Milford's class a major difference, Dragons' selection shock backfires and the champion club of 2015 almost certain to be from Queensland.
Milford's class complements Broncos' courage
Anthony Milford didn't get too many shots at the Dragons in attacking positions but almost every time he did he came up with the type of play his opposition were unable to deliver at the other end. The Dragons had three times the amount of possession inside the opposition 20-metre line yet with Gareth Widdop St George Illawarra's lone playmaker for the first 52 minutes of the game they were turned away time and again by the impenetrable Broncos defence. Enter Milford, who scored a try himself, laid on two others and played a crucial part in the build-up to two more as his team defied territory and possession to post 32 unanswered points before the Dragons finally struck with 10 minutes left to play. His ability to isolate a defender through sheer speed was matched by his game-high five tackle busts and made him a threat to the Dragons defence, his 168 running metres the most of any Bronco.
"He's deceptively strong," said Broncos skipper Corey Parker. "He's only a small guy but he's got some good core strength and you get him with the ball in hand and a metre to move and he skips across a couple and shrugs one off and offloads. He's still building nicely."
Mary pulls a selection shock
He may have filled in last week when Benji Marshall left the field inside 20 minutes but no one expected Dragons coach Paul McGregor to name Jack de Belin at halfback an hour before kick-off. A shock it may have been but there is plenty of recent precedence to support McGregor's move. Tony Williams started at halfback last year and helped the Bulldogs record a win over the Sea Eagles, Tohu Harris scored a try when he played five-eighth for New Zealand last season and Feleti Mateo scored a try when he wore the No.6 jersey for the Sea Eagles in Round 3 this season.
Set up on the right edge, De Belin's first touch was a spiral pass to Widdop for a sweeping movement to the left in the fourth minute and he showed nice skill for a tip-on play to Peter Mata'utia in the 10th minute but the Dragons were unable to crack one of the most organised defensive units in the competition. More than window dressing, de Belin was often involved in backline movements but certainly lacked the polish and pizzazz of regular No.7 Benji Marshall who will return from a hamstring complaint against the Panthers on Thursday night.
McGregor said after the game that the move was born out of some late withdrawals to the squad on Thursday and an unwillingness to expose under-20s half Drew Hutchison on such a big stage.
"I just thought defensively to start the game we needed our best defensive side out there and Jack's a part of that and got 'Gaz' (Widdop) to play on the ball but we just couldn't get across that stripe," McGregor said.
"You never like to change a side but some have been forced. Drew is still learning the trade and it was a very important game and to put him under that pressure from the start is not the right thing to do."
Feast or famine for Dragons try-scorers
They may have scored 13 tries in their past two games but going in against the Broncos on Friday night the Dragons' tally of 58 tries was the equal worst in the competition, and they took until the 70th minute before they came up with try 59 courtesy of a Widdop kick to the corner for winger Justin Hunt. For the first 35 minutes the visitors enjoyed 57 per cent of possession and by far the better of field position but were unable to convert any of that ascendancy into points. Hunt appeared to have scored just past the half hour mark but a review by the video referee showed he had an air swing in trying to ground the ball just inside the dead-ball line. Then, just minutes later on the back of a penalty, the Broncos scored through Milford to go 16 points in front and suck further wind out of the St George Illawarra sails. Having given their for-and-against a significant boost last weekend it went back almost as far against the Broncos, their place in the top eight at the completion of Round 23 now dependent on whether the Bulldogs and Sea Eagles have big wins.
"At times we threw some good shape at them. They had a solid defence there but it's something we'll certainly be working on and move forward," Widdop said.
"Certainly it's disappointing not to get across the stripe but that's my responsibility and my role to try and direct the team around.
"We were an inch short on a few things so we can certainly take a few positives out of it but they're a great team and it's a big learning curve."
Broncos boosted by Blair factor
When season 2015 is in the history books the late move to get Adam Blair to the Broncos may be viewed as the coaching masterstroke of the year. The final piece to coach Wayne Bennett's puzzle, Blair has shrugged off three years of indifferent form at the Wests Tigers to be referred to in commentary by Phil Gould as "the most improved player in the NRL". That may be something of a stretch given he played in New Zealand's successful Four Nations team in October but it emphasises the influence he is having on a grittier Broncos team this season. Having missed the past two weeks through suspension, Blair made 141 metres and 31 tackles and his four offloads basically off the ground created time and space for Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford to attack a retreating Dragons defence. But it is the efforts that can't be quantified that his teammates appreciate most.
"He's been missed for the last two weeks, just his little things around the ruck," Parker said.
"Obviously I play alongside him probably more than most but it is just the little things around the ruck that has really helped the side. There's no stat on it but they are little effort things that go a long way towards winning games so it was good to have him back."
Champion club will come from Queensland
It's not yet a fait accompli but Brisbane's double in both grades on Friday night has all but ensured the 2015 Club Championship will be won by either the Broncos or Cowboys. In addition to the Broncos' 32-6 victory in first grade, the Holden Cup team accounted for the Dragons to maintain their place in the top four, as the Cowboys did on Thursday night against South Sydney. The Roosters are the only other team capable of catching the 73 points that the two Queensland teams have now reached but they would need to win both grades for the next four weeks and hope the Broncos and Cowboys senior and junior teams lose every game they play. That won't happen; the champion club of 2015 will come from Queensland.
The win over the Dragons also put the Broncos in front in the race for the minor premiership but Parker echoed Wayne Bennett's sentiments from earlier in the week when he said it was not a priority.
"I care about week to week," said Parker. "From our point of view we're in a position to be able to do so but no one remembers too many people who win minor premierships."