ROUND 1: Brisbane Broncos v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Suncorp Stadium, 11/3/22, 11-4)

Last time the Bunnies rocked up at Suncorp they lost the premiership to the Panthers in one of the more agonising grand finals of recent years. Their first fixture of 2022 was just as sobering, in some ways, since it was their first glimpse of footy without Adam Reynolds at the helm, while they wouldn’t even have the catharsis of containing him on the park, since a bout of Covid meant he wouldn’t debut for Brisbane until Round 2. Souths were also contending with another big absence – Latrell Mitchell, still suspended for his infamous hit on Joey Manu.

Without Reyno, Brisbane’s 11-4 win was an impressive testament to the new-look Broncos as a team that stood a genuine chance of making the eight in 2022. While they had some issues on their right edge, and let several tries go begging, they also managed to keep the Rabbitohs to just a single unconverted try, while Kurt Capewell marked his first stint in Brisbane colours, and as Brisbane skipper, by booting through the final field goal, and bringing a cathartic end to a fourth quarter that saw both teams struggle to capitalise on position and possession.  

Corey Oates took the kickoff, and fed it across to Payne Haas to take the first Brisbane charge of the 2022 season. Keenan Palasia took on three Rabbitohs on tackle two, as did Pat Carrigan on the third, while Haas had another touch on the fourth, making five post-contacts through a Keaon Koloamatangi led pack, before Carrigan made it two runs on the penultimate play, getting Albert Kelly in place to boot it from the halfway line. Alex Johnston collected it inside his twenty, and the Bunnies settled into their first possession of the year.

A solid Brisbane chase forced them back inside the ten, while four Broncos crammed in to prevent Koloamatangi breaking the twenty on tackle three as well. Cody Walker was forced to hurry a kick thirty-five out from his own line, as the hosts rallied to deliver another strong set, with Haas bringing his men into Rabbitohs territory on the fourth, Carrigan contributing another sterling charge to hit the forty, and Kelly kicking it from about the same spot that Walker had put boot to ball at the end of the previous set.

Johnston now provided the individual effort South Sydney needed, taking the footy on the full and eluding several chasers to hit Brisbane territory for the first time. Once there, a short ball from Lachlan Ilias almost put Cam Murray through the line, but the cult second-rower coughed it up, in the first of several aborted Rabbitohs drives towards the Brisbane chalk. On the other side of the Steeden, Billy Walters received a wide ball from the scrum, and glimpsed a hole in the line, and no sooner had the Bunnies cleaned it up than Haas shone again.

His contribution now was twofold – first, another barnstorming run; then, another run and the first offload of the night, to Jake Turpin, who shifted it right, where Palasia lobbed it too hard for Jordan Riki, ricocheting it off his chest when he would have done better to just hand it to him. This was the first opening for the Rabbitohs, and they built on it with two restarts on the next set, bringing Mark Nicholls five out on tackle one, where he delivered a steadying charge that acted as the pivot for his men to execute their first left sweep of the game.

Kelly and Kotoni Staggs cleaned up Johnston pretty clinically on the wing, and so the Bunnies swung back inside, where Damien Cook ran it up the middle, and shifted it across to Tevita Tatola. He came close to scoring, but a Haas-led pack rallied to prevent him getting his arm free, while the goal padding did the rest of the job. Then, for the second time, a South Sydney escalation came to nothing, as Tatola played the ball incorrectly, forcing the Bunnies to drag this newfound adrenalin back into defence, starting with a four-man pack on Kurt Capewell.

They managed to pull him back five metres, but Brisbane weren’t deflected, spreading it right on the third for Selwyn Cobbo to dance around the defence and break into space up the right edge. His read of Josh Mansour was particularly brilliant, as he dodged back inside to elude the veteran winger, and then headed for the sideline once again. So far this was rookie genius, but Cobbo showed his inexperience at the last second, when he risked an over-the-top assist for Kelly, and sent it too far forward, gifting Souths their biggest let-off so far.

Ilias capitalised on it with a big bomb to the right corner, where Oates gathered it, but only just remained in the field of play, leading to Brisbane’s biggest fight for field position so far, until Mark Nicholls was called offside within the ten. Walters dummied and almost broke through up the left, Kelly offloaded right on the ground to Riki, who glimpsed space up the right, and the Broncos had regained composure immediately. Mansour hit back, and made up for letting Cobbo through, by diving on a loose ball on the right, and stemming the flow.

