth spot by virtue of their superior for-and-against, the Broncos managed to set up an all-Queensland Elimination Final against the fifth-placed Cowboys in Townsville on Saturday night.