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Broncos 2021 season preview: Walters' biggest hurdle looms

Well, it can't get any worse.

For so long the NRL's flagship club, Brisbane chartered thoroughly unknown and even more unwanted territory in 2020 – finishing with a wooden spoon that had never been even a consideration in the 32 seasons prior.

The fallout makes 2021 just as uncertain. Kevin Walters finally gets a crack at the NRL coaching role he has pursued in various forms for almost a decade.

He is now back at the club he won five titles with, vowing to fix the on and off-field culture that has fallen away so quickly.

Things at Red Hill can't get any worse than 2020. But when and how they become dramatically better will be one of the storylines of this season.

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There are so many broken elements – culture, performance, attitudes, game plan, recruitment, retention and more – that right now there are more questions than answers.

The one certainty is the spotlight. Just as Brisbane's 2020 campaign ended up a car crash with rubberneckers unable to pull their attention from the wreckage, their bid to bounce back in 2021 will draw just as many eyeballs.

The outlook 2021

What's new

Plenty. Though roster-wise it's a more case of what's gone with Darius Boyd (retired), David Fifita (Titans), Andrew McCullough and Jack Bird (Dragons) and Joe Ofahengaue (Tigers) amounting to a serious void on several levels.

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The summer's recruitment has yielded Dale Copley, John Asiata and David Mead, so Walters is understandably putting his faith in some of the most talented youngsters in the game.

Elsewhere John Cartwright and Terry Matterson have come onto the coaching staff, while there is a concerted effort to keep the club's vocal cast of former greats around the playing group – Boyd, Matt Gillett and Petero Civoniceva among others are all regulars at training.

The draw

Brisbane have their usual prime time positions sewn up, playing 14 games on either Thursday or Friday night and enjoying seven-day or more turnarounds 14 times.

From April though they well and truly have their work cut out for them – facing Melbourne, South Sydney, Penrith and Parramatta in a month-long stretch.

From round 11 another brutal run looms around Origin, with the Roosters, Storm again, Dragons (minus Origin players), Raiders and Rabbitohs once more all in a row.

Burning question

Can Walters instil discipline on and off the paddock?

Brisbane's 123 penalties last year were the most conceded by any side, and concerningly 25 of those came from dangerous tackles, with another 23 from 10-metre offsides.

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With 75 six-again infringements (fifth-most in the NRL), the Broncos defence leaked 31.2 points per game, easily their worst season return in history.

The on-field woes came against a backdrop of constant off-field controversy, and already Brisbane's summer has been dominated by off-field incidents involving Payne Haas and Kotoni Staggs, while Tevita Pangai jnr's repeated COVID-19 breaches last year mean he is still on probation for much of this season.

The stat that gives you hope

Running for 80.5 post-contact metres per game. By every numerical measure in rugby league, there was little to like about Brisbane's 2020 season.

Which makes Payne Haas's own individual efforts even more impressive. Playing in a badly beaten pack, his post-contact ranked second behind only Jason Taumalolo, while his 44 tackles a game (ninth in NRL), and 175 metres averaged (14th in NRL) also led the way for Brisbane.

Haas will miss the first three games of 2021 through suspension but has already established himself as one of the game's elite front-rowers.

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Breakout player

Tesi Niu. Broncos staff have been seriously impressed with his pre-season at right centre, and he should get at least half the year out wide given Kotoni Staggs' knee injury.

Niu has bulked up for his move to the front-line and has been rated one of Queensland's most promising youngsters in some time.

The 19-year-old is also off-contract having been a recruitment target of Titans patriarch Mal Meninga last season.

Contract matters

No shortage of wheeling and dealing at Red Hill with 15 players off-contract this season.

Staggs, Xavier Coates and Tom Dearden rank as the retention priorities, with deals already tabled for Staggs and Coates as negotiations continue.

Anthony Milford is playing for his future and is facing a sizeable pay cut from the last multimillion-dollar deal he signed, while Corey Oates and Jake Turpin both have 2022 options in their favour which need to be activated by mid-season to keep them off the open market.

The quote

"This is the Broncos. I won't tolerate us missing the finals. When you think about the Broncos you think of a winning culture and that is what we will return the club to."

Kevin Walters during his first round of interviews as newly minted coach last September.

The good, the bad, the likely

The good: The cohesion and discipline comes together in the middle, Anthony Milford rediscovers confidence off the back of a forward pack actually going forward and Brisbane is able to lift themselves back toward finals contention as all that potential starts translating to performances.

The bad: 2020 repeats.

The likely: Probably somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios, though two brutal stretches against the NRL's heavyweights through April, then May-June will dictate. A string of heavy losses for a still-inexperienced roster could have the wheels wobbling again by mid-season.

Broncos in 2021

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