ROUND 22: Brisbane Broncos v. Sydney Roosters (Suncorp Stadium, 13/8/21, 20-21)
Friday’s second game was critical for the Roosters to keep their top four hopes alive, and an important stepping-stone for Brisbane’s ongoing efforts to outleap the Cowboys and make their way beyond the bottom two. It was also a grudge match, since the Broncos had handed the Chooks a shock defeat back in Round 11 – and came very close to reprising that stellar game here, refusing to let Sydney City get ahead until a Sam Walker field goal at the 72nd minute, and even then coming back with a penalty kick to almost secure a one-point victory.
Both teams got lucky at the end of the two halves – the Broncos before the break, and the Roosters, even more dramatically, before the final siren, when a questionable high tackle from Tom Flegler and an inspired Captain’s Challenge from James Tedesco set up Adam Keighran for a deft two-pointer. Even though they remained neck and neck for most of the game, Teddy had a barnstorming night and put in one of his toughest stints of 2021, culminating with arguably the most suspenseful closing ten minutes to any mtatch this year.
It’s no exaggeration to call it a warrior-like performance, since Tedesco was all over the park, fighting for himself as much as for his men – for his own legacy, stature and supremacy at fullback. Covered in dirt and blood by the end of the first quarter, he seemed to be fighting off the prospect of Turbo as no. 1 fullback more emphatically than in any other game this year. As finals footy looms, so does the standoff between these two custodians, and Teddy seemed to be building up his arsenal here, as if envisaging Trbojevic as his distant antagonist.
Dale Copley took the first hit-up, and the first as a Rooster against his former club, and Sitili Tupouiua followed with a tough carry on tackle three, back in the second row after a stint in the centres last week. James Tedesco absolutely pummelled Tesi Niu on the back of Drew Hutchison’s opening bomb, and Tom Flegler finally got the Broncos out of their own thirty on tackle four, marking his return after two weeks suspension with decent post-contact metres.
Teddy translated his opening chase into a superb drive into the left corner on the next set, but lost the footy as he came in low on Niu, copping the Brisbane fullback’s knee in his face for a stream of claret that would last the rest of the night. This was a big save for Brisbane, and for Niu in particular, who’d entirely recovered possession of the ball by the time he and Teddy landed in goal. With the extra field position, Tyson Gamble got a kick in Roosters territory – just – as it became Tedesco’s turn to scramble against a chase deep in the corner.
Still, this worked to his favour, since Xavier Coates got too eager, and was pinged for a hand in the ruck after trying to drag Teddy back in goal. Siosiua Taukeiaho built more field position with the first offload of the game, to Sam Verrills, and then commandeered a pack to drag Niu back a metre or so early in the next Brisbane set. Yet the Broncos had a mini-surge – a good run from David Mead out of dummy half, Joey Manu clutching his wrist in apparent discomfort, and Victor Radley conceding the first unforced error, a cold drop of a Verrills ball.
The scrum provided Brisbane with their first attacking position – and they made the most of it. Kobe Hetherington was at the Chooks’ twenty by tackle two, and Payne Haas broke through the line a play later, busting through so many tackles that he seemed to dipose of the entire Sydney City defence. He would have scored if Nat Butcher hadn’t slid in to get between the ball and the line at the very last minute, but his speed was infectious. Gamble forced the first dropout of the game a play later, and a play after that Haas made it to the chalk once again.
Put this down, in part, to some terrific service from Danny Levi out of dummy half – shaping left only to send it right to Haas, who took it at the ten metre line this time. He had less Sydney defence to contend with this time, but once again Butcher was the last man standing, at the other end of Haas’ body now, as he tried to shut down the play with a heroic legs tackle. The putdown was initially called no try, and yet the Bunker immediately showed that Haas had managed to reach out his arm and slam the Steeden down for his first four points of the year.
This was an enormous statement of intent from Brisbane, especially given their limited field position over the first ten minutes. Gamble added the extras, and they got an augmented restart off a second stuff-up from Radley, this time a messy tackle, but the Chooks survived, and got a repeat set when Coates got a hand to the next high ball in a contest with Daniel Tupou. They hit back as quickly as the Broncos had taken advantage of their first burst of position, as Isaac Liu barged over on tackle three for a carbon copy of Haas’ opening putdown.
