ROUND 2: Brisbane Broncos v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Suncorp Stadium, 20/3/20)

Suncorp looked really striking without an audience when the Bunnies rocked up on Friday night to play the Broncos, for the third game this year to take place behind closed doors. South Sydney got the first penalty, following a flop from Payne Haas, and headed left on the second tackle, where Campbell Graham put his right hand down but only managed to bounce the footy on the ground, thanks to some big defensive pressure from Kotoni Staggs, who would go on to have a mammoth evening with the football, and his first career hat trick. On their next set, the Broncos made big metres up the middle, and then got a penalty on the fourth, when David Fifita took a quick tap and almost busted through the line – the first step in a period of sustained field position that would result in Brisbane’s first try of the night.

Anthony Milford kicked on the last, and Graham didn’t have time to secure the footy, which tumbled over to the edge of the field, where Cody Walker scooped it up and was forced into touch. Brisbane now had another set within the ten metre zone, and applied even more pressure, as Fifita broke out of a tackle on the left edge, and then danced all the way over to the right, before Thomas Flegler made the first of many searching, challenging runs up the middle during this first quarter of the match. Finally, Staggs got on the outside of Braidon Burns on the right edge, ducking under the big backliner’s attempted tackle to put down the first four points of the night, before Jamayne Isaako missed his first shot at conversion.

Brisbane continued to dominate possession on the next set, as Liam Knight leaked a penalty for crowding, and Isaako’s final kick forced Latrell Mitchell to pop the football into touch, gifting the home team the first dropout of the match. They swept left on the third play, where Dane Gagai made a critical tackle on Darius Boyd, before Flegler poked his nose through the line, and then offloaded for Haas to do the same. On the next tackle, Brodie Croft and Graham chased down a kick, resulting in a nasty collision deep in goal that saw Graham roll over Croft’s arm in his efforts to pop the ball into touch. For a moment, it seemed that the ex-Storm star was OK, as the Broncos got a second dropout, marking the biggest disparity in possession for the start of any game in 2020.

Flegler was even more restless on this set, and came even closer to breaking through the line, twisting around in front of the posts, and offloading to Patrick Carrigan, before the Bunnies – somehow – managed to clean up the final play. Croft was now taken off the park as South Sydney got their first touch of the footy in some time. After letting Staggs through a couple of sets earlier, Burns now got a bit of joy, making a strong run up the left of the park on the second last play, but Brisbane got the ball back, ending their next set with a scrum that gave the Bunnies a bit of breathing-space before they got ball in hand again. Adam Reynolds ended with his best kick of the night, but Cam Murray weirdly misread the bounce, getting Brisbane a letoff.

It felt a bit strange that the Broncos were only four points ahead, given their domination on the park, but they got a good boost on the next set when Milford made one of the great one-man plays of 2020. Collecting an offload from Isaako halfway up the park, Milf got into first gear for second phase, arriving at Latrell at the ten metre line, then heading right where he bounced of Graham and Damien Cook, before all three South Sydney defenders converged on him on the line. Even then, they could have held him up, but Milford drew on the momentum he’d generated to roll over to his right and plant the football on the grass.

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Despite Isaako missing his second conversion, this was a big boost for Brisbane, especially with Croft now returning from the sheds in sideline gear, indicating he wouldn’t be returning to the game this evening. The Rabbits conceded another dropout almost immediately, and then a hand in the ruck from Tevita Tatola got Isaako his first penalty kick of the night, bringing the Broncos to a ten point lead. If the Rabbitohs kept on making mistakes, and conceding field position, Brisbane were going to keep piling on points, so it was good for South Sydney supporters that the Broncos lagged a bit over the next couple of minutes, while the away team capitalised on the next Brisbane penalty – a slow peel from Jake Turpin.

The Bunnies now made good on Graham’s aborted try in the opening minutes, as Reynolds commenced a rapid left sweep, and Walker concluded it with a beautiful cut-out pass for his winger to smash over in the corner. All of a sudden, the Rabbitohs were self-correcting, even if Reynolds’ kick bounced off the left upright, especially since they capitalised just as brilliantly on the next Brisbane error from Jamil Hopoate. James Roberts stepped into the spotlight, drawing on his greatest runs at Suncorp to break up the right edge, putting a big right fend on Isaako to give him enough time to offload to Walker, who crashed over under Fifita and Oates to level the score once Reynolds added the extras from the sideline.

The Broncos now conceded two successive penalties –  a high tackle from Jamil Hopate and then a dangerous tackle from Turpin right in front of the posts – so the Bunnies ended the first half with Reynolds booting through their first penalty kick; a pretty incredible result given that Brisbane had utterly dominated possession, post-contact metres, and missed tackles. Against all the odds, the Rabbitohs were in front, but they had to stay on track given way they faded out against the Sharks last week. They got a big shock shortly after returning to the park, when Mitchell lost the footy and Herbie Farnworth put the ball over in the right corner, but luckily for the away viewers the young backliner put a foot on the sideline in the process.

