ROUND 18: Brisbane Broncos v. New Zealand Warriors (Suncorp Stadium, 15/7/18)
The Warriors might have come away with a surprise twenty point win over the Broncos on Sunday afternoon, but you wouldn’t have known that the game would be an upset from the first half hour. In one of the messiest sequences of Round 18, both teams ground in for a fairly pedestrian effort that may have been punctuated by moments of brilliance, but nevertheless saw both of them contributing some of their messiest footy in weeks. Only towards the end of the first stanza did the Warriors really start to glimpse the momentum that would drive them towards such a decisive win, with Brisbane seeming like a real chance during these opening stages.
The game actually started with a pair of penalties from the Warriors – a second effort from Agnatius Paasi, and then some holding down from Adam Blair – that saw the Broncos leap up the field and then opt to tap and go, instead of take the two. It was exactly the kind of scenario where Darius Boyd and Corey Oates typically link up, yet this would be one of several sequences in the game where the fullback-winger combination was distorted or redirected. This time, it was Anthony Milford, rather than Boyd, who sent the cut-out pass to Oates, who collected it on the left edge.
While Milford’s pass was superb, Oates didn’t respond to it as clinically as he tends to do when receiving from Boyd, allowing himself to be beaten by a last-minute tackle by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. It was the kind of defensive effort that Oates normally manages to elude – and uses to showcase his dexterity in the air – but this time the New Zealand fullback got the better of him. Losing the ball from his right hand mid-tackle, Oates never managed to regain it with his left, as four opening points for the Broncos went begging.
For one of the few times during this opening half the Warriors managed to successfully build upon a Brisbane error, at the back end of a set that more or less reversed the Broncos’ previous field position. After Milford gave away a penalty for working on the ground, Solomone Kata showed Oates how it was down by crossing over on the left edge, at the tail end of a sequence of perfectly timed passes. They started with a big cut-out ball from Issac Luke, and from there the gap between passers narrow as the Steeden moved through Simon Mannering, Shaun Johnson and finally RTS, for one of the best timed passages of play in the game so far.
The next twenty minutes was a bit of a grind, as both teams made error after error, but were unable to make the most of each others’ errors either. In one especially chaotic period of play, Matt Lodge lost the football under some big pressure from Paasi, who thereby got some closure after his opening penalty. On the next tackle, a huge run from Peta Hiku earned his side a penalty after a ball strip from Kodi Nikorima. Yet the Warriors went nowhere with this advantage, as Boyd forced James Gavet to cough up the footy right on the line with a trysaving tackle that was almost as powerful as RTS’ effort on Oates earlier in the game.
To bring things full circle, Paasi now repeated his opening error, and cancelled out his effort on Lodge, by losing the ball during the tackle – not due to a hand from any of the Brisbane players, but simply in an effort to maintain control of it while being spun around. Yet Brisbane now responded with yet another distorted version of the Boyd-Oates combination on the left edge. Typically, Boyd goes across the face of Jordan Kahu to get the ball across to his winger, but this time he went through Kahu, presumably hoping for a catch-and-pass, only for the big centre to ricochet it prematurely due to some pressure from the defence, in what was deemed a marginal knock-on.
Both sides desperately needed to consolidate, and at the twenty minute mark the Warriors had one of their best chance in ages. It started as a pummeling set, in which Kata nearly slammed through on the left edge, and Paasi nearly slammed through in the centre, both players muscling their way across the defence as if determined to regain the New Zealand rhythm with a one-man effort. The set ended with a long-range kick from Johnson, but it proved to be just a bit too much for Blair, who managed to reach the footy in time, but fumbled it as he tried to ground it.
By now, the Warriors had lost all of the momentum they’d built around Kata’s opening try, as the game waited for one team to break it wide open. The visitors got another chance when Jamayne Isaako made an unforced error while trying to clean up a last-tackle kick from Blake Green in the sunniest and glariest patch of the field. To their credit, New Zealand now made the most of an advantage, as Johnson sent Gerard Beale across on the right tackle, after a deceptive play on the right edge in which he drew in Kahu after apparently setting up for a cut-out pass to the corner.
