ROUND 23: Brisbane Broncos v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Suncorp Stadium, 11/8/17)
While it may not have quite rivalled their 54-0 win over the Titans the week before for sheer spectacle, the Broncos’ victory over the Sharks at Suncorp on Friday night felt like one of their most effortless wins of the 2017 season – a veritable showcase for all their different talents and skill sets that was, in its own way, even more focused and precise than the game against Gold Coast, if only because they had an opposition closer to their own level. That said, this was a pretty scrappy game from the Sharks, especially after their loss to the Raiders the week before, with James Maloney’s return feeling a bit premature, and his contribution to the game lacking his usual wild genius.
Matt Gillett put down the first points of the night, thanks to some deft timing from Brisbane ten metres out from the Cronulla line. Following on a pair of passes from Korbin Sims and Kodi Nikorima, Gillett got just on the outside of Maloney, slamming through a half-formed ankle tap from the future Panther and then looking, for a moment, as if he might offload out to Jordan Kahu, only to choose to run the ball, dodging around Wade Graham and then crashing to ground underneath a tackle from Ricky Leutele. It was a testament to Gillett’s speed and strength when he chooses to run the football, and with Kahu adding the extras the Broncos had started this home game as decisively as their fans might have wanted.
The Broncos wouldn’t score again until four minutes from the half time siren, but they looked dangerous for the entire first stanza. Shortly after their first four-pointer, a spectacular bomb from Anthony Milford bounced backwards at an unpredictable angle, leaving room for Gillett to scoop it up on the run and almost crash over, only for some scrambling defence from the Sharks to bring him to ground. A couple of minutes later, James Maloney bobbled the ball in the air, allowing Adam Blair to come in and force a knock-on, one of his signature moves.
In some ways, though, that frustrating moment just seemed to galvanise Maloney to make a statement after coming back from a couple of weeks off the park, since up until this point you had to wonder whether his hand had fully mended, given some of the more tentative playmaking he’d been contributing. For a brief moment here, however, Maloney got into gear, culminating with an extraordinary trysaving tackle on James Roberts – a desperate ankle tap right on the line – that prevented what would have been a certain try for the game’s speediest centre.
Watching it in slow motion, it was amazing to see how well Maloney had read the scenario as a whole, initially focusing on Milford earlier in the play, only to steer away from him as the Steeden moved through Kahu to focus on Roberts who was running up from behind to complete the set. That just made it all the more disappointing when the Sharks were deemed to be offside, and all the more frustrating – in some ways – when Maloney took out Kahu under the high ball ten minutes later, gifting the Broncos a penalty and inducing Gillett to come in to give Jimmy a piece of his mind.
Still, the fact that Maloney was giving away penalties as regularly as he usually does in itself felt like a sign of good health – his willingness to gamble everything is what leads to some of his best plays – and an important rallying point for the team in the face of some other messy decisions, most notably a cough-up from Jason Bukuya down the other end of the field that turned what should – or could – have been a Brisbane knock-on into a penalty for the home team.
While Maloney may have been getting into gear, there was no doubt that the Broncos were dominant, and that dominance culminated shortly before the siren, on the back of a wide pass from Nikorima to Boyd, and a stunning run from Boyd, who dummied to the right to pull in the Cronulla no. 2, abruptly shifted decision to take advantage of Leutele’s misreading of Roberts’ role in the play, and then bounced off Leutele and Boyd to slam over the line. It was Boyd’s first try since Round 4, and a magnificent display of leadership at fullback – enough, you would have thought, to keep the Sharkies out and cement this opening act as Brisbane’s own.
Still, sometimes those brilliant displays can prove even more motivating to the other team, and the Broncos may well have got complacent in these final minutes – it’s hard not to get complacent when you’re winning at Suncorp – with a brilliant low grubber from Holmes setting up the final play by not sitting up for Corey Oates like the big winger was expecting, as the Steeden hit him low and fast on the shins, richocheting off to provide Cronulla with a bit more of a chance.
A penalty early in the set gave them a bit more breathing-space, and then a short ball from Maloney allowed Luke Lewis to step around the inside of Milford and reach a hand out to slam the Steeden to ground with barely a minute on the clock. It was the first moment at which the Sharks had really felt as if they were absolutely in the game game (at one point they’d barely completed half of their sets) and a critical turning-point for several key reasons.
First, it undermined Boyd’s four-pointer, and allowed the Sharks to have the last word on the first act, a gesture that was all the more powerful for the loping speed and decisive strength of Boyd’s run and putdown. Second, it consolidated Maloney’s growing presence over the course of this first stanza, with all his escalating energy culminating with arguably the best try assist of the night so far. Finally, it was the perfect way for Lewis to celebrate his 34th birthday, and a testament to the big second-rower’s ability to rouse and renew the team at just these clutch moments.
