The Sharks had their tightest finish, and Brisbane their most heartbreaking loss of 2020, when they met at Suncorp for the third match of Indigenous Round on Friday night, as Shaun Johnson delivered a master class in the absence of both Chad Townsend and Matt Moylan. The Broncos have double the wins when Jake Turpin plays as hooker, and he didn’t let them down this game either, which started fast for the home side when Xavier Coates broke through the line on one of his first kick returns, and then set up the Broncos for their first restart a tackle later. Cronulla got an early glimpse of field position when Wade Graham came up with a Braydon Trindall kick with tackles still on the board, but this early burst ended with an error from Siosifa Talakai. Nevetheless, they regathered off a messy play from Kotoni Staggs, who offloaded on the right side, but got a bad bounce, as the footy ricocheted away from Tom Dearden and straight into the hands of Ronaldo Mulitalo. From there, the wiry winger sped up the sideline, and ducked out of a tackle from Thomas Flegler, who grabbed him by the jersey, and actually ripped away the collar, but couldn’t stop him getting to the try line for the first four-pointer. Johnson took a while with the conversion, but slotted it through beautifully, and Blayke Brailey made big metres on the restart with no markers ahead of him.
Brisbane got the first penalty of the night when Braden Hamlin-Uele was called offside, and then the first repeat set when Anthony Milford struck the footy beautifully on the fourth tackle, timing it so that it skidded rapidly in goal like an overlong effort, only to sit up right on the dead ball line, forcing Sione Katoa to contend with it as Richie Kennar converged on him. Katoa had made a mammoth effort to withstand four defenders on the line after collecting a Turpin grubber on the previous set, but this time he had to bump it into touch. Cronulla survived, and both sides got some breathing-space when Boyd took a moment to recover from a swinging arm from Wade Graham, before Herbie Farnworth fumbled the ball on play two while trying to bust his way through a tackle from Aaron Woods. The Sharkies now had the best attacking position for any team so far, and Will Kennedy made the most of it, storming up the right side to take on Boyd – the first Cronulla tackle in the Broncos’ twenty, despite their opening try – as Hamlin-Uele followed up by drawing in four defenders right in front of the posts. Yet the player who had tempted the knock-on now leaked one, as Woods lost the football in front of the posts against the only NRL team that he has never beaten. Tevita Pangai Junior responded with a late offload to Farnworth, who ran twenty metres before coming down at the ten, thanks to the slightest of ankle taps from Kennedy.Embed from Getty Images
Brisbane now build on this momentum with a rapid right sweep that ended with Staggs collecting a deft pass from Boyd to get on the outside of Siosifa Talaki, put down the next try, and celebrate with an Indigenous dance that was immediately one of the high points of this special round of football. Staggs couldn’t convert his own try, but this was still a motivator for the Broncos, who followed with their most rapid, restless, roving set of the game so far, asking big questions on the right edge with a superb period of play that was bookended by escort penalties from Johnson and Farnworth, before Talakai ran a hard diagonal line to collect a short ball from Brailey and slam down the next four points, bumping off Payne Haas as if he was the smallest man on the park. Johnson added the extras again to make it an eight point lead, and grubbered on the next set to trap Boyd right in the corner, forcing Milford to take the last-tackle kick from the forty, albeit sending it straight onto the chest of Sione Katoa. Royce Hunt made a barnstorming run on the next set, and managed to hold onto the ball during a tough tackle, but Johnson lost the footy while trying to offload at the ten, setting up the Broncos for their next tryscoring sequence. Admittedly, the Sharks survived Milford’s next kick, but Coates got them rolling with a second linebreak, reaching halfway by the first carry, before Trindall slammed into Dearden, for a sublime halfback-on-halfback effort that ricocheted the footy all the way back to the forty.
Nevertheless, Haas sealed the ship with a sturdy runt to get Brisbane a restart, Boyd twist and spun right on the line to get a second restart, and four tackles later Turpin showed why he’s such an asset in the no. 9 jersey, dummying to draw in Woods and opening up space for Rhys Kennedy to crash over for his first NRL try. Yet the Broncos came back in the most spectacular way, as Milford proved what he can do when every sinew in his body comes together, receiving the footy twenty metres out, and standing on the very precipice of poising, passing and kicking – every halfback option condensed into one perfect moment of synergy – as he shifted the ball from side to side, pivoted from one boot to the other, and then made a split decision after seeing the space on his right closed down by Woods. In the best single moment of the match, he popped the footy out to Boyd, who sent it on to Kennar to put down the next Brisbane try untouched. This was one of the high points of the Brisbane season so far, although the Sharkies came back fast, as Toby Rudolf peeled back from a tackle on Kennedy so Graham could execute a one-on-one strip. They got a restart on the next play, and their next try a play later, when Johnson made a superb pass for Kennedy to send Jackson Ferris over the line for his first four points in the NRL in his debut game, after being put on report at the other end of the park a couple of minutes before.Embed from Getty Images
The first ten minutes back were all Kotoni Staggs, from a punishing low tackle on Will Kennedy that forced him to cough on the football, to a slip on the line that led to him conceding the next dropout off a Blayke Brailey kick. The Broncos now had to defend four successive sets on their own line, and yet Staggs came good to bookend the sequence, which ended with a wide ball from Johnson and a soaring harbour bridge pass from Kennedy out to the left edge, where Staggs’ passion reached a new level with a trysaver that forced Mulitalo to get a foot on the sideline just when he seemed set to slam down a double. After four sets defending their line, the Broncos now capitalised immediately on the shift in momentum, as Farnworth established the necessary field position with a barnstorming run up the middle of the park, before Dearden came up with a truly sublime pass to Milford that combined the best of a bullet pass and wide pass – a rifle pass – and Milf sent it on through Boyd to Kennar in the left corner for a repeat of the tryscoring combination in the first stanza. This was easily the best period for the Broncos so far this year – a try on the back of four defensive sets – and one of the best periods ever for Staggs, who sent a perfect conversion curling through the posts to put Brisbane back ahead at 20-18, before collecting the footy again from Boyd a few moments later to get on the outside of Talakai once more for another six points after he added this conversion too.