Like Levi, Verrills looked left and played right, while Liu only had a legs tackle to contend with, from Albert Kelly, before he scored his own first-four pointer of the season, and Adam Keighran followed Gamble with an almost identical sideline conversion. These two tries in the first fifteen minutes paved the way for an equally close final fifteen minutes, although neither team would know that yet, as Flegler came in hard with the biggest hit so far on Radley, and was put on report in his first stanza of footy after his suspension for knocking out Isaah Yeo.
To Radley’s credit, he refused to come off the field for a free interchange, while Niu only got fingertips to Hutchison’s next bomb. The Broncos had scored off the last scrum feed, so the symmetrical logic of this game seemed to dictate Sydney City would put it down now. They probably would have too, if Teddy hadn’t hesitated on the set piece out of the scrum, uncertain of whether to go short to Keighran, or send it out to Tupou. It was only a second, but it cost the pass, and possibly the try, as Keighran missed it and Brisbane got the ball back.
Niu only just caught Hutchison’s next bomb, but Corey Oates and Alex Glenn consolidated with two of the best Brisbane runs of the night, putting Haas in the Sydney forty by tackle four. Gamble bombed, and Coates won the second round of his aerial battle with Tupou, tapping the ball back over the Giraffe’s head to Jordan Riki. Riki has had time away from first grade this year, but he proved his worth now, taking the footy clean, getting outside of Keighran, and pivoting over a legs tackle from Teddy to land Steeden-first in the right corner.
Taukeiaho became the next player to be put on report for a dangerous tackle, while Niu followed Oates and Glenn with a strong run, effectively condensing the momentum of Brisbane’s tryscoring sequence. Coates knocked the ball back again, and Gamble took it, but Teddy came good this time, dragging his quarry over the sideline. Still, Brisbane had 77% of field position over the last five minutes, so Sydney had to come back with a big set in response.
Walker got them rolling with a floater to Copley, who bumped off Mead, and made good metres up the right, before we were treated to an equally dramatic moment on the other side of the park, where Keighran let the footy slip down his knees. He called for a penalty, the Broncos called for an error in the play-the-ball, and the game fragmented slightly as both sides waited for the whistle, meaning Manu wasn’t quite prepared to contain Hutchison’s subsequent kick, knocking the footy on into Mead after momentarily getting both hands to it.
From here on, it looked like we might be settling into the quietest stretch of the game so far, only for a young gun and veteran to amp it up again with two big plays. Xavier Willison made an impact immediately, in his third match of the year, with five post-contact metres to drag the defence over the halfway line. Then, Teddy busted into space up the left edge, getting on the outside of Niu before Haas made contact at the ten, and brought him down five metres out. Even then, Teddy almost had sufficient momentum to roll through the tackle and score.
Tedesco had been raring to accelerate all night, and this was the run he needed to get into his groove. Just as the Roosters would get a lucky call in the last ten minutes of the game, the Broncos were let off the hook here, as Mead came in late, stripped the ball with Haas still in the tackle, but somehow stayed on the field. Teddy was incredulous, blood dripping down his face, as he remonstrated with Ash Klein that the footy had indeed been played at – how could it not have been? – and this rage and incredulity would drive the Chooks into their second try.
Tupouniua translated their collective frustration into one of the toughest tackles of the night, standing for a good five seconds in a wall of Brisbane defenders right beside the right post. Teddy didn’t miss a beat on the last, seguing his sublime run directly into a superb grubber, driving it deep into the right corner where Copley chased it down and put it down, with both hands, before it careened into touch. This was scintillating football, a display of dominance that made the Chooks feel like they were ahead after Keighran’s kick levelled the scoreline.
It was also a testament to Tedesco’ vision at fullback. He’d got unlucky at the end of his initial run, but he’d still rallied a try assist – and he played a key role in the first of three big plays that maximised Sydney’s flow in the last few minutes before the break, by turning second-phase play into third-phase play, and almost sending Copley across on the left. Receiving a Tupouniua offload, he offloaded in turn to the ex-Bronco, forcing Brisbane into their most desperate goal line defence of the game so far – an utterly exhausting end to the first stanza.
