The Sharks were at the bottom of the eight and the Broncos were at the bottom of the ladder when they met at Suncorp on Sunday afternoon, but that didn’t prevent this being one of the most exciting matches of Round 16. Most of the game was spent neck and neck, with a Shaun Johnson conversion right on the halftime siren levelling the score at 12-12, until Brisbane broke it open with a scintillating pair of tries destined to play a critical role in their ongoing rebuild – a euphoric way for Kotoni Staggs to make his first football appearance of the year.
Briton Nikora conceded the opening penalty fifty seconds in, when he was called offside downtown, and Staggs made a statement immediately, in a near-perfect high ball contest with Ronaldo Mulitalo. Reaching out his right arm mid-air, he came agonisingly close to securing the Steeden against his chest before he lost it while tumbling to ground. This was a promising sign for his first game back, although it was a decent let-off for the Sharks too, who refocused on their next set as if this early bout of Brisbane field position had never happened.
Mulitalo made up for his loss under the high ball with a deft offload to Will Kennedy a set later, and Aaron Woods followed by popping it back to Jesse Ramien, but the Brisbane defence still prevented the Broncos from elasticising and expanding too much here. Tyson Gamble’s next kick was well weighted, but Herbie Farnworth became the next player to lose the high ball – albeit backwards – only for Staggs to roll it forward to Corey Oates on the wing, before Cronulla got a restart early in their following set, off a ruck infringement from Gamble.
Nevertheless, Gamble poked his nose through the line next time he had ball in hand, offloading for Tesi Niu to break through and kick at speed to the right wing, where Jamayne Isaako was unable to contain it before it skidded into touch. Niu recovered some momentum by leaping into the air to collect a Braydon Trindall bomb on the full, so it was frustrating when Brodie Croft lost the footy a moment later – but not as frustrating as the forward pass from Sione Katoa that denied Ramien the try when he crossed over untouched a beat after.
Even so, Cronulla still had the scrum feed in the middle of the park, due to the initial knock-on from Brisbane, and seemed buoyed up by Ramien’s almost-try, relaxing into their most fluid set so far – and the first dropout of the game, when Niu was forced to bump a deft Johnson grubber into touch. Woods and Aiden Tolman took the first runs, Oates prevented Ramien from offloading on the right edge, and Toby Rudolf drew in three defenders, before Kennedy forced a second dropout from Niu – and almost chased down the football himself.
This set had consolidation written all over it, as Teig Wilton glimpsed some space on the second play, bringing the footy right to the line, and Ramien got his offload on the right wing, before Johnson forced a third straight dropout with a grubber into Isaako’s corner. Cronulla had to score now, or else concede some momentum back to Brisbane, who had done well to defend three sets, given they’ve let through a try for every seven tackles made in their twenty this year. Four sets was too many, though, as the Sharks put down their first four points now.
It came off a terrific run on the fourth from Johnson, who chased down two successive holes in the Brisbane defence, pivoting off his right boot and then executing a rapid play-the-ball to leave just enough space for Tolman to plunge over in his wake. This was a superb sequence in slow motion, as Jayden Brailey opted for a short kick, Rhys Kennedy deflected it in goal, and Johnson considered the putdown himself, waiting, hands poised, for the ball to sit up securely, only to pull back at the last moment and leave it for Tolman to get the chocolates.
Johnson converted, and the Sharks had a decent enough restart, saving their post-try energy for their strongest defensive set so far, culminating with a huge shot from Connor Tracey on Staggs that Mulitalo rushed in to join as payback for their contest under the second high ball. The Cronulla defence paid even better dividends a set later, when Oates coughed up the footy on tackle three into a big combined hit from Rudolf and Johnson, and the Staggs-Mulitalo show continued on the next play, when the Cronulla winger took the ball right up to the line.
Staggs bumped him into touch, but the try was already over by that point, since the assist from Tracey was forward – the second time a forward ball had denied Cronulla a potential try, although the putdown was less secure here than when Ramien had crossed over. Staggs seemed galvanised by this letoff, rolling over Tracey on the next Brisbane set, and laying the platform for a deft final play on the left edge. Gamble grubbered, the Steeden came off Johnson, Farnworth scooped it up, and almost got to the line, before offloading to Alex Glenn.
