We’re two weeks into the NRL season and already the panic has set in over the Brisbane Broncos.
Coming off the worst season in the club’s history and one of the worst for any team in recent memory, things are still rotten in Red Hill, off to an 0-2 start.
For any other club, it would just be another poor season chalked up, but when it’s the biggest team in the league it can’t be ignored.
There’s really not much mystery here; the Broncos are one of the worst teams in the league because they’ve assembled a pretty poor roster that’s not demonstrably different to the team that went 17-3 in 2020, apart from some major losses.
They are without the top three players from their 2020 side to start 2021 — boom young forward David Fifita was lost to the Titans, Payne Haas to his own poor judgement, and Kotoni Staggs to a torn ACL.
They’re onto their fourth coach in the past two years, and the new guy is in his first year as an NRL head coach.
Despite all of that, there seems to be an air of surprise that the Broncos are still bad and got beaten by their “little brothers” on the Gold Coast, who have recruited superbly in recent years.
For the second straight year in Brisbane, it’s unclear what the best options are even in key positions, with Brodie Croft once again starting the season at halfback and 20-year-old Tom Dearden once again having to force his way into the side, named on an extended bench for round three and training in a typical number 14 role during the week.
This time he’s done it with strong form in the Queensland Cup rather than the team’s desperate need for something, anything to change, but the story is more or less the same as it was last year.
So, was Anthony Seibold really that bad of a coach? And was Kevvie Walters really supposed to be able to turn this tanker around like it’s a Mini Cooper?
Walters was a great player once upon a time and has some excellent apprenticeships with Melbourne and Queensland under his belt, but this is another reminder that a full-time role at the helm of a club is a brand new challenge.
Despite the team looking about as rudderless as they did last year (at least they started 2-0 before the coronavirus shutdown) the conversation around Walters is already different to the fury around Seibold.
The ‘old boys’ argument doesn’t hold water
The full effect of the Broncos mafia looking out for their own was highlighted this week thanks to Walters’s former teammate and former Fox Sports colleague, Gorden Tallis.
Thanks to his regular spots on Fox and radio, Tallis was one of the loudest critics of Seibold and team management as the team floundered last year, with the common refrain that the legends of the club weren’t allowed into the inner circle. And this week Tallis took aim at the management again for … cancelling a day at the races for the old boys and current players.
“[The plan was] to go with the young guys, get around them, talk to them, and try to help them get a little bit wiser and an older head on a young man’s body,” Tallis said.
“It got cancelled by the people above Kevvie. I think it came from the management.”
His claim that his mate was undermined by the higher-ups was rejected by none other than Walters himself, who released a statement on Monday saying he “made a decision … that being at the races less than 24 hours after we played a game wasn’t a good option”.
“We have seen plenty of the Broncos old boys across the past few months. We’ve had basically all of the Broncos captains come in over the preseason to speak to the players, like Wally Lewis, Gene Miles, Trevor Gillmeister, Gorden Tallis – and Darren Lockyer is around the club as well as Terry Matterson, Petero Civoniceva, Allan Langer, Matt Gillett, Darius Boyd … the list goes on.”
Never mind the fact that a chat with Tallis over a form guide and a XXXX is unlikely to turn a three-star player into five-star player, nor the fact that the Broncos set-up is littered with old boys, nor the fact that Tallis teed off on management seemingly without knowing what was going on.
Despite his criticism, he is still giving Walters’s team leeway that he wasn’t affording Seibold’s in 2020.
On the same Triple M broadcast where he teed off on the race-day cancellation, Tallis said it was just “a 13-minute window that’s let Brisbane down in the first two games”.
“There’s about three to five minutes against Parramatta [in round one] where they went to those back-to-back tries,” he said, ignoring the fact that the Broncos still led after those tries were scored just after half-time.
“And then the Titans [in round two] scored three tries in three sets of six — that’s unheard of,” he said, ignoring the fact that teams have been scoring in batches since the new rules were introduced last May.
Broncos perfectly set up to rebuild under Walters
The ridiculous thing is that none of this protection of Walters is needed.
2021 was a rebuilding year. Everyone knew it going in, but the reality of watching it has apparently caused people to immediately forget.
As painful as it may be, Brisbane is actually in a perfect position to cut the dead weight and shape the team that the Prodigal Son wants.
They’ve recently made a good start by re-signing forwards Tom Flegler (who reportedly turned down more money from Sydney clubs to stay in Brisbane) and Jordan Riki through 2023 and 2024 respectively.
And here are the players coming off contract after this year: Anthony Milford, Xavier Coates, Alex Glenn, Ben Te’o, Dearden, Tesi Niu, Jesse Arthars, John Asiata, Dale Copley, Tyson Gamble, Richie Kennar, Mead and Keenan Palasia.
Milford has attracted a lot of fair criticism for woeful performances the past few years and the Broncos will be thrilled to see his multi-million-dollar contract run out, but not every situation is so simple.
If you have a good player coming off contract, teams will be sniffing around, so the Broncos will work hard to keep Coates and Tesi Niu. Walters’s treatment of Dearden to start the season suggests he may not be the biggest fan of him, so it’s unclear how tightly the team will cling to him when the metaphorical sharks are circling.
They’re also in battles to keep their young guns, with Reece Walsh off to the Warriors and fellow 18-year-old Brendan Piakura being hounded by the Bulldogs.
Staggs, Jake Turpin and Corey Oates have player options for 2022, and the latter is probably the only player on the list who would struggle to get a more lucrative contract on the open market.
Torn ACL or no, Staggs will attract massive offers from all around the league if he opts out and Brisbane would have to fork out big dollars if they are any chance of keeping the man who scored half of their tries in 2020. But if Turpin doesn’t commit for 2022 and someone wants to pay overs for the hooker, the Broncos shouldn’t get into a bidding war for a good, but not franchise-changing, player.
Walters needs to have a voice in all those conversations because the best teams know what their coaches want, how they want to play and who can play that way, but right now he needs to focus on beating the Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon.
Canterbury was the only team that gave them a fight for the wooden spoon in 2020 and the only team the Broncos beat after the season resumed in late May.
They have to win this game. If they lose, not only will it be their 14th straight loss dating back to mid-July, it will likely consign them to 18 straight, with games against Melbourne (away), South Sydney (away), Penrith and Parramatta (away, in Darwin) next on the docket.
That will set up a round-eight clash with the Titans to avoid tying the record for the most successive losses in the NRL era, with a possibly record-breaking game against the Cowboys in Townsville the next week.
Maybe if it gets that far, even Tallis will have to ask some questions about Walters’s team.