ROUND 17: Brisbane Broncos v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Suncorp Stadium, 10/7/22, 32-18)
Adam Reynolds might have had one of his poorer games of 2022 with the boot against the Cowboys last week, but he still led his men valiantly – and he did the same against St. George on Sunday night, despite still not being 100% with the kicks, and clearly suffering from his ongoing rib injuries, which were immediately targeted by Tariq Sims, who would be binned twice in the first forty minutes. That resolve spread to the entire team, producing one of Tesi Niu’s best stints at fullback, along with one of the most sublime Brisbane tries of the year.
It was their last of the night, culminating an escalating contest between Kotoni Staggs and Moses Suli that provided the best runs of the year for both players. Even though there was a full twenty minutes of football left, the Dragons would never escape from the shadow of this enormous group effort, which saw Reyno set up Jordan Pereira for a right wing kick that Staggs too on the fourth bounce. By contrast, without Ben Hunt to lead them, St. George were only intermittedly brilliant, and unable to keep up with Brisbane’s vision during the back half.
Jack Bird shifted the kickoff across for Blake Lawrie to take the first run, the Dragons moved it fast and clean up the middle of the park, and Frank Molo got Jayden Sullivan to the halfway line for the opening kick. Delouise Hoeter took it, in his second game for Brisbane, and the home team shifted it right immediately, where we got the first Staggs-Suli contest of the day, as Moses grabbed Kotoni round the legs, holding on long enough to force the footy free. St. George had a scrum from the Broncos’ thirty before the hosts had completed a set.
Suli reiterated that defensive statement by taking the first run off the base, only for Molo to put it down a moment later, as Brisbane got a chance to continue their drive into St. George territory, this time on the other side of the park, where Reyno won the first penalty of the night off a high shot from Sims, who was sent to the bin for the contact, which was pretty brutal. Not only did he come in late, but he led hard with the shoulder, and hit Reynolds from behind, whiplashing him to ground with his ribs fully exposed.
Brisbane now had their second burst of position, as Reynolds schemed to lay a platform for the less decorated members of his team to coalesce around the opening try. First, Ryan James marked his first stint in the starting side with a tough charge up the middle; then, Zac Hosking continued a stellar debut in the second-row with his fourth run in two minutes, taking a short ball from his halfback, plunging into the line, demanding a big St. George pack to hold him up, and even then forcing Zac Lomax to make a couple of grabs before he was finally secured.
Brenko Lee targeted the same part of the park a play later, and was met with a similar pack, except that this time he flicked out the offload, setting up Hoeter to cruise over for his first NRL try. With Reynolds and Lee backing them, James, Hosking and Hoeter had decimated St. George, who have lost in all seven games when they’ve conceded the first four in 2022. It was the perfect combination of veterans and young guns (or new guns) and a confidence-builder for a rookie-heavy Brisbane outfit still smarting from their loss to the Cows in Townsville.
Reynolds might have missed the sideline conversion, but his men had still capitalised immediately on Sims’ absence, and made good headway on the restart, getting him in place to boot it just outside the St. George forty. James maintained his strong start with a rollicking shot on Mathew Feagai, Hosking did the same by tumbling into Jaydn Su’A a tackle later, and yet the Dragons did well to accumulate position, and amped up their defence in turn, keeping Brisbane trapped in their own end until Reyno elasticised with a big show and go.
Reaching the footy out in his right arm, in the first big dummy of the night, he carved up enough space to put Staggs over halfway, and Jordan Riki over the forty, making such a dramatic individual impact that McCullough felt compelled to make a statement in response, slamming in after the kick to rattle his ribs to the ground for the second time tonight. The ex-Bronco was promptly put on report, and the hosts had the first close-range attack of the game, only for Tesi Niu to show an individual play can dent rhythm as much as produce it.
Finding himself with the footy on the left edge, he had more than enough space to pass out to the wing, but instead opted to run it alone, losing the footy in the contact, and gifting St. George the biggest let-off so far as Sims waited out his last three minutes in the bin. Still, Hoeter took Sullivan’s kick without any troubles and Staggs got another crack at Suli up the right, trampling through the ankle tackle and then requiring two more waves of St. George defence to hold him up, as Brisbane tried to match that speed on the left.