A messy period now ensued, as Walker knocked on, and Hopoate made a scrum infringement, inviting South Sydney to make good on Latrell’s error. Walker managed to milk a slow peel from Rhys Kennedy on the second play, and his team got ready for one of their few bursts of field position, only for Brisbane to jam in on the defence, forcing some miscommunication between Reynolds and Latrell, and then a knock-on from Roberts. Cook was pinged on the very next play, setting up Brisbane for a barnstorming sequence of runs that culminated with a superb offload from Paas, who spun around to get a hand free from Walker, Cook and Burns to shift the footy across to Staggs.

From there, Kotoni fended off Walker, and then smashed down beneath Lowe, Graham and Burns for his fourth career double, before Isaako made his first conversion of the night to bring Brisbane to a four point lead. Both Paas and Staggs had shrugged off three defenders, but the Broncos lost a bit of rhythm on the restart, when Fifita knocked the footy on during the final play. They responded with some staunch defence to drag Hame Sele back several metres on the second tackle of the next set, but Ethan Bullemor was penalised for a shoulder charge in the process. South Sydney now drifted left late in the tackle count, and built some pretty good momentum, only for Burns to flick the footy forward to deny a try to Graham in the corner.

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Milford went for a 40/20 on the next set, but didn’t quite make it, giving South Sydney a bit of time to regroup before they took the scrum. Nevertheless, they let a chance go begging, as Lowe mucked up the play-the-ball three tackles in, resulting in yet another set when Latrell, Gagai and Roberts didn’t get a chance to shine. Flegler was restless as ever next time he got ball in hand, and his energy helped clear space for Milford to pause, Lachlan Lewis-like, before his next bomb, which Farnworth collected and flicked out the back to Hopoate, who caught-and-passed in turn to Staggs. This all happened in a matter of seconds, leaving a fragmented defensive line for big Kotoni to slam his way to the front of the posts, where he collided with Latrell, but still managed to reach out his arm and score.

This was the first career hat trick for Staggs, who was having a pretty special night, and a guaranteed conversion from Isaako from right in front, bringing Brisbane to a ten point lead as the last quarter of the game got underway. Flegler took the first hit on the restart, showcasing some of his best footwork and post-contact metres all night, before Hopoate made a barnstorming run on the fourth, but this time Alex Johnston took care of Milford’s bomb. Still, the Bunnies struggled to recover their focus during this period, culminating with their messiest moment of the matchso far – a superb catch from Latrell, and an even defter pass to the left edge of the field, only for the ex-Rooster to turn his head and see that his left winger was nowhere to be found, leaving the footy to bounce over the sideline.

Brisbane got a string of penalties as the seventy-minute mark approached, including two successive penalties from Kennedy, for crowding and offside, and were close to being sent to the bin, but held fast with their goal line defence, finally getting a letoff when Gagai fumbled the footy into Boyd, recovered it, but tumbled over the sideline for the second time this evening. Yet this letoff might have made the Broncos a bit complacent, since the Bunnies scored on the last play of their very next set, when Johnston grubbered on the left of the park, and then regathered the footy after it ricocheted off Jesse Arthars’ knee, twisting around through the Brisbane defence to score a try for his team, who were only four points behind once Reynolds add the extras.

Now was the time for Reynolds to put his boot to work, and he did just that, with a long, dangerous kick that sat up just right for Oates to be trapped in goal. Isaako went shallow with the dropout, Milford cleaned up Murray on the second play, and the Bunnies headed left on the third, where Graham gathered the footy and took the tackle, before Latrell sent it left again for Murray to draw in Flegler and McCullough in the middle of the field. However, in his most uncharacteristic play of the year so far, Reynolds shaped as if to kick on the last, but instead passed to Johnston, who was cleaned up abruptly by the Brisbane defence, making this the worst of South Sydney’s many missed opportunities over the course of the match.

The game was now paused, with three minutes on the clock, while Murray got his left leg examined, and then stopped again twenty seconds later, when Oates was downed by a big hit from Knight. South Sydney searched for the match-winning try on their final set with ball in hand, but Mitchell was unable to offload on their second last play, before Roberts was brought to ground by a terrific low tackle from Boyd on the last. Seeing Darius reach back to the best in his game was an apt ending for this strong Brisbane display, especially with Tevita Pangai Junior, Joe Ofahengaue and Alex Glenn off the field – and Brodie Croft off the field after the fifteenth minute – for their first back-to-back win to start the season since 2016.

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They’ll be keen to continue this momentum, then, when they rock up at Cbus for a Queensland derby against the Titans, especially given their rousing win over their other Queensland rivals for the first game at Queensland Country Bank Stadium. On the other side of the Steeden, the Bunnies have some soul-searching to do before they take on the Roosters in Round 3, since this traditional rivalry is usually a litmus for how both teams are faring at this early stage in the season. That said, nobody knows exactly how football will look in a week’s time – where it will be, and who will still be playing – but hopefully this lockout model will prove tenable, since it didn’t ultimately make that much of a difference given the quality of the game tonight.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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