The Brisbane captain had open space all the way to the chalk, and time enough to curve around behind the posts, as Rudolf came in for the final tackle, setting up Isaako for the easiest conversion so far. The two most experienced players for either side had scored the opening try, while the Broncos had capitalised on their most enthusiastic set of the afternoon. They couldn’t make much headway on the restart, though, as a methodical defensive set from Cronulla forced Gamble to kick on the fourth, for position, without reaching the Sharks’ half.
The visitors came up with some eccentric third-phase play on their next set – a relaxed Ramien offload that Johnson tapped back even more languorously to Kennedy – while Gamble sent his next kick over the sideline to get his men a chance to relax as well. After this brief lull, Johnson’s next bomb got the game back into first gear, as did Niu’s take in the face of a strong chase, along with Glenn’s offload to Croft on the ground. With six points apiece, the match hung in the balance, as each team searched for the next burst of possession and field position.
A Trindall error in the play-the-ball gave Brisbane the chance they needed – and they made the most of it. Not, admittedly, on their next set, which ended with TC Robati losing the footy into a low tackle from Trindall, but as soon as they got the ball back after Johnson’s next bomb. Despite the Robati error, the Sharks didn’t do anything special with this intervening set – certainly nothing to build on Trindall’s tackle – while Brisbane consolidated further with some of their most scrambling defence so far, laying a solid foundation for their second try.
Everything came together on tackle four, when Gamble sensed a space in the line and shifted the footy out to Robati, who cemented this spotty period for Trindall with the best and latest offload of the game – a flick pass out the back, to Staggs, the moment before he hit the grass, with the Cronulla no. 14 wrapped around his boot. Staggs timed the second half of this sequence perfectly, storming up the right edge before shifting it back inside for Niu to cross over the line, while Isaako converted a minute later to garner Brisbane a twelve-point lead.
This was exactly the elegance that the Broncos have struggled to execute over the last twelve months, so you’d think it would have lifted them for the last six minutes before the break. Instead, Gamble mistimed the kick on the restart, permitting Mulitalo to reach a boot back over the try line as he collected it, while he was pinged, along with Payne Haas, for a pair of ball strips during the next Cronulla set. The second was originally called a Wilton knock-on right on the Brisbane line, but came back a Gamble strip after the Sharkies sent it upstairs.
With a twenty-metre restart, two penalties, and a successful Captain’s Challenge, Cronulla had absorbed the momentum of Brisbane’s second try. No surprise, then, that they dominated the rest of the first half, from a flamboyant Johnson-Katoa harbour bridge ball to a Wilton offload right on the chalk. Johnson’s next kick went too far, giving the Broncos seven tackles to play with, but the Sharks survived, and delivered as soon as they got the footy back.
It started with another entry in the Staggs-Mulitalo contest, as Staggs culminated a promising right sweep with a well-placed grubber that Mulitalo somehow managed to secure and bring back into the field of play. The Sharks swept left midway through their next set, as Tracey busted through a tackle, and then headed that way again on the last, matching the elegance of Brisbane’s last try with a truly freaky sequence – Trindall out to Kennedy, then Kennedy to Mulitalo, who offloaded the ball in a 270 degree arc out of a Niu tackle for Tracey to score.
Johnson levelled the scoreline with a kick after the siren and the Broncos had the first set back. Haas stepped up, with two runs and an offload, getting Gamble space for a good kick that Kennedy missed but Mulitalo managed to clean up. Conversely, Johnson’s opening kick looked as if it might just sit up behind the posts, and yet without a Cronulla chaser in sight Niu had room to wait for it to tumble over the line, getting his men seven tackles. Once again, though, Mulitalo was safe under the high ball, with a heroic clutch collect right on the chalk.
Ethan Bullemor and Farnsworth carved up the middle next time they had ball in hand, and Brisbane got the first field position of the second stanza a tackle later, when Wilton was pinged for a dangerous tackle. A tackle after that, Bullemor continued the superb acceleration that had started the set, receiving Haas’ second offload since the break and banging through a Nikora ankle tap to ground the Steeden right beneath the crossbar. Isaako had an easy conversion, and so the Broncos had recovered their six point lead, six minutes into this half.
No surprise that Bullemor took the first hit of the restart, as the Sharks roused themselves into their best defensive effort on the break, including a big combined tackle from Brailey and Jack Williams to prevent Haas getting a third offload on play four. Ramien was raring to break through the line early in the next tackle count, and Brailey tried to send Johnson through as well, before Trindall secured a dropout with a well-weighted grubber that trapped Croft behind the line, while Williams was belatedly put on report for putting a knee in Haas’ face.