Even so, the Bunnies were now trapped on their line, and Ilias was only at the thirty by the time he booted a low wobbly ball to Jamayne Isaako, who read the bounce seamlessly and flicked it across for Cobbo to arrive at his own thirty. Staggs almost fended past Walker, who got him to ground, but knocked the footy out of his hands to gift the Broncos a fresh set from their forty. With a restart five metres out, Herbie Farnworth set his sights on the chalk, but was held up by a staunch tackle from Nicholls.

This was only a temporary reprieve, however, since the Kelly-Cobbo combo got rolling again a few plays later. Cobbo’s inexperience had let him down last time, so Kelly stepped up as the veteran playmaker here, with a beautiful wide ball out to the wing, where Cobbo leaped five metres into the air and brought the footy down with Jaxson Paulo on his back. The initial call was try, but the replay showed that the South Sydney flyer had defended well, forcing Cobbo’s right boot to hit the grass just before he slammed the Steeden down.

It was the biggest shift for the Bunnies so far, especially once Capewell got done for a slow peel on the next set, and yet it didn’t lead to much. Walker absorbed the brunt of a big Walters hit, but Taane Milne couldn’t elude Walters’ ankle tap, while Walker failed to thread the needly convincingly on the last. In a riposte to this lack of creativity, Kelly went for a 40/20 on his next kick, and while he didn’t have the angle, the Broncos summoned virtually their whole squad, in their best chase of the night so far, to hold up Johnston deep in the corner.

Capewell made up for his slow peel by leading the charge, bookending this last, brief period of hope for the Rabbitohs, who couldn’t muster any belief for their next chase. As a result, Cobbo simply stood in place to take Walker’s kick, securing the footy in both hands before Paulo crashed into him. A few big moments ensued, including one of the hardest hits of the match, from Riki on Jai Arrow, but all in all the game was starting to descend into a deadlock, making it feel like the next team to capitalise on an error would control the second quarter.

As it turned out, Tatola made the mistake, but the Broncos couldn’t nail the subsequent right sweep, which ended with Walters only just reining in a chaotic offload in the face of Campbell Graham. Kelly and Cobbo now tried to combine for a third time, and got their closest shot yet, as Kelly bombed to the right edge, where Cobbo outpaced the South Sydney defenders, leaped a metre and a half above them, and got both fingertips to the footy, only to knock it into touch at the last minute, in one of the most agonising near-tries of the evening.

The Bunnies were understandably galvanised by this third miss, showcasing some of their best acceleration of the game on the next set, which ended with a Walker kick deep into the left corner, where Isaako scooped it up a metre out, and backed into the defence to avoid conceding the dropout. Brisbane now had their toughest fight for territory so far, and were only just outside the red zone by the last tackle, when Kelly booted it to the other thirty under pressure from a Rabbitohs outfit determined not to allow these letoffs come to nothing.

On the back of one of the Bunnies’ best defensive sets so far, Milne made ten post-contacts on tackle two of their next attack, and Jacob Host would have broken through the line if he hadn’t been downed by a last-ditch Staggs ankle tap. There was still petrol in the engine, though, so it was heartbreaking to see Souths get their biggest comedown yet, as Kelly, who had been raring for some visionary playmaking, bypassed Cobbo and came up with the great individual effort of the first stanza.

Reaching out his right hand, he intercepted a short ball from Walker to Paulo, ran seventy-five metres, and put the footy down for four, in a traumatic flashback to Stephen Crichton’s steal on Cody during last year’s grand final. Carrigan didn’t slow down on tackle one of the restart, and nor did Haas on plays two and four, but even so the Bunnies hadn’t entirely exhausted that defensive surge from before the Kelly try, and managed to keep Kelly himself to the forty for his next kick, which Sauce collected deftly on the wing.

Johnston built on it with some scintillating footwork, and while his platform was undone by a Murray obstruction, Arrow steadied the troops with an absolute bone-rattler on Ryan James, sending a shock wave through the Broncos that led to Cobbo losing it over the sideline a play later.  Once again, though, the Bunnies butchered their chance, as they drove the Steeden into Brisbane territory, swept left on the third, and then wasted their Challenge trying to contest a loose carry from Paulo in the face of an aggressive Staggs tackle.

Haas continued to shine with another sharp offload to James, allowing the Broncos to spread it right, before Johnston again tried to reset the rhythm of the game by taking Kelly’s kick on the full, and setting his sights on the left sideline, where he was brought to ground by Cobbo. Nevertheless, the Bunnies bounced back with their best left edge play so far, as a pair of superb cut-outs from Cook and Walker got Paulo in place to flick it out to Mansour, who booted it at speed, forcing Haas to move as limberly as a winger to collect it on the full.

