The Roosters have brought home an emphatic win against the Broncos for the first game of the finals season, delivering a performance that was worthy of a grand final in its opening and closing chapters. In part that was because Brisbane were more anxious and undisciplined than usual without Darius Boyd at fullback, with most of Sydney City’s tries coming off the back of unforced errors from the visitors. Even their lone penalty goal at the twenty-fifth minute came off a late tackle from Tautau Moga on Mitchell Pearce, while Moga had already been put on report for a shoulder charge a couple of minutes before.
For those sublime opening and closing stretches, Allianz felt as identified with the Roosters as Suncorp does with the Broncos, and you could be forgiven for thinking that we were watching the only Sydney team, or the premium Sydney team – which is, after all, how the Chooks have increasingly branded themselves in the modern NRL era.
Nevertheless, their first attempt to put down points was a disappointment, despite the fact that it started with a damaging run from Mitchell Aubusson. Picking up where Aubusson left off, Isaac Liu managed to find about three or four breaches in the Broncos defence and make it to the line from fifteen metres out, only for a heroic trysaving tackle from Adam Blair to bring him to ground half a metre too short.
The Roosters regathered quickly, however, with Aidan Guerra scoring a try after a forward pass from Ben Hunt gifted the home team possession on the restart following Liu’s almost-try. Once again, the Chooks seemed to be surging right on the threshold of the Broncos’ defensive line, with Guerra himself almost effecting a line break before being brought to ground.
On the following tackle, he got the ball across to Mitchell Pearce, who breached the Broncos defence as elegantly as Liu had a couple of minutes before, almost making it to the line himself for what would have been the best twist-and-spin from a halfback in some time, only to be caught just short. Still, his advance provided Jake Friend with the proximity and position to soar a perfect cut-out pass to Guerra on the following tackle, allowing the Queensland second rower to crash over and conclude the splendid momentum he’d showcased in getting the Steeden up the Broncos’ end of the field in the first place.
Six minutes later the Roosters crossed over again, with another Broncos error setting up Boyd Cordner to put down four more points. This time, it was Anthony Milford who made the mistake, as he tried to rake the ball out of Luke Keary’s hands after the tackle had been completed – an image that seemed to symbolise the heightened anxiety and even desperation of the Broncos in the absence of their star fullback.
With possession returned to the Chooks, this played out like an intensified version of Sydney City’s first try, as both Liu and Latrell Mitchell wove their way in and out of the Broncos’ big men, and Liu, in particular, almost effected another line break after slamming through Hunt and Alex Glenn. Receiving the ball twenty-five metres out, Cordner was initially about to pass, but then seemed to glimpse the line in the distance, much as Liu and Guerra had done before him.
No surprise, then, that Cordner chose to run the ball, or that the breach in the Broncos defence just seemed to widen in his path. Only Blair managed to get a hand to him on the way, albeit far less convincingly than the earlier trysaving tackle on Liu, while only David Mead was able to meet him at the line, by which stage he had already grounded the ball. By that point, Brisbane had all but conceded the try, and the four points couldn’t help but feel like a statement of purpose from Cordner as both Roosters and Blues captain.
While their momentum may have abated a bit as the siren drew near, most of the rest of the first half belonged to the Roosters, even if they didn’t put down any points. Twenty-six minutes in they had a stroke of good luck, as Jared Waerea-Hargreaves dropped the ball off the restart following Michael Gordon’s penalty goal, only to realise that his foot was just over the dead ball line, turning an apparent mistake into yet another bout of field position.
Four minutes later, Brisbane were faced with their best chance yet, thanks to the best kick of the game so far – a spiraling bomb from Benji Marshall that careened off to the right after hitting the turf, as Glenn scooped it up in a single sublime movement. Just as he seemed about to crash over and quell the Roosters’ momentum, Blake Ferguson slammed in with a trysaving tackle that left Blair’s earlier ankle tap in the dust, with Gordon and Mitchell arriving shortly after to clean up. So clinical and efficient was the tackle that the referees didn’t even both to send it upstairs for further inspection.
