Why Brisbane's Year From Hell Mightn't Be Permanent

The Brisbane Broncos are one of the most successful clubs of the NRL era.

They've cracked the Top 8 just as many times as the Melbourne Storm since 1998, while only the Storm and Sydney Roosters have won more premierships. 

Historically, the Broncos are towards the top of the pile of achieving clubs in the NRL.

However, their last premiership came in 2006. Brisbane hasn't played in a Grand Final since 2015, or a preliminary final since 2017. 

The only thing this proud club has 'won' in recent years is the 2020 wooden spoon. Right now, 15 rounds through the 2021 NRL season, the Broncos are in a two-horse race for a second spoon in as many years.

A recent Players Poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that if a player had to leave their club, only the Storm and Roosters would be higher on the wish list. The problem is that the players currently contracted to the club don't appear to want to be there.

The performance of the team overall is dire and the numbers make for ugly reading. Perhaps the stream of players heading through or towards the exit door has something to do with that. A turnover in unproven coaching staff has had an influence too.

Still, the Broncos are a club with resources. The sort that should begin to turn things around sooner rather than later. Good clubs don't need more than three years to rebuild in a salary cap sport. A good club with the player pool like Brisbane's at its disposal shouldn't need more than two.

We're in year two for the Broncos now...

So, how do they arrest the slide and begin climbing up the ladder?

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The Numbers

They don't make for great reading, so we will keep this relatively brief.

Points per game: 15.5 (15th)

The Broncos still have enough talent in the side to score some nice tries...

Running metres per game: 1,492m (16th)

Payne Haas, Matthew Lodge, Tevita Pangai Jr and Thomas Flegler; there is no way to justify Brisbane's 16th-ranked 1,492 metres per game other than to say the forwards are being misused. Haas is one of the best props in rugby league, Pangai Jr is destructive and a prolific offloader while Lodge and Flegler are both strong carriers of the football. The foundations for a strong middle are there if the Broncos can put the pieces together.

Possession: 46.9% (16th)

The Broncos see the ball less than any other team in the NRL. Their 11.3 errors per game (3rd) contributes a lot to that, but Brisbane being starved of possession has more to do with how much time they're spending huddled under the posts.

Points conceded per game: 32.1 (16th)

They've not kept an opposition side to fewer than 34 points since Round 9, and since then, the Broncos have conceded 50+ points twice and 40+ points on another two occasions.

Missing 34.4 tackles per game (3rd-most) and adding a further 18.9 ineffective tackles per game (most in the NRL) to that, Brisbane's 84.2% tackle efficiency ranks 15th in the competition. And that only takes into account the tackles they are in a position to make...

Points scored, points conceded and yardage are three key indicators to a team's premiership chances. The Broncos are quite clearly not in the hunt and won't be any time soon. But that isn't to say they can't become a competent football side and Top 8 contender in the not too distant future.

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Finishing 2021

This segment would be a lot easier to fill if David Fifita, Tom Dearden, Xavier Coates and Tevita Pangai Jr were running out for the club in 2022, but that's a different story.

In the meantime, the Broncos need to work with what they've got and begin working towards significant improvements next year.

Contracted Players for 2021

Ethan Bullemor
Thomas Flegler
David Mead
Adam Reynolds
Patrick Carrigan
Payne Haas
Corey Oates (PO)
Jordan Riki
Selwyn Cobbo
Jamayne Isaako
Cory Paix
TC Robati
Brodie Croft
Rhys Kennedy
Tevita Pangai Jr
Kotoni Staggs
Herbie Farnworth
Matthew Lodge
Brendan Piakura
Jake Turpin (PO)


They can start by finding some consistency in the halves to improve their attack. Adam Reynolds is an excellent addition to the side for next season - he's exactly the sort of player the Broncos need right now. While Brodie Croft is the only player that has spent time in the #6 or #7 jersey this season currently contracted to the club for 2022, Kevin Walters needs to land on a pairing for the remainder of 2021.

Albert Kelly is the best option to fill in at halfback if he can stay fit for the remainder of the year. His experience is much-needed and he was the only Broncos player to consistently threaten with the ball before his injury. Is Kotoni Staggs really the future five-eighth and one to pair with Reynolds? Now might be the time to find out.