This had been a watershed game for Kotoni, since despite missing half the season he was still Brisbane’s top try scorer, putting down seven in seven games, along with three linebreaks, 107 run metres and five tackle busts in this particular match, with a whole quarter of football still left on the clock. Yet that very high, and the excitement of seeing Brisbane finally playing brilliant rugby league, made the next twenty minutes even more agonising, as Cronulla not only staged a damaging comeback. The Broncos had been outscored by a hundred points – 112-12 – during the final quarter this season, so they were raring to go when they got the next penalty off a dangerous tackle from Graham. Turpin almost sent Dearden through the line, and Milford nearly did the same for Farnworth, but Mulitalo won the battle over Coates to catch Dearden’s kick on the full, while Ethan Bullemor was called offside a second later. Johnson got his hands on the football a few times during the first couple of tackles, guiding the Sharkies towards their next burst of field position, which came when Pangai knocked on the ball while trying to intercept a offload on the ground from Hamlin-Uele. At first Johnson’s kick didn’t look deep enough, but the chase compensated, trapping Kennar in goal as Cronulla settled into their best groove since before Staggs had scored. Johnson was centre stage on the next set, popping a wide ball out to the wing on play two, where Ferris twisted around and offloaded for Kennedy to pop it back inside and so set up Connor Tracey for a run hard from the twenty.Embed from Getty Images
The Brisbane defence stayed strong here, but they couldn’t contend with Johnson’s boot at the end of this set, when Kennar was caught in goal once again after just beating Ferris to the footy, off a much stronger kick from the Cronulla five-eighth this time around. The Broncos now used up their Captain’s Challenge to contest whether Ferris had knocked on in goal but a perfect angle showed he hadn’t come close to an error, and the Sharks accelerated further on the next set, thanks to an offload from Hamlin-Uele to Tracey, then a wied pass from Tracey that Ferris collected beautifully just above the ground, only for Farnworth and Pangai to slam in from both sides and wrap him up right on the line. Ferris now left the field with an injury sustained by Farnworth in his debut game, replaced by Royce Hunt, while the Broncos had a seven tackle set to work towards their next try – the try that would probably win them the match. The set ended with an overlong kick from Milf, but Brisbane got the ball back pretty quickly when Johnson lost it, with a helping hand from Pangai, early in the tackle count. By this stage, Brisbane seemed pretty set to win, especially when Flegler popped out a beautiful offload on the ground to Pangai, and Dearden followed with a kick that trapped Mulitalo in goal for the next Brisbane dropout, as the final ten minutes arrived. Nobody would have expected the Sharkies to put down three tries before the siren – and they probably wouldn’t have if Johnson hadn’t risked going short with the kick.
In the pivotal sequence of the match, Joe Ofahengaue knocked the ball back, Dearden knocked it on, and Graham scooped it up to get his men rolling back down the park again. Finally, they scored their first try of the second half, thanks to an incredible catch-and-pass from Johnson over Milford’s head to Kennedy, who created an overlap on the right edge to put Katoa across for four more, with Johnson booting through the extras to make it a two point game. Farnworth survived Johnson’s next bomb, but everything accelerated on the following Cronulla set, when Mulitalo secured a wobbly kick from Milford, and then broke through the line off a late pass from Talakai, banana kicking the ball at full speed for Tracey, who managed the bounce beautifully to score beside the posts. Full credit has to go to Graham, too, since he drew in the defence to make space for Talakai in the first place, for what felt like a team try, even if only a few pairs of hands touched the football. Johnson made the conversion, and the Sharks slid four ahead, but they weren’t yet done with the point scoring, as Mulitalo beat Coates to secure a long kickoff, Talakai surged up the middle on play one, and Hamlin-Uele defied a strip effort from Pangai to secure six again for a revitalised Cronulla outfit.Embed from Getty Images
Finally, Tracey went from tryscorer to assister, sending his hard-working no. 8 across in the same place he’d scored a minute before, as Johnson added his final conversion to make it a 36-26 win. The Sharks had gone from an eight point deficit to a ten point lead, while the Broncos had arguably suffered their most devastating blow of the 2020 season so far, since they’d had the game in their pocket until the ten minutes, and could have counted this as one of their most satisfying wins of the last eighteen months if they’d managed to nail it, thanks in large part to a truly barnstorming performance from Staggs, as well as a few wonderful moments from Milford. Instead, they have to return to the drawing-board as they get ready to take on the Rabbitohs for Friday night football next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a great late surge from the Sharkies, and a brilliant game from Johnson, but it was still worrying that they let Brisbane get ahead in the first place, so they’ll be looking to reconsolidate before they take on a Parra outfit who were probably a bit spooked by their close call against the Bulldogs, and so keen to prove themselves as a top four team when they meet Cronulla at Kogarah next Sunday afternoon.