Broncos fans would have breathed a sigh of relief, then, when James Roberts crossed over three minutes before half time, on the back of some escalating handling errors from the home team. The set in question started with a fairly underwhelming fifth tackle option from the Chooks that allowed Brisbane to start their set of six from about halfway up the field. From there, they put in a series of fairly clinical, functional hit-ups, and, despite some rapid movement from Jordan Kahu on the fourth tackle, this didn’t initially look set to be an especially promising or spectacular bit of play from the Broncos.
Once again, however, Benji showcased the power of his boot, this time with a skittering diagonal grubber that found Roberts at just the right moment. For the most part, Jimmy the Jet tends to be associated with long range tries, especially when there’s a conspicuous disparity between him and his matching centre in terms of speed and longevity, and yet these four points showed how brilliant he can be at short range as well.
In part, it was a matter of how well Roberts read Benji’s play, but it was also his timing when it came to grounding the ball itself, which had to be slammed down on the first bounce for him to have any chance of putting down points before the Roosters’ defenders arrived on the scene, even if this heightened the risk of an error. Seeing Roberts contain and avert a knock-on in slow motion was almost as spectacular as one of his trademark marathon sprints.
Despite being behind, it was a confident way for the Broncos to head into the break, and yet the Roosters responded quickly, with Luke Keary putting down points four minutes into the second stanza. Once again, it came off the back of an unforced Brisbane error, with Marshall coughing up the ball early in the tackle count, as the wind that had been favouring the Chooks over the first half of the game seemed to have shifted direction during the break, disorienting and disappointing the Broncos halfback in the process.
The Roosters wasted no time in ferrying the ball back down Brisbane’s end of the field, but it was a spectacular run from Keary that really counted, with the young five-eighth having already sprinted a good twenty metres by the time he caught the Steeden on the chest at full speed as Friend sent it out from dummy half. From there, the decoy runners got Milford just interested enough for Keary to glimpse a space and crash through, for a try that was bookended by some uncharacteristic clumsiness from the Brisbane halves.
Once again, the Roosters were in front, and yet from there the Broncos put down a succession of tries that were so emphatic that they all but appeared to have won them the game before Latrell Mitchell crashed over at the seventy-fifth minute. The first came from Corey Oates ten minutes into the second stanza, thanks to a deft show-and-go from Kodi Nikorima that allowed Oates to get ahead of Ferguson and plant the ball the corner.
In a season in which Oates has excelled at the closest tries imaginable, this was one of the closest, with the Brisbane winger finding himself on the very cusp of losing possession, and the very cusp of being sent into touch, but still somehow managing to come up with the goods. Almost as important, the four points had come off a Roosters error, since Friend’s kick on the previous set had gone just a little too far, granting the Broncos seven tackles in the process.
In a game that had been so structured by Brisbane errors, this was an important shift in momentum, and yet that shifted once again three minutes later when two successive errors from the Broncos (a fumble from Herman Ese’ese on the play-the-ball and then a simple dropped ball from Matt Gillett) allowed Mitchell to crash over for what surely would have been a game-winning try if he hadn’t lost the Steeden in the process of grounding it.
Nevertheless, the hosts received their own let-off on the next set, when yet another terrific kick from Benji – the kind of kick Nathan Cleary has become renowned for – bounced obliquely, eluded Ferguson and sat up in just the right position for Oates to put it to ground, only for the Brisbane winger to appear so incredulous at his good luck that he fumbled the ball just enough for Friend to slam over and shove him into touch. With the subsequent ruling that Fergo had knocked the ball back during the contest, the Chooks went from what could have been the most humiliating try of the night to a simple changeover.
As it turned out, the contest between Oates and Ferguson wasn’t over yet, but before the next chapter unfolded Ben Hunt grounded the ball for the first try in twenty minutes, ten minutes out from the end. During the preceding quarter, the Roosters’ advantage had come a little unstuck, and despite further uncharacteristic errors from Brisbane it nevertheless had come to feel as if the next team to score would be able to take control of the game once and for all.
The immediate prelude to Hunt’s try had also been pretty convulsive, with the visitors gifting possession to the Chooks twice following a knock-on from Sam Thaiday and then an excessively long hold in the tackle from Benji. Yet the result of all that enhanced possession and field possession was a bizarre set piece in which Cordner inexplicably grounded the ball five metres out from the line, in what initially looked as if he must have fallen victim to an ankle tap, but turned out to be a trip or slip, since the replay showed that none of the Broncos had actually managed to get a hand to him before he hit the turf.
