The Brisbane Broncos are under siege.
A second Brisbane team is set to enter the NRL in 2023, the Titans are now a genuine rival - on and off the field - and along with the Storm, Warriors and Cowboys have shattered the illusion that the Broncos don’t lose players they want to keep.
First it was star forward David Fifita’s decision to turn down a lucrative deal to join the Titans last season.
Then the Warriors prised boom fullback Reece Walsh from Brisbane’s grasp earlier this season and the Cowboys snared halfback Tom Dearden.
Now the Storm have managed to lure Queensland Origin winger Xavier Coates to Melbourne.
Yet the real battle for talent is below NRL level and it is an area the Broncos aren’t on equal terms with their southern rivals, with the Dragons becoming the latest club to establish an academy or recruitment operation in south-east Queensland.
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The Rabbitohs, Raiders, Roosters, Sea Eagles, Storm and Warriors already have a presence in south-east Queensland for the purpose of recruiting and developing young talent.
Penrith, who Brisbane’s pathways are often incorrectly compared to, boast more than 10,000 juniors and teams in the NSWRL’s Harold Mathews, SG Ball, Jersey Flegg and NSW Cup competitions.
The Broncos don’t have a single team beneath NRL level and just 43 players in their academy program, comprising of 10 players of each age from 15-to-18, two 19 year-olds - Selwyn Cobbo and Xavier Wilson - and 20 year-old TC Robati.
“People think we sign 1000 kids and have all of Brisbane to ourselves but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Broncos elite player development manager Simon Scanlan said.
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“You hear commentators say sometimes that the Broncos have 500 players on scholarships, or that we are working with 40 or 50 halfbacks, but we don’t have anywhere near those numbers.
“That has been a misconception for a long time and as a club we have never addressed it. We just let people talk. But it is a completely different system in Queensland to NSW.
“With our academy we do a lot of work based on individual development and improvement – it is not based on getting them ready to play on the weekend for the Broncos under-16s team.
“We would be one of the clubs with the least number of kids contracted but our strike rate in getting them to NRL level has been really high.
“No one produces more NRL player than we do, and with smaller numbers, so we are still getting the best players.”
The ones who got away
The Broncos have produced more than 50 players in the last six years who have gone on to play at NRL level, either for Brisbane or other clubs.
Among them are Fifita, Walsh, Dearden and Coates, whose decisions to sign elsewhere have hurt the Broncos and their reputation as a club where players were often prepared to stay for less money.
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All four were identified by the Broncos at a young age and developed within the club’s academy system, which can still lay claim to being one of the best and most efficient in the NRL at identifying and developing talent.
“We contracted Tom Dearden from Mackay and flew him down. We would do sessions with him,” Scanlan said.
“Xavier Coates was from the Gold Coast. He came through our academy program as well.”
Kotoni Staggs, Payne Haas, Patrick Carrigan, Thomas Flegler, Jordan Riki, Herbie Farnworth and Tesi Niu are other members of the current Broncos squad to have followed the same route to the NRL.
“Almost two thirds have come through our junior program,” Scanlan said. “It is just the last year that we have lost some players we really wanted to keep.
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“They aren’t being retained in our NRL side for a lot of different reasons. Because we are producing so many young NRL players, in some regards they have got to go somewhere.
“We need to retain more than what we have – some of the key ones – but you can’t just put four or five junior players into your NRL squad every year. Our NRL squad has only got 30 players.”
'It’s either use them or lose them'
The Broncos have had a massive turnover since Wayne Bennett’s departure at the end of the 2018 season, with only Staggs, Haas, Tevita Pangai jnr, Anthony Milford, Matt Lodge, Jake Turpin, Corey Oates, Jamayne Isaako and Alex Glenn remaining.
Many believe that the Broncos introduced too many of their young players to the NRL too quickly but with other clubs circling they risked losing talent the club had developed.
Intrust Super Cup statistician Brad Tallon tweeted during Melbourne’s 50-0 demolition of Souths last Thursday night that the Storm had 10 players who had played more than 38 matches in the second-tier competition.
The players were Nicho Hynes (64), Justin Olam (71), Cameron Munster (46), Jahrome Hughes (65), Brandon Smith (38), Felise Kaufusi (45), Kenny Bromwich (42), Tui Kamikamica (60), Harry Grant (41) and Chris Lewis (56).
By comparison, the Broncos team beaten 19-18 by the Cowboys on Saturday night had just one – Turpin.
“Melbourne Storm have got a really stable side so they are bringing young guys in as they go,” Scanlan said. “If you are in a top-four side the players are usually more patient about waiting their turn.
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“We are in a bit of a rebuild at the moment so we are trying to push them more quickly. It’s either use them or lose them, so it is Catch-22 for us.”
The Titans and Cowboys played an under-19s match last weekend but unlike NSW, there is no competition in Queensland for NRL teams to play regularly.
“That would be our preferred system but who would we play,” Scanlan said. We have got no one to play.
“I think an NYC competition would be an easier program for us because we’d have a squad of 35 players who are 18, 19 or 20 whereas at the moment we have two players who are 19 and one 20-year-old on contract [below NRL level].
“In an ideal world, if the Sydney clubs are going to have under-16s, 18s, 20s, reserve grade and first grade, that would a national model.
“But if the Broncos, Titans and Cowboys had a reserve grade it would decimate the Queensland Cup because you’d probably take 105 players out of the competition.”
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Crowding out the market
The Titans are investing greater resources into development and the move is already paying dividends, while a second Brisbane club proposed as an option for 2023 would increase the pressure on the Broncos to find and keep the best talent.
However, Scanlan doesn’t believe it will be any tougher given the number of rival clubs already operating in south-east Queensland.
“It is just one more competitor on the doorstep so instead of there being 16 clubs there will be 17,” he said. “I think it is going to be hard for the new club.
“It has never been more competitive. Years and years ago the Broncos were the only club at the Queensland carnivals but every single NRL club is there now and it has been like that for the past 10 years.
“Melbourne has a heavy presence here in south-east Queensland through their affiliations with the Sunshine Coast Falcons and Brisbane Easts, and the Warriors have an affiliation with Redcliffe, who are the biggest Queensland Cup club.
“Manly has a squad up here, the Roosters have a squad up here, Souths have a squad up here, the Cowboys and Titans do in Brisbane, Canberra still do stuff up here and the Dragons are going to set up here as well."
St George Illawarra GM of football Ben Haran confirmed the Dragons had appointed a scout in south-east Queensland and would provide performance staff to work with young talent they signed in the area.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.