Brisbane Broncos Season Preview
An old wind has blown through Brisbane and brought with it new hope that the Broncos will once again take their place among the competition super powers. The return of master coach Wayne Bennett itself has brought the city to life while the recruitment of Anthony Milford has young and old fans enthralled as to what he may bring. Much has changed in a short space of time but there is an undeniable smell of success in the air.
Gains and losses
Gains: Adam Blair (Wests Tigers), Darius Boyd (Knights), Greg Eden (Hull KR), James Gavet (Wests Tigers), Anthony Milford (Raiders), Travis Waddell (Knights).
Losses: Ben Barba (Sharks), David Hala (Titans), Ben Hannant (Cowboys), Josh Hoffman (Titans), Martin Kennedy (Roosters).
Plenty of high-profile roster movement at the Broncos ahead of the 2015 season but none as significant as that of coach Wayne Bennett. Bennett's recruitment review was immediate and somewhat brutal, with Barba, Hoffman and Kennedy all told they could pursue their careers elsewhere. In their place come aggressive types in Adam Blair and James Gavet from the Wests Tigers, the electrifying Anthony Milford from Canberra and a Darius Boyd who appears to have grown significantly as a person as a result of his treatment for depression that brought a premature end to his 2014 – and final – season in Newcastle.
What we know
Wayne Bennett is inheriting a team that played committed rugby league all throughout 2014 and were left to rue narrow misses against competition heavyweights the Roosters and Rabbitohs and an inexplicable capitulation against the Sharks. Determination alone dragged them into the Finals Series so Bennett does have a solid foundation from which to build. It is worth remembering that when Bennett joined Newcastle ahead of the 2012 season the Knights were tagged competition favourites before they'd even played a trial game; the Broncos are on the sixth line of betting to be premiers in 2015. The arrival of Adam Blair is a shrewd move by Bennett to try and get his team controlling the ruck better, while the aggression of James Gavet and big body of Mitch Garbutt will complement hard-working tyros such as Corey Parker, Josh McGuire and Sam Thaiday. The Broncos will be hard to beat every week, and a dash of flash may get them over the line more often than not.
The combination in the halves of Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford has all the hallmarks of a playmaking match made in heaven but it will take time before their understanding reaches that of more experienced halves in the NRL. Hunt was saddled with two makeshift five-eighths in Ben Barba and Josh Hoffman last season and while his performances almost snared him the Dally M Medal, he struggled at times to close games out. Hunt's direct and organisational style should complement the brilliant running game of Milford superbly but it may take a month or so before it hits full stride. The encouraging sign for Broncos fans was that both players seemed to get better the longer their World Club Series win over Wigan went last weekend. The other question mark is how the fullback role will be filled until Darius Boyd returns from the achilles injury suffered in pre-season training. Having shed two fullbacks to fit Boyd into the squad, Bennett will now look to either Jordan Kahu or Lachlan Maranta to fill the void until the Queensland Origin star's mid-year return. If that position becomes a problematic one the Broncos may take a while to hit full stride.
It is unlikely we will see an NRL debutant amongst the Broncos squad announced to take on the Rabbitohs in Round 1, but there are a host of current under 20s and recent graduates lining up for their opportunity. He has been told by coach Bennett that he will have wait a further 12 months but it would only take an average injury toll for Joe Ofahengaue to come into the frame. Blessed with an astonishing motor for a young forward, if Ofahengaue takes his NYC form into the Intrust Super Cup with Ipswich in the early rounds it will give the coach cause for consideration. Ben Hunt's Origin claims could open the door for highly-regarded half Ashley Taylor to earn a call-up while the Nikorima boys, Kodi and Jayden, would inject plenty of energy if they were used off the bench. Also keep a keen eye on Tom Opacic, the towering young centre has figured prominently in pre-season trials.
Room for improvement
Statistically the Broncos ranked among the top half dozen clubs in the competition in the key categories last season, but it was their inability to close games out that held them back from a higher finishing position. They let four opportunities slip at home against the Roosters, Eels, Rabbitohs and Sharks with Hunt unable to take charge of the game at key times. Anthony Milford's 33 errors last year were among the top 10 in the competition and Alex Glenn has some work to do on his defence after some poor results in both missed and ineffective tackles.
There's every chance an international back-rower will battle to force their way into the starting team for Round 1 and the prop forward stocks have been significantly bolstered with the arrivals of Blair, Gavet and Garbutt to complement Josh McGuire. There is competition aplenty in the outside backs – with England international Jack Reed fighting to keep his spot – but the injury to Darius Boyd exposes the 'spine' to signs of weakness. There are no halves with NRL experience waiting in the wings should either Hunt or Milford go down and Bennett will have to look to either Greg Eden or Lachlan Maranta if Jordan Kahu doesn't excel at fullback.
Workaholic lock Corey Parker ($484,000) is the Broncos' resident Fantasy superstar, while Ben Hunt ($511,000) and Andrew McCullough ($523,000) both start at top dollar this season after stellar NRL Fantasy campaigns in 2014. Jordan Kahu ($165,000) appears to be the bargain buy if he starts at fullback.
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After a tumultuous stint at the Knights that included a Semi-Final appearance in the 2013 Finals Series, some are suggesting Wayne Bennett needs to prove he's still got 'it' on his return to the club he helped to create. He doesn't see it that way and it would take two horror years for his reputation to be tarnished to any great degree but there is no question locals expect success on Wayne's watch. Many players have conceded throughout the pre-season that Bennett's presence has kept them on their toes and it is unlikely the Broncos 2015 blueprint will stray too far from that which has delivered seven premierships to date. The early signs were encouraging in the World Club Series and unlike at Newcastle, it appears Broncos players will buy into the Bennett playbook sooner rather than later.
The Broncos are favourites to knock off defending premiers South Sydney in the opening game of the 2015 season in front of a crowd that will likely nudge the magical 50,000 mark; that should tell us plenty. With games against the Rabbitohs (h), Cowboys (h) and Warriors (a) in the first month Brisbane's credentials will be given an excellent test from the get-go but even if they get off to a slow start don't expect Bennett to reach for the panic button. A top-four finish may be beyond them this year but expect their best footy to come later in the year and, as they proved in 2006, from that point anything is possible. NRL.com prediction: 5th