While the Roosters initially seemed to have made good on the error with a goal line dropout, Bunker footage ended up returning possession to Brisbane, as the visitors once again made their way up the field in a fairly functional manner. It was at this point, however, that Hunt chose to cement his newfound confidence in dummy half with a deft chip over the line that he himself dashed forward to ground, managing to get a hand to it just before his marker, just before it went dead, and at just the right moment to avoid a knock-on.
Sometimes when a team is collectively error-prone this kind of one-man display of dexterity is just what is needed, and for a moment there Hunt seemed to have stepped into Boyd’s massive boots, providing the Broncos with the vision and leadership they had been lacking in the absence of their Origin fullback, who was clearly yearning to get out on the field while sitting on the sidelines.
If Hunt’s try was a momentum-changer, then Oates’ second try appeared to be a game winner, although to even call it Oates’ try is perhaps questionable, since this was Ferguson’s four points through and through, and about the closest rugby league comes to an own goal. As with most of the best Brisbane moments of the night, it came off a terrific kick from Benji, whose renewed form with the boot bodes well for his return to Leichhardt next year.
This time it was a crossfield kick, which Fergo inexplicably chose to flick back into the field of play just as it was finding touch, despite the fact that there wasn’t another Rooster in sight. Instead, the ball found Oates, who crashed over for the most astonishing four points of the game – at least until Mitchell went over a couple of minutes later. A strange silence settled over the stadium as the home crowd watched the replay, hoping against hope for the first and only time this season that Ferguson had been in touch when he sent the Steeden back onto the park.
Unfortunately for them, this was one of Fergo’s most dexterous moments of the game, even if it was a drastic error in judgement and perception – one of those brainsnaps that has apparently earned him the nickname of “space cadet” at Blues camp, and which can be so frustrating in the context of his more regular genius on the wing. In a game that had been defined by Brisbane errors, this was the mistake to top them all, and it granted the Broncos a momentum that was all the more emphatic for the plethora of Roosters possession and field position that had preceded it.
After those damning four points, Sydney City had to come up with an almost superhuman show of brute force, since it was impossible to conceive of a freakier or more astounding try than what Ferguson had fed to Oates. As if galvanised by the fact that his fumble had cost the Roosters the lead, Mitchell was the man for the hour, putting in a move that cemented this first finals game as one of the foundational moments in his evolution as a player.
In essence, it was a damaging run, but it also encompassed a brutal right fend on Roberts and a final acceleration that allowed Mitchell to elude a late ankle tap from Hunt on the brink of the line. Critical to the execution was Trent Robinson’s late decision to shift Mitchell back into the centres and bring Daniel Tupou in on the wing, but full credit has to go to Mitchell for his speed and strength – and especially for that right arm on Roberts, which decelerated Jimmy the Jet more than any other move this season.
The positional shift was all the more emphatic in that this was in all likelihood Tupou’s first and last finals footy for 2017, since he was clearly suffering from the groin injury that’s been plaguing him, even if he also managed to clean up the Steeden at the end of the penultimate Broncos set a couple of minutes later.
Yet Tupou’s dexterity was just one part of an incredibly tense ending, since with Mitchell’s try returning the match to a two-point game the Broncos only needed to score one more try to have won it. Apart from the disappointment of losing a home finals game, the Chooks couldn’t have retained any pride after a loss that featured a try like Oates’, and so they fought hard to the death.
The final touch came when the Broncos got possession forty seconds from the end, and Milford kicked right on the siren. With the ball eluding Keary, it looked as if Brisbane might come home with the win, and yet in one final moment of debilitation Roberts wasn’t able to make it to the Steeden in time either, preventing him getting any closure after the indignity of his fend from Mitchell. Yet that will probably just make Jimmy the Jet all the more spectacular next week, while there’s no doubt that the Roosters will be anxious to repeat this performance the week after, which was grand final worthy in most respects, and one of their most rousing efforts this season.