Niu got a hand to Copley, and brought him to ground a metre out, ensuring the millisecond of breathing-space that Glenn needed to stop the try right on the line as a sea of Brisbane defenders surged in for security. Thwarted from crossing over, Copley played the ball as quickly as possible, and Manu plunged over out of dummy half, turning the tackle into a handstand, or a headstand, as three Broncos got under him. Finally, Walker channelled Teddy’s grubber assist into a dropout assist, with a tough boot Gamble had to pop into touch.
The Broncos survived, thanks to an Egan Butcher error on the repeat set, and headed to the sheds 12-12 – a really impressive achievement, even if these last few minutes, in particular, had taken a toll. Gamble was winded, and would sustained a hand injury later in the second stanza, but he remained on the park after the break, when the Broncos got some early position after a loose carry from Nat Butcher, and their first six again off a Verrills ruck error.
They had a full set in Sydney’s ten, as the Roosters dug deep to survive two periods of attack before they completed their first set back. First, Gamble tried to replicate Teddy’s linkup with Hutchison in his own right corner, but struck it just a little too strong. By the time that Selwyn Cobbo got both hands to it, he was half a metre over the dead ball line. Still Brisbane got a second chance when the other Butcher brother made a mistake, coughing up into a Glenn hit, only for Walker to reach out his left hand to deflect, knock back and then collect Kelly’s kick.
Finally, the Chooks got to the end of a set now, enjoying some more field position immediately when Oates knocked on the first tackle of the following Brisbane set. Walker and Teddy tried to reprise their linkup on the right corner, Hutchison secured a low Radley pass with Gamble up in his face, and yet Kelly gave Walker a taste of his own medicine, cleaning up the grubber before going low to tempt a high shot from Hutchison. The game now settled into its biggest arm-wrestle yet, as both sides tried to break their way out of the two converted try deadlock.
Tupou tried to rally his men with some showmanship at the end of the next Brisbane set, when he leaped up to take the high ball a metre off the ground with no kick chase in sight. For a moment, this injected some fresh energy into the Sydney side, aas Keighran busted through a an attempted steal from Rhys Kennedy a play later. Manu was judicious in a different way at the end of this same set, choosing not to clamour for a challenge when Radley lost the high ball backwards, while Walker dummied and found space up the left soon after.
Walker got on the outside of Cobbo, leaving last line of defence to Gamble, who managed to bump him into touch, but got up clutching his hand. He’d leave the park about ten minutes later, and in the interim both sides tried to recapture their momentum of the first stanza, as we settled into the most error-laden period of the match, culminating with a sloppy and uncharacteristic obstruction from Walker. This last mistake turnedout to be the tipping-point, regalvanising the game on the brink of the fourth quarter as Kelly got the final Brisbane try.
Over the next set the Broncos seemed to reset their attack – and the game itself seemed to reset before our eyes too. While Mead was contained and Niu slipped on the left edge, Glenn and Kelly recovered with a pair of strong carries up the left and middle respectively. Anthony Milford’s next ball came with an awkward bounce, but Cobbo managed to collect it as Keighran misread the play and rushed in for a tackle on Niu instead. Finally, it all came together when Mead batted Kelly’s kick back to Oates, who sent it on to Flegler for an assist.
This next sequence was the very definition of barnstorming, as the Broncos put down their third and final try off a trio of increasingly vertiginous and precipitous left foot steps. The first two came from Flegler, who made the best run of his career to date as he dummied right, and put in an enormous left step on Tupouniua, before pivoting off the left boot just enough to offload to Kelly as Teddy came in for the legs tackle. Kelly took it one step further, effectively pirouetting as he fell into a Nat Butcher tackle, using it as a fulcrum to plunge over the line.
It was an authoritative try – right up the middle, right beneath the crossbars, redolent of Kelly’s enormous role in the win over Sydney in Round 11, and Kelly’s first try in the NRL since Round 2014, despite putdowns during his time at Hull FC and Hull KR. The Roosters had to hit back immediately, and they did so with sublime simplicity, as Taukeaiho proved they didn’t need their key forwards to make an impact. Receiving the footy at the Brisbane forty, he banged off Levi with his right hand and Riki with his left, before passing back inside to Teddy.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Teddy tucked it under his right arm and followed Kelly with a try under the crossbars. Unlike Kelly, though, he crossed over untouched, rising from the ground covered in grime and blood, as if battling for his position as best fullback in the game with the unseen spectre of Tom Trbojevic. This was the definitive try that the Chooks needed – it felt like a conversation-closer, a full stop on the game, even if it only levelled the score as Keighran booted through the extras from right in front, and rain returned to Suncorp.
