In a season where speculation about the coaching future of Wayne Bennett was relentless, the Brisbane Broncos also found their future.
The emergence of David Fifita, Jamayne Isaako, Jaydn Su'A, Payne Haas and Kotoni Staggs – all of whom are signed long term – was without doubt the highlight of a season where the defensive frailties of the Broncos cost them dearly.
For a club that sets a top-four finish as a not negotiable benchmark, to finish in sixth spot and lose an elimination final at home by 30 points is not the kind of season results-wise that a club with a history of success like Brisbane will remember with any great fondness.
Dig deeper and the fact remains that the Broncos had one less win in 2018 than the minor premiers and for most of the season were without their best forward, Matt Gillett, and star signing Jack Bird.
It is impossible to quantify what impact the 'Bennett saga' had on the playing group. It was clear, however, that the veteran coach did not lose the dressing room at any stage and was able to extract more out of a plethora of previously unheralded rookies than anyone would have predicted.
There were three players that became indispensable to Brisbane as the season unfolded. Super boot Isaako finished the regular season with 233 points as the NRL's leading point scorer and was the outstanding back for the Broncos week-in and week-out and prop Matt Lodge also did not miss a game and had a year he can be proud of in the engine room.
The best player for Brisbane and the one that stood up in the big moments on a regular basis was Tongan international Tevita Pangai Junior. His powerhouse round two performance against the Cowboys, where he deflected Scott Bolton into the goal post pad at the death in a massive play, set the scene for what was to follow. Against the Rabbitohs in round 23 Pangai turned the game when scores were locked 18-all to inspire a crucial victory. Pangai played through leg injuries at the back end of the season but could always be counted on to deliver against the best and to inspire his side.
The Broncos will never know how the season would have unfolded had Gillett not suffered a season-ending neck injury. The representative forward sustained the injury in round one but battled on for five games before the extent of the injury became known. Gillett is the club's star on the edge and it is the Broncos' edge defence that cost them big time in the 48-18 loss to St George Illawarra in week one of the finals. Su'A emerged as an outstanding replacement in that regard but when he too was injured it meant the Broncos were always plugging holes on their edges. Like all 'what-if' moments, Brisbane will wonder whether Gillett's presence for the entire season would have secured them the extra victories needed to finish in the top four.
It is not possible to sum up a season with one sentence but Bennett came closest in the aftermath of the finals loss to the Dragons at Suncorp Stadium when he said: "We have had three constants all year – the injury toll, expectation, every game we were expected to win we have played badly in… the third one has been our defence, it hasn't been where I want it to be."
When it comes to a winning margin it would be easy to pinpoint the 50-18 walloping of the Panthers in round 19 where the Broncos turned back the clock 25 years to blow a dismal Penrith off the park. The round 24 win over the Roosters, to the tune of 22-8, was the kind of win that will bring Brisbane the most pleasure because it was a semi-final type win against one of the competition favourites.
Match Highlights: Roosters v Broncos - Round 24, 2018
The Brisbane forwards were relentless and the performance of James Roberts on Latrell Mitchell in defence was one he will want to bottle.The kicking game of Anthony Milford was masterful and despite being under the pump at key stages the Broncos played with a composure and steely resilience that was often the key to their eight victories from 12 games against top eight sides.
The Broncos had a couple of shockers at home with the 24-16 loss to the Titans and 38-24 capitulation to Manly in round 10 showcasing the weaknesses Bennett identified as their Achilles heel in 2018. Their worst loss of the season though came in the game that counted the most – the 48-18 loss to the Dragons in week one of the finals in a game where key St George Illawarra stars left the field with injury. Brisbane simply did not turn up when the season was on the line, a major disappointment.
The Broncos will lose Sam Thaiday (retirement), Korbin Sims (St George Illawarra) and Tom Opacic (North Queensland) in the off-season and will welcome Sean O'Sullivan (Sydney Roosters) to bolster depth in the halves. The big guns yet to ink new deals remain Corey Oates, Pangai and Lodge with the latter two expected to re-sign. The positive for Broncos is the stability overall in their squad and the long-term retention of their rising stars.
The expected return of Gillett and Bird will give the Broncos hope that a top-four finish awaits next season. Isaako, Fifita, Staggs, Su'A and Haas will only develop further and aggressive prop Tom Flegler is expected to get his NRL debut in 2019 to add even more starch to the impact of the young brigade. If it is to be Bennett's swansong at Brisbane then it is not unreasonable for the club to hope for a fairytale farewell so long as there is marked improvement in the side's defensive clout.
NRL Teams look at what's next for the Broncos