Isaako went long and low with the kick, and the Sharkies were inside the Brisbane ten by tackle three, where they got a restart off an error from Croft, who made up for it with a terrific trysaver on Nikora, on the right edge, two plays later. For a split second it looked like Mulitalo would compensate on the other wing, off a flick pass from Tracey, but at the very moment he palmed Isaako over the sideline, Isaako managed to get the last laugh, reaching out his right hand to strip the footy before Mulitalo could get it down, as Staggs applauded on the ground.
Haas left the park a moment later, replaced by Kobe Hetherington, but it didn’t stop Brisbane’s second phase play, as Robati offloaded to Niu early in the tackle count, after a rapid right sweep that showed just how galvanised the Broncos had been by Isaako’s stealth strip. They got six again off Mulitalo’s next kick, only to see a try of their own go begging, when Turpin offloaded to Rhys Kennedy, and then collected the offload back from him but lost the ball right on the line, rendering it void whether his original offload had been forward.
The trysaving tackle came from Siosifa Talakai, and totally pumped up the Sharks, who now delivered their best and fastest set of the game – the first set where you really felt the gap between them and Brisbane on the ladder. Kennedy took a quick tap and bumped off a couple of tackles, the Sharkies got six again on the line, and Trindall fed a superb cut-out ball to Tracey, who shrugged off Isaako and curved around beside the posts, putting Isaako’s tackle on Mulitalo well and truly behind Cronulla, as Johnson lined up another easy conversion kick.
Once again, the score was locked up, in a game that was proving far closer – and more exciting – than anyone would have expected. Brailey was keen to replicate Kennedy’s run on the restart, but this time the Broncos were waiting, while Niu did well to collect a dangerous bounce, off one of Johnson’s highest ever kicks, while withstanding a damaging Cronulla chase to avoid another dropout. Farnworth got Brisbane rolling with a linebreak attempt, and yet Tracey kept Cronulla on top by forcing Jesse Arthars to flick the footy over the sideline.
The Sharks felt certain to score again here, so it was a critical momentum-killer when two of the Brisbane rookies, Hetherington and Keenan Paisaia, dumped Woodsy on his back on the very first play. The Broncos had to recover their mojo now, or at least get to the end of a decent set – and that’s just what they did, even if Mulitalo caught Gamble’s bomb on the full. As the final quarter arrived, the game once again hung in the balance, as Katoa collected a Johnson pass, broke through the line and looked set, for one moment, to score the try alone.
It still looked on when Katoa passed back into Johnson, who in turn flicked it back to Ramien. Yet in the biggest turning-point of Round 16, Ramien lost it into a huge tackle from Gamble, who got right up in his face, and tempted a few slaps, before Niu broke into open space straight off the subsequent scrum base, breaking past Rudolf and dancing over a Trindall ankle tap to show Cronulla how to pull off a long-range try. Even so, Mulitalo reached him, and brought him to ground five metres out, but this just gave Niu yet another platform to shine.
In arguably the toughest moment in Brisbane’s season so far, Niu somersaulted over Mulitalo, kept his ball-carrying arm off the ground, and reached it out to score. Isaako didn’t convert, but it didn’t matter, since the determination on Niu’s face embodied an entire team yearning to put the last twelve months behind them, just as his try produced something we haven’t seen much of from the Broncos in recent times – sheer euphoria, both on the park and on the sideline, where Staggs got to his feet in applause with the other bench players behind him.
Johnson collected Gamble’s next kick on the full, but Kennedy dragged him back in goal to get Brisbane their third successive set, before taking the first tackle of the dropout as well. Turpin hesitated, and then shifted it right on the next play, starting a rapid sweep that ended with Arthars replicating Niu’s courage on the wing. Receiving a catch-and-pass from Niu, he set his eyes on the corner, spun into Trindall, and then took the brunt of Mulitalo and Kennedy while still managing to get the footy down just before the four of them all tumbled over the side.
Once again Isaako missed the conversion, but this pair of tries was enough to win Brisbane the game – a critical cornerstone in their ongoing rebuild, destined to become a talking point in the sheds whenever they need a gee up. While the Broncos wouldn’t score again over the next fifteen minutes, they did manage to keep Cronulla out, despite a pair of linebreaks from Kennedy and Katoa in the final five, while also surviving a last dropout – a terrific consolidation game for when they take on the Wests Tigers after the pre-Origin bye round.