Sydney hadn’t gone for longer than eleven minutes without responding to a Broncos try, so the question was now whether they could get a converted try ahead here – or even more – and break the neck-and-neck rhythm of the game as the final ten minutes approached. They wouldn’t do it – neither side would score another try – partly because the toll of the try seemed to deflate Teddy, who settled into arguably his messiest period of play, culminating with a low cut-out ball to Tupou that he realised was a howler as soon as it left his fingertips.
Both teams were at three converted tries as the final ten minutes arrived, when Mead joined the legion of players on report with a high shot on Copley, who came off the park for an HIA immediately. Walker and Milford were the only players on the turf who’d kicked field goals, but the Roosters weren’t going for that option just yet, as Teddy slotted back into first gear with a surge from the short side to the left corner, where he came up with a beautiful left-boot grubber that Coates was forced to send dead as an army of Chooks converged on him.
Liu started with a good charge, but knocked out Levi, who came to ground clutching his hamstring, only to be sent off the park for an HIA, as Flegler returned for the last part of the match. This was the longest pause of the night, and took the wind out of the Roosters’ resolve, as Keighran added one more big barge at the line before Walker slotted the field goal, settling and steadying his men with his serenity under pressure. After 73 minutes, the Roosters had the lead for the first time, and were sitting in the top four with seven minutes on the clock.
Haas had been topping the VB Hard Earned Index in the first half, but the top four were all Chooks now – Liu at 72, Taukeiaho at 66, and Nat Butcher and Teddy at 63 apiece, which said a lot about Tedesco’s courage, resolve and fortitude in this particular game. Yet the Broncos took the lead one last time on the back of two concessions from Radley. First, Victor knocked on a Walker pass, assuming it was a cut-out effort to Butcher, and then he charged down a Kelly field goal attempt, but was unable to pull out of the tackle in time to avoid late contact.
This was significant contact, and Kelly was immediately down, clutching his left leg in pain, although it all worked out in the Broncos’ favour, since his field goal strike had been wobbly to start with. We’ve come a long way since James Graham’s big tackle on Adam Reynolds in the Bulldogs’ late loss to the Bunnies in 2015, and both sides calmly accepted that this was always going to be a penalty under the new rules. Cobbo added it from right in front, putting Brisbane one point ahead with five to go – tantalisingly close to a second victory over Sydney.
Yet the Roosters benefited off an error too, with an even more questionable penalty a moment later, when Tupounoua took a Manu offload, and lost the ball back in the face of a Flegler hit. Egan Butcher came up with it, Mead tried to strip it on the ground in a one-on-one contest that seemed to last an age, before Butcher finally rose to his feet and fumbled the play-the-ball – the error that permitted Teddy to send up the best challenge of his career to contend that Tupouniua had only lost the footy in the first place off high contact from Flegler.
The replay showed that Flegler had brushed Tupouniua’s nose as he bumped the ball from his grasp, but this was a more contentious call than the Radley hit, especially since it ended up deciding the game. Keighran didn’t have the easiest angle nine metres in from the sideline, and for a moment the win, and the Roosters’ contention for a top four spot, rested on his boot. But he took his time, struck it clean, and the Chooks simply had to slow down the next set to come away with a one-point win – their most precarious win of the entire 2021 season.
To be fair, Sydney would’t have even had the football if Kennedy hadn’t knocked on a short kickoff after Cobbo’s penalty points. Even so, this was pretty frustrating for Brisbane, while spectators could see it two ways – as an appropriately controversial ending to such a volatile game, or a sour and dour conclusion after a terrific scramble from Brisbane. Still, you couldn’t fault the Roosters, and Tedesco in particular, who was a veritable warrior on the park for most of the game, steeling his men for what has to be a bigger margin over St. George next week.
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