The Broncos have put down one of their most rousing performances of the 2017 season in a 54-0 victory over the Titans at Cbus on Saturday night. As that scoreline might suggest, it was an extraordinary game – as momentous, in its way, as an Origin match, a Grand Final, or even an international Test, if only for the sheer amount of rugby league imagination and ingenuity that Brisbane put on display, not least because Gold Coast forced them to bring their best to the table time and time again.
While the scoreline obviously speaks to an amazing attacking effort from the Broncos, it was almost as much of a testament to their defence, since the Titans didn’t roll over by any means, but instead ran at the Brisbane line over and over again, forcing the visitors to prove why they’re the best team in the competition for goal line defence. In the second half, Brisbane only received seven tackles within the Titans’ ten, and yet they managed to score seven tries, showing the hosts how much they could do with so little, in their most efficient forty minutes of the year so far.
The victory was all the more striking in that Gold Coast had been pretty strong over the opening ten minutes, with a series of repeat sets and goal line dropouts putting more pressure on the Broncos than might have been expected. While Brisbane’s goal line defence was undoubtedly excellent, they only had to showcase it in the first place because of how mercilessly the Titans ran at their line, as if determined to make sure that the most the visitors could get away with would be a very narrow win margin.
In fact, the score was nil-all until the twenty-second minute, meaning that the Broncos scored about a point per minute from that point onwards, building to an astonishing escalation of twenty-six in the final twenty. While it was hard to identify an exact turning point, a good contender saw Jarryd Hayne allowing a Broncos ball to bounce through the in goal area and over the dead ball line without realising that Dale Copley had put a foot to it, and that he had had ample time to play it himself if he’d only seen what had happened.
On its own terms, this was hardly a choke, but it was the first rumbling of Hayne’s most problematic performance of the 2017 season, with some of the biggest shifts in momentum – or, rather, some of the biggest consolidations of Brisbane’s momentum – occurring off the back of his poor decisions. At a more global level, you’d hope that the presence of a player of Hayne’s calibre and history would be enough in itself to prevent a 54-0 loss, since this is, after all, exactly what marquee players are supposed to prevent from happening.
Still, you can’t blame it all on Hayne, since the Broncos were dominant from the moment that Kodi Nikorima put down their first try, which came as soon as they glimpsed some decent field position. On the first tackle after a penalty, and the first pass out of dummy half, the young no. 7 put in a deft sidestep to simply slice through the Gold Coast defence as if it was butter. It was the kind of try that happens before you even realise it has occurred, and a stark contrast to Brisbane’s goal line defence over the first twenty minutes.
Ten minutes later, Corey Oates went over, on the back of a strong run from Tautau Moga to get on the outside of John Olive. From there the massive centre offloaded to his wing man – with his right hand, no less – who outran Ashley Taylor to plant the ball in the top left corner. The try was all the more painful in that Brisbane had only got up the other end in the first place after a contest with Oates under the Brisbane high ball had seen the Titans awarded a fresh set of six, only for Hayne to kick it dead on the first tackle.
It was a howler of a decision, since even if Hayne had still thought the Titans were on the last tackle of the previous set he should have looked for his winger (or anyone, really) instead of just kicking to nowhere and hoping for the best. While Gold Coast weren’t necessarily going to score on that lost set, they were starting to look dangerous again, while there can be no doubt that Hayne’s poor judgement gave the Broncos a burst of confidence as well, with Oates bookending the set by the time he scored down the other wing.
Oates’ taste for drama only intensified three minutes before half time, when Anthony Don crashed over the line in what initially looked like it might be the first points put down by the Titans. As the momentum ceased in expectation of a referee ruling, however, Oates had the foresight to see that it was probably going to be a call of play on, taking advantage of the procedural freefall to run fifty metres down the field as the referees were conferring, with only Taylor chasing him to bring him to earth right on the halfway line as the whistle blew.
Sure enough, when the Bunker reexamined the grounding, Gold Coast not only found themselves with no try, but were forced to commence defending the Broncos on the first tackle from halfway up the field, in a testament to Oates’ speed and foresight, as well as Taylor’s speed and foresight in realising what he was up to. As a result, I found myself wondering what would have happened if the Brisbane winger had managed to get to the other end of the field to score a try during the referees’ discussion.
As it was, however, his run gifted the Broncos with the momentum and field position they needed to cruise into the break on a high, with Ben Hunt going over at the end of the subsequent set. Dummying twice, Hunt simply smashed through Hayne and Elgey, with the perfect display of strength and agility to cement his confidence in Andrew McCullough’s boots.
Hunt was far from done, however, bookending the break with arguably the most incredible try of the evening so far. Seven minutes into the second stanza he grubbered the Steeden five metres out from the line, only for it to ricochet off Nathan Peats’ legs and deflect off Hunt’s own thigh in turn, albeit with Hunt taking care not to make any contact above the knee or to enact anything resembling a knock on. From there, he regathered possession to slam it over the line, turning chaos into cohesion before the Titans even knew what had happened.
