Wigan v Brisbane: Five things we learned
In slippery Wigan conditions at a chilly two degrees, the Broncos were a long way from Brisbane in every sense on Sunday morning, Australian time. But they got the job done, eventually, winning out 14-12 in extra-time after a late Wigan fightback. Here are five things that stood out from the contest.
5. Bennett's putting his stamp on the team already
In his previous stints at St George Illawarra and Newcastle, Wayne Bennett's teams put a premium on possession – the completion rates were high and the offload counts were low. In his first real competitive 13-a-side game back at the Broncos the gameplan was there again – although the freezing, muddy conditions of a February day in England made those kind of safety-first tactics a necessity. In truth, Brisbane's ball control was sloppy by their usual standards (again, not made any easier by the conditions), but quick play-the-balls took preference over second-phase play for Bennett's men, despite the presence of gifted offloaders Corey Parker, Adam Blair and Anthony Milford. The game opened up a little late in the contest as you'd expect, and things may change in summery Brisbane conditions in the NRL season opener, but the early indications are that Bennett's Broncos will embrace the keep-it-simple tactics of their mentor – with the odd dash of natural brilliance thrown in.
4. Good signs for Brisbane's defence
Another trademark of a successful Wayne Bennett side is a strong defensive line, and that was on show in the first half in particular. The Broncos' goal-line defence was put to the test early on and passed with flying colours as Wigan went on the attack with repeat sets, and Justin Hodges' effort to hold up Joe Burgess in the in-goal was borderline miraculous. It was no surprise that when Brisbane's line did finally crack it was through a grubber kick, rather than a missed tackle, and it was only in the dying stages of the game that Wigan really broke the Broncos defence open – with Burgess this time palming away Hodges before running away for a long-range try to send the game into extra-time.
The Broncos struggled to gel in attack at times, and Hodges' cutout pass for Lachlan Maranta's try was the only time they scored from a genuine attacking move, but defence is the foundation of a strong team and Brisbane are showing good signs on that front so far.
3. Jordan Kahu was solid at the back... but is that enough?
The Broncos lost a veteran NRL fullback and a Kangaroos regular when returning star Darius Boyd suffered an achilles injury early in the pre-season, and in Jordan Kahu they have a promising but unproven replacement in the custodian role. Kahu was solid if unspectacular: he was strong under the high ball, and his one-on-one tackle on Joe Burgess set up the game's opening try, with the ball spilling free from Burgess's grasp as Andrew McCullough pounced on the easiest four points he'll ever score. (Burgess, set to join the Sydney Roosters in 2016, had a lousy night for the most part until scoring his spectacular try to lock up the scores at the death.)
Kahu was a long way from perfect; he coughed up an error of his own close to Brisbane's line soon after the opening try, and was a step off the pace in his attempt to clean up the grubber kick that led to Wigan's first points. But he was targeted by Wigan all night and held his own. The question for the Broncos is: will that be enough to hold the No.1 jersey in the long run? After all, in Anthony Milford the club has a natural fullback who appears more at ease running the ball in space than creating try-scoring chances in the front line, and getting the most out of their star recruit will be key to Brisbane becoming a genuine contender this year.
2. Anthony Milford is a work in progress
There are great expectations resting on Anthony Milford's shoulders this season – the former Raiders dynamo is expected to be a significant improvement on the underperforming Ben Barba alongside the impressive Ben Hunt in the halves, but he produced a mixed bag against Wigan. There were a few sidesteps and the odd offload early on, but when a crisp piece of finishing was needed Milford's hands tended to let him down. He often seemed rushed when given attacking opportunities in the five-eighth role, while he bombed a great opportunity when an offload that should have led to a try slipped forward.
But then in the final 15 minutes of regular time, Milford gave a glimpse of what Broncos fans were waiting for. A couple of half-breaks sparked a low-frills contest to life, and then he showed a dash of brilliance to defuse a Wigan chip kick and glide past defenders before being brought down five metres short of the line. He came up trumps in defence as well, carrying Wigan's Josh Charnley over the sideline as the hosts pushed for an equalising try in the closing stages. It's worth noting that most of Milford's highlights – supporting offloads in centre field, cleaning up kicks, last-ditch tackles – are plays usually seen from a fullback, which is still arguably the former Raider's best position.
On the plus side, Brisbane's other big-name recruit Adam Blair – the one-time Melbourne Storm and New Zealand superstar whose reputation took a hit at the Wests Tigers – looked a strong addition to the Broncos pack.
1. The ending was gloriously bizarre
After a grinding, low-scoring match, the game ended with somewhat of an anticlimax with Wigan's Joel Tomkins giving away a penalty in front of his own goalposts in golden point extra-time. But the hosts had one more surprise waiting for the Broncos. As Corey Parker lined up the match-winning goal, Wigan centre Anthony Gelling added a touch of the bizarre to proceedings by brazenly charging down Parker's kick from a few metres away, earning himself a sin-binning and giving Parker another shot at goal, this time duly converted. It was a weird way to finish an absorbing contest, but the result will satisfy Australian fans with the World Club Series in the bag before champions South Sydney face their English counterparts St Helens on Monday morning.