Brisbane's crash and bash approach through the middle isn't working either. All of the best teams in the NRL are moving the ball wider off the ruck and exploring down the edges. Brisbane have pace to burn out wide if they can get the ball there.

John Asiata needs to spend more time on the field when he is healthy for a start. 

He isn't at the level of the top tier ball-playing middles right now, but consistent time on the field can help him get there. How Walters sees this passage - against the Storm no less - and doesn't press with Asiata in the middle is mind-boggling.

Asiata takes possession at first receiver with Payne Haas on his shoulder. Two big bodies in the middle compress the defence, and with Anthony Milford out the back and wide of the ruck, the Broncos find space down the edge for easy metres.

On the way back via a Haas carry, Asiata spots a defender fly out at Kelly which puts Thomas Flegler one-on-one with his defender. Flegler's quick feet force a legs tackle and allow him to release an offload that goes to ground.

Those three tackles need to be the bedrock of Brisbane's rebuild in the middle of the field.

Right now, they throw just 84.8 general play passes per game (14th), 0.55 passes per run (13th), and 50.1% of their carries are one off the ruck (2nd-highest proportion in the NRL). Walters might think that playing a low-risk style of football is the path to go down, but the game is changing. He hasn't adjusted and the Broncos are being left behind. If they can apply more pressure to the opposition with the ball, the disparity in possession will begin to close and defending will become a lot easier.

The Broncos have conceded an NRL-high 5.5 tries per game. Most worryingly, 24 of the 83 total tries conceded have come through the middle of the field. Whether it comes down to effort, fatigue, or both, conceding tries in the centre-third is a trend the Broncos desperately need to end.

Cohesion is a significant factor to consider here. The Broncos have used an NRL-high 34 players so far this season. No other club has used more than 31 while the three best defensive teams in the competition have used 26 (Panthers), 29 (Storm) and 28 (Eels) players through 15 rounds.

Again, a lot of it comes down to Walters landing on a first-choice 17 and sticking with it. 

The decision-makers at the Broncos have a fortnight to dissect the side and produce a 17 they can name through to the end of the season. They need to strike a balance for the remainder of 2021 and send out a side that can avoid back-to-back wooden spoons while also developing for 2022 and beyond.

Crystal Ball

The 2021 wooden spoon is down to the Broncos and Bulldogs. Unfortunately, the two sides don't meet again this season. Therefore, the Broncos need to pick up wins and hope the Bulldogs lose if they're to avoid the unwanted culinary tool. The Stats Insider Schedule Difficulty Model gives the Broncos a slightly easier draw, but a favourable draw is of no use if we don't see any improvements after the bye round. 

Good or bad, consistency in key playmaking positions is a must:

1. Niu
6. Staggs
7. Kelly/Gamble
9. Turpin

The Broncos have stacks of young talent that can be developed across the remaining rounds. Jordan Riki, TC Robati, Keenan Palasia, Ethan Bullemor and Thoman Flegler need to be provided with specific parts of their game to develop. They are the future of the club and their progress will determine the speed of the rebuild.

From there, identify areas of weakness and go to market. Primary weaknesses being experience right across the park and variation through the middle.

Will Hopoate - Experienced and consistent centre.
Shaun Johnson - Top tier half possibly available at a cut-price.
Dale Finucane - Consistent middle forward and improving ballplayer.
Connor Watson - Valuable utility option that can fill multiple positions.
Kurt Capewell - Origin-calibre player at a position Broncos lack experience.
Isaac Liu - Experienced and consistent yardage and ballplaying middle forward.

The Broncos can't sign them all and may have already highlighted players within the club to promote, but they do have options for 2022, and if both Pangai Jr and Lodge leave in the coming weeks, cap space isn't an issue. They are still a desirable club for NRL players despite the recent run of results.

The appointment of Dave Donaghy is an excellent start and gives the Broncos the best chance of accelerating the rebuild through astute signings and identifying key retention targets. Clearing the decks of those that dug this hole is a line in the sand moment, too.

Big clubs shouldn't take long to build back to their best. 

While it doesn't look like it right now, the Broncos might well be on the right path. Young players and cap space are promising floor plans for a quick rebuild and long-lasting success. The next six months, both on and off the field, will give us a better idea of the foundations Donaghy and the Broncos will build upon.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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