This time, Johnson got the extras, putting the Warriors ten points ahead. Not only was it a rousing display of leadership from the New Zealand halfback, but – perhaps most importantly – the visiting team had demonstrated that they could take control of opportunities when they presented themselves. Another major opportunity occurred eight minutes out from the break, when Andrew McCullough copped an elbow in the throat from Tevita Satae, and responded with a volley of punches, in a volatile sequence that saw both players sent to the bin for ten minutes.
No moment epitomised the rhythm of the game so far, and the inability of either team to ensure a definitive advantage, than the reduction of both sides to a twelve man outfit. As it turned out, the Warriors capitalised on the situation more, thanks in large part to Luke, who had been their best player on the park so far, and now provided the one-man effort that the New Zealand side needed to consolidate their two tries on the scoreboard into full-blown momentum, and gather their disparate moments of brilliance into a genuinely barnstorming attack.
The play actually started with Brisbane securing a dropout, only for the Warriors to go short, and regain possession after another error from Brisbane. The fact that it came from Isaako felt auspicious, and sure enough Luke scored shortly after, scooping up the footy out of dummy half and then drifting across the front of the ruck, for the single best run of the game. So confident was Luke in his prowess that he appeared to be moving in slow motion, dummying a couple of times, ducking out of a tackle from Milford and Oates, and then slipping through a hole in the line to score.
It was as if Luke had managed to condense a couple of tackles, or a string of passes, into one languorous passage of play – a fitting conclusion to his first half, where he’d often seemed to be at multiple points on the park at any one minute. With Johnson booting through the extras once again, the Warriors were at 16-0 as they headed into the sheds. They probably only needed one more try to really wrench the game out of the Broncos’ grasp, but it took them a while to score their next points, as the second stanza quickly settled back into the miasma and grind of the first.
Six minutes in, the Broncos seemed to have scored their first and only try, as McCullough sent the ball through Sims to Boyd, who scooted past Johnson to score from close range. Yet with the replay showing some minor obstruction from Joe Ofahengaue on RTS, the call was no try, in yet another aborted effort for Brisbane. In fact, it probably would have been better for the Broncos if they hadn’t come close at all, so deflating was it for their first tryscoring opportunity in ages to be called back in this way.
To make matters worse for the home team, the Warriors were the next to score, consolidating their opening points by sending Kata across in the left corner once again. The play started with a barnstorming run from Mannering, who drew in three defenders before offloading from the middle of the tackle to Luke, who in turn executed a sublime passage of play that saw the footy accelerate its way over to the left edge. So rapid and stealthy were these passes that this felt like second phase play, like a sequence of offloads, not least because they they were still bouncing off the adrenalin of Mannering’s offload, the long-range try assist that set them all up.
By contrast, the Broncos seemed to capitulate over the next couple of minutes, as something in their body language finally started to concede their exhaustion, culminating with a pair of back-to-back penalties, both on the fourth tackle – first a leg pull from Patrick Mago, then a second effort from Kodi Nikorima. It was almost inevitable that the Warriors would cross over in their third successive set, and sure enough Blake collected the ball from Luke to straighten up the play, opening up enough of a gap between Milford and Alex Glenn for Paasi to slice through and score.
All night Paasi had been raring for points, so his try was a final capstone to the Warriors’ efforts. True to the game as a whole, New Zealand were unable to put down points again over the final quarter, but a 0-26 lead was still one of their most impressive scorelines of 2018 so far, as well as one of the most dispiriting for Brisbane. When McCullough crashed over five minutes out from the end, it might have provided him with some closure for his sin binning at the conclusion of the previous half, but it barely counted as a consolation try on the broader Brisbane radar.
The fact that the game had been so messy and piecemeal arguably made the dramatic scoreline even more deblilitating for the Broncos, who will be looking to regain control of Suncorp – and lookg back to their decimating win over the Titans in Round 17 – when they take on Penrith next week. Meanwhile, this was a much-needed late season boost for New Zealand, who will be drawing upon their victory here when they host a finals-driven Melbourne outfit back in Auckland on Sunday.
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