The Roosters came into Friday night’s match at Suncorp Stadium on the back of the first scoreline this season that really reflected what we would have expected from a team featuring both Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco in their spine. Despite their stunning 32-0 victory over the Warriors, though, they’d been less convincing the weeks before, only coming away with a two-point win over the Sea Eagles in Round 10, and only managing a third of the Dragons’ 24 points on their ANZAC Day match.
Meanwhile, the Broncos had lost to the Sea Eagles in Round 10, and had managed much slimmer wins than might have been expected over the Bulldogs and Bunnies during the preceding fortnight, meaning that they were every bit as keen as the Chooks to turn this home game into a moment of consolidation in their 2018 season. They set in pretty quickly too, thanks to a sequence of penalties from the Roosters that saw them get some sustained field position and possession almost immediately.
No surprise, then, that they scored early on, in as classic a Brisbane try as any other we’ve seen so far this year. No surprise, either, that it took place in the left wing, and that Darius Boyd was the main architect, sending a cut-out pass to Kotoni Staggs, who’d put on the no. 4 jersey after Tom Opacic was taken off in the second minute after a damaging tackle. From there, the young centre put in a perfect catch-and-pass to get the footy to Oates, who scored the first try with Mitch Aubusson clutching him around the legs and James Tedesco trying to hold him up from in front.
There’s no better way for the Broncos to begin a game than with a Boyd-Oates combination. They might have been playing with the fifth successive centre of the year on Oates’ inside, but were nevertheless able to adapt flexibly and seamlessly to the new combination. Given how abruptly Opacic had left the field, there was something rousing about seeing Staggs fit so elegantly into their pattern, in a tribute to the Broncos’ ability to regroup their connective tissue and drive under pressure.
It didn’t take the Roosters long to respond, with Cronk sending out a wide ball halfway through the tackle count a couple of sets later that sailed across three Broncos defenders to find Luke Keary, who funnelled it over to Latrell Mitchell in turn. Reading the line beautifully, Mitchell popped a no-look pass across to Joseph Manu who burned up the left edge and then sent the ball back to his five-eighth, who crossed over to answer Brisbane’s first try with four classy points for Sydney.
With Mitchell adding the extras, the Chooks were two ahead, but the pace of the first stanza would be so neck and neck that it really felt as if both teams were level until they headed into the sheds. Just as Sydney had responded to Brisbane, so Brisbane responded, thanks to a brilliant offload from Tevita Pangai in the midst of a tackle from Cronk and Tedesco that found Staggs at just the right time. Sensing his moment, the young centre slipped out of an ankle tap from Blake Ferguson and stormed through the line to secure the second try in the first game of his NRL career.
There couldn’t be a more poetic image of the way that Brisbane’s structure empowers even its least experienced players, as Staggs now went from connective tissue between Boyd’s try assist and Oates’ try, to trymaker and star in his own right. To respond, the Roosters had to reaffirm their own playmaking abilities, and once again it was dependent on Keary getting the ball across to Mitchell on the left edge.
This time, however, Mitchell himself chose to run the ball, outpacing James Roberts before sending it back to Keary to put a big fend on Boyd and then score the second try for Sydney City. If Stagg’s try had been a testament to Brisbane’s unity, then seeing Roberts outpaced for the second time of the evening felt like a chink in the Suncorp armour. It felt appropriate, then that the Roosters headed into the break two ahead, high on the rousing and resounding spectacle of Keary’s two-try effort.
The Chooks had a bit of a blow early in the second half, though, with a late tackle from Jared Warea-Hargraves gifting the Broncos a penalty and seeing the big prop put on report. Nevertheless, Brisbane didn’t make much of it, opting to take the two only for Isaako’s kick to bounce off the uprights much like Adam Reynolds’ had against the Dragons the week before, returning the football to the Tricolours again.
Despite that, the Broncos were the next to score, thanks to a grubber from Anthony Milford that saw up awkwardly for James Tedesco, who lost it five metres in front of the posts. Luckily, Victor Radley scooped in and cleaned it up, but not without knocking it on the process, granting Brisbane the scrum feed. They made the most of it too, scoring on the first tackle off a play that was almost as spectacular as Billy Slater’s fortieth minute combination with Cameron Munster against the Tigers.
It started with a wide pass from Boyd to Roberts that allowed Jimmy the Jet to get on the outside of Mitchell and then send it across to Isaako to score four more in the right corner. Jimmy the Jet had been much more of a presence in the second stanza in the first, and seeing him showcasing his footwork here felt like proof that all the parts of the Brisbane formula were finally in place, and that Suncorp was syncing.
Shortly after, the Broncos looked set to clock up more points after Boyd poked his nose through the line and offloaded for what might well have been a tryscoring linebreak had Manu not caught the footy on the full and headed down the other end of the field. With a penalty one tackle the later the Chooks were in tryscoring position again, as Cronk booted through a perfect ball, and a contest between Manu and Isaako in the air resulted in Mitchell collecting the footy and getting it down.
As it turned out, however, the result was a scrum feed for the Roosters rather than four more points, and with Jaydn Su’A forcing Cronk to cough up the footy on the third tackle, the spectacle of their aborted try hung heavy over the Tricolours’ heads. To come back from all that drama and complication they needed to respond with something simple, and Isaac Liu provided just that, catching the footy ten metes out from the line and then putting in the fend of the game on Andrew McCullough, breaking out of a tackle from Jaydn Su’A and, finally, eluding an ankle tap from Thaiday to reach out a hand to slam down the most decisive four points of the night.
To make matters worse for the Broncos, the Roosters followed it with the most elegant and economical try of the night – a beautifully weighted kick from Keary that Boyd Cordner gathered to his chest and grounded all in one concise movement. Sometimes these moments of pure professionalism say more about a team’s class than a more elaborate or eccentric effort ever does, and this initially felt like the moment at which the Roosters had really taken control of the match, compounding Keary’s earlier double with the first successive pair of tries from either of the teams.
In order to come back from that, Brisbane had to offer something even simpler, more elegant and more economical. Amazingly, they managed it – or, rather, Roberts managed it, making up for his sluggish opening half with one of the most spectacular sequences in his entire career. Receiving the football midway up the field, in the middle third of the field, the ex-Titan ran up to the ruck. Incredible as it sounds, he proceeded to simply run across the face of the defence, and then run around it, outspeeding every single Roosters jersey on the park for four more points.
Nothing that even Keary had contributed could rival the splendid brilliance of this run, not least because Roberts had taken a while to warm up. The Roosters’ frustration found ugly expression in a head-on-head tackle from Dylan Napa on Korbin Sims a couple of set later. In slow motion, it actually looked like the big Roosters prop had intended to lead with the head, which is presumably why the refs put him on report and sent him to the bin, in the low point of the game for Sydney.
In the end, it may have been that display of frustration that empowered Brisbane to break the 22-22 deadlock, since it was only a matter of minutes before Isaako threaded through the defence, danced around Cronk and outran Ferguson to put down the winning try. While Pangai Junior may have given the Chooks a final chance with a professional foul and sinbinning during the final seond, Sydney City were unable to capitalise on this precious last tackle and headed to the sheds defeated.
With five wins and five losses behind them, this win may come to be seen, retrospectively, as a critical moment in Brisbane’s gradual acceleration over the second half of the year, as well as an important rallying-point for when they face the Eels at home next week. Meanwhile, this has to be a hard loss for the Roosters, who will be looking to regain some pride by coming away with a decisive win over Gold Coast when they meet for a Sydney City Home fixture at Central Coast next week.