This capped off a terrific half hour for Haas, and easily felt like a big enough individual effort to sustain Brisbane through a Carrigan penalty for holding back. It was remarkable, then, that South Sydney effectively repeated the same play, at close range, on the second tackle, as Walker and Paulo set up a terrific charge from Sauce, who burrowed deep into Cobbo in the corner, determined to get the footy down. Curling it to ground with his right arm as his left slid into touch, he provided the burst of individual strength that the Bunnies needed.

Full credit to Host, too, for a terrific decoy run between Walker and Paulo that forced Staggs to commit, along with his presence of mind to pull back from any potential obstruction on Kelly as well. This seemed like a real consolidation point for the Rabbitohs, but would end up being their only points of the night, as Paulo’s kick ricocheted off the left post to keep them at four. They saved the best part of their restart for last, when Mansour channelled the adrenalin of his putdown into a mad chase on Isaako, who didn’t make a single metre.

Milne took the next high ball on his knees, giving Capewell and Farnworth more than enough time, and tempting Herbie to hold on too long. Big Taane barked for a penalty and got it, as the Bunnies built some momentum on their right edge, where Koloamatangi glimpsed space, and popped the second phase back through a Farnworth ankle tap, albeit without Graham managing to rein it in with his left hand. Again, though, the Bunnies defended well to keep the Broncos in their own end, forcing Billy Walters to take his first kick from the thirty.

Five minutes out from halftime, the game was becoming a grind. Milne got an offload out to Walker, but nothing came of it, while Arrow did better with some second phase for Siliva Havili, who glimpsed space and got it back to Cook, who scooped it up on the ground, and spread it across to the right. There was a brief glimmer of a South Sydney team try here, but Farnworth came full circle from his penalty by cleaning it all up, while Isaako collected his next high ball courageously, in a sea of Bunnies defenders, with Ilias wrapped around his legs.

Rhys Kennedy now got pinged for an incorrect play-the-ball, a pretty marginal call that deflated whatever residual momentum this first stanza still had, as errors from Cobbo and Cookie ushered in the break. To have one try apiece wasn’t a bad result for this new-look Brisbane outfit, whose defence had been particularly strong, especially when the Bunnies were camped out on their line. Add Reynolds to the mix in weeks to come and it wasn’t hard to believe that they might have what it takes to crack the eight in 2022.

Arrow took the first run back from the sheds, and was swarmed by four Broncos, leaving it for Burgess and Havili to flood the middle. Building on their effort, Cookie extemporised, aiming for a penalty, and then a linebreak, before being downed halfway up the park. Walker ended by hoisting it high to the left corner, where Cobbo was safe in the face of a two-pronged chase from Paulo and Host, while the Bunnies translated this energy straight into defence, meaning only a Haas-Turpin offload gave the hosts any room to breathe on the next set.

Johnston continued the cardinal and myrtle flow by beating the first wave of defence under the next high ball, and arriving at his thirty by the time Farnworth brought him down. Again, Cook tried to innovate, with a dummy half run late in the count, but it came to nothing when Walker put it down, and Kelly scooped it up, losing a boot in the process. Brisbane now targeted the left edge, staying in that part of the park for the next three tackles, before Turpin showed and shifted it inside for Kelly, who slotted it all the way back to the right.

The most agonising play of the evening now ensued, as Cobbo collected it in both hands, a metre above both Paulo and Sauce, and flicked it back inside for Riki. It should have been a moment of sublime synergy, but Selwyn was just a little forward, and Jordan’s fingertips meant there was no chance for a try further infield. South Sydney found a new elasticity in the wake of this letoff, culminating with a silky Ilias boot that Isaako had to kneel down to collect. We were in Brisbane’s 2021 danger period, so they had to retain their flow now.

Capewell steadied the troops with his best run of the night early in the next set, while Kelly hoisted it high, as Mansour planted both feet apart and withstood a tough chase to take it clean, before offloading back as the defenders finally converged on him. It was a gutsy individual moment, and galvanised the Bunnies further – or at least galvanised Havili, who made fifteen after the tackle four hit-up, in the best post-contacts of the night so far. Arrow prevented Palasia returning the favour on the next set, but the Broncos hit back soon after.  

Staggs and Isaako started by combining up the right, with Kotoni digging into the line and Jamayne collecting the clutchiest offload of the match, just before the Steeden hit the turf. Then, Farnworth got the footy back on the other side of the park, and found the cardinal and myrtle waiting for him, before the Bunnies responded with one of their most sustained right sweeps so far. Walker booted early, Isaako somersaulted to take it, Haas broke through the line, and Kelly followed with an early kick too, before Johnston made twenty on the return.