The Broncos didn’t take long to recuperate their lead, however, with Tautau Moga putting down the first of two successive tries several minutes into the second stanza, on the back of an awkward fifth-tackle option from Maloney, who booted the Steeden out on the full under the pressure of a rapid, well-timed tackle from Jai Arrow. From there, the Broncos funnelled the footy rapidly through Milford, Boyd and Moga, with the massive centre putting in a huge tackle on Kurt Capewell, who clearly recognized that anything lower than the chest would allow Moga to offload, so aimed for the torso in what amounted to a Hail Mary tackle given the speed and strength with which the ex-Cowboy was travelling.
If these four points were a testament to Moga’s unique ability to combine the skill sets of the front and back rows – a centre who plays like a prop – then he confounded the distinction between the no. 2, 4, 8 and 10 jerseys even more dramatically with his next try. Before that happened, however, the Sharks’ game rapidly declined, although for a moment it looked as if the Broncos might be in for a slight slump after Ben Hunt sliced the ball out on the full at the end of restart, with Ricky Leutele not even having to make a run for it.
As it turned out, however, that was little more than a glitch, with a high tackle from Maloney on Boyd soon gifting Brisbane their second penalty goal of the night, and their second off Maloney, whose willingness to take risks around errors had started to yield diminishing returns by this point in the match. With Andrew Fifita contributing his own high tackle around the hour mark, Cronulla had granted the Broncos a converted try in penalties, as all the issues that have plagued them in 2017 – discipline, ball handling and set completion – reached a point of crisis.
That crisis culminated with Moga crossing over again, for the single most spectacular try of the night – a try that seamlessly fused the attributes of prop and centre to form one of the big backliner’s very best moments during his time at Brisbane. The buildup was almost as good, starting with Milford dummying the ball about halfway up the field, and then genuinely seeming as if he intended to run, only to kick the Steeden at the last minute, grubbering it forward only for Fifita to stick out a boot and deflect it off to the left side of the field.
Thinking quick, however, Hunt scooped up the footy and sent it over to Moga, who was nearly at the forty, but still managed to put in a long-range try that felt like a short-range try, building up enough speed to simply brush Beale and Townsend out of the way before crashing to ground. Surely, it was that combination of prop and centre skill sets that motivated Sosaia Feki to put in a prop-like tackle at the beginning of the subsequent set, but the Sharks simply couldn’t match the Broncos’ energy at this stage, even if Milford didn’t manage the conversion this time around, with Moga bagging his first NRL double since playing for North Queensland in 2014.
After relatively few points being scored in the first stanza – at least relative to the Broncos’ superb form – there had been a cascade of points in the second half, and it continued a few minutes later, in what increasingly felt like a training run or rugby league showcase from Brisbane rather than a game in which they were faced with any serious competitive threat.
Once again, it was Milford’s dummying skill that set up the four points, with the wily half collecting a long ball from Blair and then showing the Steeden several times, dragging in the Sharks’ left edge with the leisurely deception he does so well before popping a looping harbour bridge pass over to Oates to cross over utterly untouched in the corner. In its balletic simplicity, it was a stunning counterpoint to Moga’s hard run a couple of minutes before, and while Milford’s conversion may have bounced off the posts it still felt as if the Broncos – and Milf, in particular – were firing on all fronts
It was something of a consolatiom, then, that Cronulla managed to put down the final try of the match a few minutes later, but a consolation try was also all it could possibly be given Brisbane’s Maroon-like form over the course of the game. On its own terms, however, this was a pretty good try, with Moga missing a pass from Tevita Pangai Junior right on the Cronulla line, and Beale rushing in to tackle the big Brisbane centre to force him to cough up the ball entirely.
From there, Townsend scooped up the Steeden and ran across to the wing, offloading back to Beale at the last moment as Pangai Junior wrapped around with a tackle designed to make up for the uncompleted pass. It wasn’t enough to prevent the ex-Bronco crashing over, though, and while Milford may have made a valiant effort to keep Beale up, these were four points that the Sharks were able to get under their belt.
Still, with Maloney failing to get through the conversion you had to wonder how instrumental his return had been in the Sharks’ form – an even more drastic loss than their defeat to the Raiders the week before – while the fact that they gave away a penalty in the last minute of the game, and that Milford slotted through his fourth penalty goal, cemented everything that had been scrappy about the Sharks’ form, and everything they’ll be anxious to rectify when they take on the Cowboys at 1300SMILES next week.
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