As intricate as that might all sound, however, the beauty of the thing was that it all happened in one movement, as if Hunt had deliberately taken advantage of Peats getting in place to make the most of a pretty limited menu of kicking options. After all, it was pretty unlikely that he would have been able to thread the ball so close and with so many defenders crowding around him, and I assumed that a ricochet was, at some level, precisely what he was looking for. However you saw it, there could be no doubt that it was a superb instance of ingenuity under pressure, as Hunt seemed to have to cleaned up the ball two or three times in one piece of play.
On the other side of the Steeden, things just got worse for the Titans as the fifty minute mark loomed, with Hayne somehow failing to clean up the ball in the in goal area and leaving it wide open for Moga to rush in and ground it. If the Brisbane centre hadn’t lost possession at the very moment of making contact with the earth Gold Coast could well have been looking at a 62-0 scoreline by the time the final siren rang out.
It didn’t take long for the Broncos to regather their momentum, however, with James Roberts putting down four more points five minutes later, off the back of the single most sublime try assist of the season from Tevita Pagai Junior. Looking back at high speed from within the twenty metre line, TPJ glimpsed Roberts at the very edge of his peripheral vision, and flicked the ball backwards in one of the most split-second judgements I’ve ever seen on the rugby league field. As quick as it was, however, Jimmy the Jet was even quicker, curving around to score against his former club with an incredulous look on his face that showed that even he couldn’t quite believe the try assist he’d just witnessed and received.
Yet the spectacle of what they had lost in James Roberts seemed to renew the Titans’ momentum as they marched towards the hour mark, culminating with a scintillating set in which Nathan Peats crashed over right in front of the uprights. As luck would have it, however, Peats met the padding square on, and found himself unable to pivot off to the right or the left, grinding against the post in yet another missed opportunity for Gold Coast.
To add insult to injury, Anthony Milford went over two minutes later, off the back of a deft one-on-one strip from Pangai Junior on Jarrod Wallace. In a stunning display of elegance and simplicity, Hunt threaded the ball through the line, where it deflected slightly off Max King to sit up perfectly for his five-eighth. From there, Milf scooped it up and outran the Gold Coast defence as every player seemed to converge upon him, with William Zillman coming close only to clarify just how far the Titans were from bringing Milford down.
By this stage, it was clear that the game had become the Ben Hunt show, and so the Broncos fans in the crowd went wild when he made it a hat trick, off the restart following the try from Milford that he had himself set up. It started with a deft offload from Adam Blair followed by a line break from Nikorima, who saw – or, rather, sensed – Hunt surging up behind him, and shot the ball in his direction.
From there, Hunt accelerated faster and harder towards the line than I’ve ever seen him run before, slipping out of a tackle from Kane Elgey to put down a try that seemed to bring a smile even to Wayne Bennett’s face. For any NRl fan, this had to be a moving moment, since it felt like the definitive gesture in Hunt’s long journey back from the 2015 grand final – and a performance worthy of a grand final. As if things weren’t bad enough for Gold Coast, Taylor was almost immediately taken from the field for what would turn out to be a meniscus tear in his knee, leaving the Titans to face the final twenty minutes without their star halfback.
They felt his absence too, with the Broncos putting down three more tries before the final siren, starting with Oates at the sixty-seventh minute. Once again, Hunt was the man with the plan, thanks to a damaging run and line break out of the scrum that suddenly seemed to turn him into the entire spine of the team in one person. Like déjà vu, Elgey went in for a tackle and, once again, he missed, with Oates running between the posts as if he’d just graduated to another dimension of rugby league – a state of flow so seamless and serene that it even outdid Cooper Cronk’s moment of sinew-synthesising grace.
From this point out, the Broncos were playing for pride as much as for points, with Nikorima going over again five minutes out from the end. Even at this late stage, the Titans still had some momentum, moving the ball over to their left corner only for Copley to come up with a messy offload that left room for the Brisbane halfback to put in a tricky intercept. From there, Nikorima ran the entire length of the field, outpacing Gold Coast so thoroughly that he was able to eventually slow down and walk to the line, placing the ball gently on it before turning around to gaze at the hundred metres he’d just traversed.
In a great moment of rugby league theatre, the Broncos now chose to offer James Roberts the conversion, and while he may have missed, the point was still made, as Wayne Bennett broke out into a smile – and then a laugh – more expressive than any I’ve ever seen before on his face. By the time Josh McGuire went over for the tenth try a few seconds before the final siren, it was barely surprising, since this was a Brisbane team who felt as if they could do just about anything by the final moments of the game.
Of course, the great question is where to now for Brisbane and Gold Coast? On the one hand, it would be impossible for the Broncos to achieve a better result, so they’re going to have to moderate that confidence to prevent it turning into complacency when they take on the Sharks at home next week. Meanwhile the Titans need to do something – anything – to prevent their loss to Brisbane turning into the final note of their season, and you can be sure they’ll bring everything to bear against a Dragons outfit equally desparate to make up for their performances against the Knights and the Bunnies over the last two weeks.