The game had been deadlocked since the sheds, but the Broncos had been building momentum over the last few minutes, and only needed one more error to break the game open. They got it when Johnston fumbled the play-the-ball, as Palasia absorbed the brunt of the Bunnies’ 12, 13 and 14, and Haas withstood Murray, Burgess and Arrow two tackles later. With such a solid platform laid by the big men, Brisbane only needed one more play for Capewell to cap off a beautiful trio of wide balls with a soaring arc to Coates on the wing.

Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs defenders flooded the middle, with Milne, in particular, coming in too early, meaning that Coates only had Ilias to contend with as he smashed down his 99th try in the NRL. Isaako missed the sideline kick, keeping it to a six point game, in what would be the last try of the night. Again, Haas was the critical bopper, as the Bunnies attempted to crowd the Broncos into their own end, bumping off a couple of defenders to break the red zone, although this was a pretty muted set all in all by the time Mam kicked at the forty.

Sauce took it clean, and went for a searching run along the Brisbane defence, eventually conceding he couldn’t break through, but still waking up his men again in the process. Walker took on the baton with a good dummy half dart, Arrow almost delivered some second phase off it, and Walker made it two enterprising plays by scooping up a precarious Murray ball on the bounce, before slotting it out to Johnston, who turned 360-degrees and fed it right back to him. With these rapid plays, South Sydney were starting to show some control of the park.

Sure enough, they parlayed the momentum out to the right, where Graham broke through a tackle, and was downed at the ten, until finally Walker swung it left, on the last, where Paulo offloaded right on the turf back to Host. Agonisingly, Mansour was unmarked on the wing, and barking for the footy, but Paulo never even glanced over his left shoulder, meaning that what should have been a comeback moment for the Bunnies was absorbed straight back into a pair of stellar runs from Haas and Carrigan, who was primed for a monster second stint.

By contrast, the Rabbits seemed diminished on the next set, as they contented themselves with small gains, and Mansour lost the footy early in the count. It was a painful sequel to his almost-try on the wing, and while he tried to bounce back with the hardest hit of the night on Staggs, the big backliner ricocheted out of it and even used it to supercharge the subsequent set, as Carrigan stepped into the role of key playmaker, distributing right and left before taking the tackle himself on the fourth, and inspiring Kelly to run it on the last in turn.

So far so good, since Walters ended up delivering one of the best chips of the game, good enough to all but guarantee the putdown for Farnworth, who hadn’t counted on Milne delivering a chase that was even stronger. Better still for the Bunnies, Herbie knocked on in the contest, turning the dropout into a twenty-metre restart. Cookie made thirty from dummy half, but this brief burst of momentum was promptly shut down by Farnworth, who made up for his error by intercepting a wide ball from Ilias a mere tackle later.

Riki maintained the momentum by hitting the footy at speed and breaking into Bunnies territory, where Carrigan and Haas executed a one-two punch before Kelly hoisted it high, only for Cobbo to knock it on. As Staggs got some attention for a momentary cramp in his left leg, Sauce took a big hit-up, Murray came close to putting Tatola through the line, Cookie dug into the defence and set up Ilias for a silky pass out to the wing. Just like that, South Sydney had reclaimed the rhythm, ushering in their best period of possession of the game.

It started with another missed chance for Brisbane, after Chee Kam lost the ball into a big Farnworth tackle, and Graham failed to land on it. No sooner had Oates scooped it up, and glimpsed a long-ranger for his century try, than Farnworth was held to have knocked on, and Souths had the scrum. Even better, they got a set restart inside the ten, as Walker dummied and nearly crashed over on tackle one, and another six again a play later, when Chee Kam came followed Walker by burrowing into Haas until he was only a metre out from the line.

Fresh off the bench, Nicholls anchored it well up the middle, while Ilias gave the Brisbane defence an even bigger scare than Walker and Chee Kam. Dummying right, he went it alone, was held up, but finally got the offload away, and while Farnworth bumped it back, and Isaako got his hands around it, the rolling Rabbitohs wall smashed him back into touch. The following dropout had to be the turning-point for South Sydney, and Isaako knew it, booting the ball sixty-six metres before Tatola responded with a rousing twenty-five metre opening carry.

