Brisbane Broncos: 2018 NRL season preview
It has been a dozen years since the Brisbane Broncos last won the premiership and the natives are getting restless.
For a club which prides itself on winning competitions at regular intervals, the fact that the last time Brisbane celebrated an NRL title back in 2006 George W. Bush was US President and Shane Warne was still playing Test cricket for Australia is a sore point.
The Broncos remain a genuine Telstra Premiership force due to their winning culture, their coach and a plethora of representative stars.
With the North Queensland Cowboys challenging Brisbane's title as Queensland's pre-eminent NRL powerhouse, it shapes as a big season for coach Wayne Bennett's side.
The Broncos have been quiet in the player market with only former premiership-winning Cronulla Sharks duo Jack Bird and Sam Tagataese boasting any significant NRL experience of the new recruits. Familiar face Kevin Walters is back on deck as an assistant coach but this year coach Wayne Bennett has put faith in the players who have done the job for him in the past.
With the demise of the under 20s NYC competition, the biggest change at Broncos training is the number of young faces, particularly in the forwards.
Payne Haas (18), David Fifita (17), Tom Flegler (18) and Matt Lodge (22) are big frames in youthful bodies.
Apart from Lodge, that youth may more to be an investment in the future rather than the season set to unfold. After the opening trial match however, Fifita and Haas showed enough to suggest they are players of real substance and unbounded potential.
The Broncos play 12 games against teams that made the top eight last year and 12 against those that didn't, in a split the club should be pleased with.
They will play without their Origin stars only once, in the away round 17 clash with the Titans.
With a bye ahead of Origin 1 and a full-round bye for Origin II, Brisbane will be better placed than most years to cope with what is always a gruelling representative period.
The most challenging stretch appears to be against five of last year's top eight sides in a row from round 10 where they play the Sea Eagles (home), Roosters (home), Eels (away), Storm (away) and Sharks (away).
The stats that give fans hope
When James Roberts came to the club in 2016 the hope was that he would regularly top the charts in the try-scoring stakes.
The flying centre did that last year with 16 in the regular season, before adding two in the finals series.
That statistic will hearten Broncos fans because the feeling is that Roberts has still only scratched the surface of what he is capable of. He appears to be fit and focused at training and the after-burners that he turned on last year look set to have more thrust in them ahead of the 2018 season.
Andrew McCullough ($844,000) is the Fantasy gun and will be expected to score 55 points a game, while halves Anthony Milford ($666,000) and Kodi Nikorima ($545,000) could take on larger playmaking roles in 2018 after the departure of Ben Hunt. Matt Lodge ($365,000) could be a bargain if he plays big minutes in the front row, and Jamayne Isaako ($228,000) is the smokey if he lands a wing spot.
Wayne Bennett has re-signed until the end of 2019.
How much longer he will go on for after that is anyone's guess but he has said in the past that he is not a social person, so retirement may not ever suit him. What will suit him is the challenge of getting this 2018 Broncos side ready to challenge for a seventh club title.
He has banked on what he already had at the club, rather than going on a spending spree, in a tremendous show of faith in the players at his disposal.
Bennett's legacy as one of the great coaches in world sport is assured. At the age of 68 he shows no signs of losing his drive or determination to keep the Broncos at the top of the rugby league tree.
Brisbane's star players are mostly all signed to long-term deals. Darius Boyd, Josh McGuire, Anthony Milford, James Roberts and Andrew McCullough wrapped up until the end of 2021.
Kodi Nikorima, Jordan Kahu, Matt Gillett and star teenager David Fifita are on the books until the end of 2020.
The long-term future of Corey Oates is yet to be determined. Oates is off contract at the end of the season and is set to make a move into the back-row from the wing. The success of that positional switch will likely determine whether he remains a Bronco beyond this year.
The burning question
The Broncos' halves occupy more column centimetres in the press and more airtime on the radio than just about any other subject matter in Brisbane.
The legacy of Kevin Walters and Allan Langer reigns supreme, but it has also been a millstone around the necks of their successors with fans impatient that another duo of comparable quality has not emerged since.
In Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima the Broncos have two youthful halves of class and flair. Whether they can also develop the game management skills that premiership winning players in their position have mostly possessed remains a moot point.
He is an unknown quantity and probably the bolter of all bolters, but if Matt Lodge takes the competition by storm for the Broncos in the opening two months you can bet his name will be mentioned in NSW Blues despatches.
The big, aggressive, powerhouse prop appears ideally suited to the State of Origin arena, with his ball skills before and at the line another string to his bow. Size matters in representative fixtures and Lodge brings the muscle the Blues may well turn to in order to reverse Queensland's dominance of the past 12 years.
Players to follow on social media
Slammin' Sam Thaiday keeps it real on social media where he has over 150,000 followers on Instagram alone.
Food, fun and family often feature, with Thaiday also prepared to take the mickey out of himself when in the mood. Thaiday's photographs are often well framed and he displays an esoteric touch as an amateur snapper.
The Broncos veteran is also prepared to speak his mind and be controversial at times, as was the case when he teed off about the way he was dumped from the Australian Test team.
"We have an outstanding squad again for the 2018 season and the last three years we have probably had the team to win the comp,'' Broncos captain Darius Boyd says.
"Every year that we don't is a disappointment and an opportunity lost. It is something us older guys are constantly talking to the younger ones about and encouraging them to make the most of every opportunity, because these opportunities don't come around that often.
"You can say another one slipped again last year so we have to start from scratch again, have a good season and put ourselves in a strong position come finals time."
''Biggest strength for the Broncos is their backline. They've got stars in all positions, including Darius Boyd at the back who can turn any three on two into a try at any time. Will they be able to get themselves in position to capitalise on that?
''Brisbane Broncos this year will finish ninth.''
Alex Glenn, Andre Savelio, Andrew McCullough, George Fai, Jaydn Su'A, Joe Ofahengaue, Josh McGuire, Kodi Nikorima, Korbin Sims, Matt Gillett, Matthew Lodge, Payne Haas, Salesi Funaki, Sam Thaiday, Sam Tagataese, Tevita Pangai Jnr, David Fifita, Tom Flegler, Jake Turpin, Anthony Milford, Corey Oates, Darius Boyd, Gehamat Shibaski, Jack Bird, Jamayne Isaako, James Roberts, Jonus Pearson, Jordan Kahu, Marion Seve, Mosese Pangai, Sam Scarlett, Todd Murphy, Tom Opacic, Troy Dargan, Corey Allan, Shaun Nona.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.