Murray followed with a rollicking run and Nicholls shifted it right, hoping to recapture Ilias’ silky magic, but no sooner had the footy left the young halfback’s hands than Walker coughed it up. Walters came up with it, almost broke through the line, and won a penalty off Nicholls for a slow peel, reclaiming the momentum as rapidly as Brisbane had lost it, as the hosts now got back-to-back bumps of their own, thanks to a Chee Kam strip. Once again, they glimpsed a try up the right edge, as Staggs muscled into the defence, and was tumbled to ground.

This would have been a good moment to take the tackle, since the Broncs had plenty of plays to work with, and were making good headway on the wing, so it was frustrating to see Kotoni lob out an offload that Cobbo never had much chance of taking. Both teams had now failed to capitalise on extended bouts of position, and with six points to make up, the Bunnies accelerated into some of their most volatile footy so far, starting with a restless Murray dummy that Turpin read well, and a tough hit from Nicholls on Teui Robati.

If anything, though, Brisbane were even more restless on their next set, looking for busts on each tackle, nailing two offloads on the fifth, and bringing it all together with a sharp Kelly kick that Johnston nevertheless managed to bring back over the line from eight metres in goal. Just when the Bunnies looked set to be trapped onto their own chalk, Robati got done for high contact, and Graham capitalised with a twenty-five metre marvel, breaking through several waves of defenders to twist and spin until he was only half a metre from the line.

Only the most scrambling of Brisbane efforts kept him up, so the pressure was on when Souths got six again (again) in the ten off a Capewell ruck infringement. Cobbo delivered a superb one-on-one hit on Walker, Carrigan shut down a Murray offload, and Tatola tried to reprise Graham’s barnstorming run, but found Ryan James waiting to clean him up at the end of it. Finally, Turpin ended a terrific opening stint to the season, including fifty tackles to his name, by diving on the kick, and holding onto the footy like the game depended on it.

South Sydney responded with their most brutal defence so far but, like Brisbane before them, leaked a penalty that got their opposition off the line, after Tatola found himself offside. With Tyrone Roberts on for Turpin, and Palasia for James, the Broncos felt relatively fresh as Walters dummied and glimpsed a hole at the Rabbitohs’ twenty, flicking the offload back for Roberts himself, who very nearly broke through. Palasia anchored the middle, Kelly grubbered early, and yet once more the hosts got another right edge heartbreak.

Staggs actually had hands on the Steeden when a last-ditch tackle from Mansour brought him to ground, and popped the footy forward. With six and a half minutes to go, it was a bit puzzling that Brisbane didn’t challenge this, since Sauce seemed to have made contact before his quarry hit the ball, although it didn’t make much of a difference in the end, since they only got two tackles into the subsequent scrum, thanks to a loose carry from Nicholls that Walters promptly scooped up for a full set inside the ten.

Palasia drove the footy right up to the line, and banged it down, with only Tatola’s palm preventing it grazing the grass, in the closest near-try of the night. For the second time in as many minutes, Walters dummied and tried to break through, but was held up five out by Murray and Johnston, while Haas copped the same treatment when he barged into Nicholls and Tatola ten metres further back in field. Isaako set up out the back for the one-pointer, but the bounce prevented him kicking in time, meaning it all came down to Capewell.

After years of watching Cleary bang them through, the new Brisbane captain celebrated his debut in Broncos colours by slotting through the first field goal of his career – a beautiful strike that sailed the Steeden straight through the posts as the Suncorp crowd went wild. After so many near-tries and missed opportunities, this single kick was unbelievably cathartic, while Capewell was just as good on the restart, narrowly preventing Ilias from stealing the kickoff in one of the best aerial contests of the evening.  

In any case, the restart only lasted a couple of tackles, due to another misread from Kotoni, who jumped out of his line to take a Kelly cut-out that was aimed at Cobbo. With three and a half minutes on the clock, the Bunnies had one more shot to make up the deficit, as Graham got them a penalty on play one, and the Broncs failed their captain’s challenge to contest a Haas strip. Paulo lined up the penalty kick from forty-five out, and while his aim initially seemed true, the footy quickly curved away from the posts to keep the score 11-4.

The Broncos got the ball back, but true to the game as a whole, could only deliver two aborted plays up the right – a Staggs burst that was met by a bone-shattering Murray tackle, and an overlong Walters kick that granted South Sydney seven final plays. Still, Brisbane had done amazingly well here, showing their newfound mettle even without Reyno on the park, and reminding the Rabbitohs of how much they already missed the little general – a terrific prelude to his official debut in Brisbane colours against the Dogs at the end of Round 2.

About Billy Stevenson (731 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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