Instead, Walters send a bludger of a ball out to Reynolds, who never had a shot of taking it, as the Dragons got their second let-off in as many minutes, along with their third tackle in the opposition half. Brisbane were sitting at 15, so the visitors had to build some position here, but Amone’s kick wasn’t any more challenging than Sullivan’s, and while Hoeter had a bigger chase to contend with, he still took it clean and made fifteen on the return. For the second time, Staggs broke out of an ankle tap, this time from Feagai, as the Broncs consolidated.
Staggs was now well and truly in the spotlight, and had thoroughly bounced back from his opening clash with Suli, eluding a crossfield chase from the St. George backliner after busting through Feagai, and then forcing the dropout from Feagai himself, who had two shots at a Mam grubber behind the line, and would have secured it on the second if not for Kotoni getting up in his face. Hetherington had barged into Sims on the previous set, and almost stepped past him again here, as Brisbane got ready for the back half of the count.
Once again, though, it came apart with a Reynolds error, as Bird came in hard off the line to hold up the little general, and force the forward pass while Riki continued his line on the outside. Reyno had been better than his stint against the Cowboys, but the Dragons were drawing out his vulnerability, and capitalised immediately on the next two plays, garnering a crowding penalty from Keenan Palasia as he tumbled backwards over Lomax in the play-the-ball, and taking the lead off the best run of Cody Ramsey’s career.
Receiving the footy off a deft pair of passes from the rookie halves, he defied both the Brisbane halves, shrugging off a Reyno grab at the forty, and remaining untouched as he sped into the left corner and managed to dance around a Mam ankle tap at the death. It was the most emphatic putdown for either team so far, and the spine vision the Dragons needed in Ben Hunt’s absence, bringing them to a two point lead once Lomax sharpshot it through the posts, in what (at this stage) looked set to be a closely-contested, low-scoring game.
It was an impressive achievement for St. George with only 37% of possession to their name, although it only took a strong post-contact charge from Lee and a trademark barrelling run from James to get Brisbane back in opposition territory. Reyno might have struggled with ball handling, but there was no issue with the boot, as he soared a dangerous enough bomb to keep the Dragons in their own end for most of the next set, which ended with a pair of direct runs from De Belin and Su’A to set up McCullough to drive it deep into the left corner.
This was a decent enough last-tackle option, but Reyno upstaged it with an even more towering bomb, striking it well within his own end, but still forcing Ramsey to tumble to his back a few metres out to take it on the chest. Sullivan couldn’t hope to match it with his next one from halfway, and Hoeter didn’t even have to check for a chase as he caught it clean, as the game settled into an arm-wrestle, the most grinding set-for-set period so far, with both teams searching for the error or position that would break it all open again.
Reyno wasn’t leaving off on the bombs, but the St. George backline weren’t wilting under them either, as Feagai took the next one courageously in the face of the biggest chase either side had mustered for some time. Their gutsiness paid off, too, as the Dragons got a precious penalty from Brenko Lee for holding back a tackle later, and Sullivan glimpsed a path past Walters before the line closed up and the Brisbane wall rebuilt itself with a Mam-Lee tackle on Su’A out on the right edge.
Everything came down to the Amone chip, which Jordan Pereira not only took on the full, but brought back into field to make twenty metres against his former club, prompting a rhythm shift that tempted Sims into his second dangerous shot of the night, this time a shoulder slam into Rhys Kennedy’s temple. He already had the quickest sin-bin of the season, and now he had the quickest successive sin-bin of the season, bringing this set-for-set wrestle to a drastic end as the Suncorp locals drove it upfield against a twelve-man outfit.
No surprise that they scored a beat later, off a double dummy-half effort that saw Walters break the ten and feed a fast one out for Tesi Niu to summon a charge worthy of the toughest front-rower. Tucking the footy under the right arm, he hit Ramsey hard, using the contact to twist as Sullivan came in on top, but still managed to reach out an arm and slam it down as Josh Kerr arrived too late to make a difference. It was one of the most plosive dummy half runs this year, bringing the Broncos to a 10-6 lead once Reyno booted through the two.
Xavier Willison anchored the restart with a tough pair of charges and Ramsey survived the bomb, but only just, forcing the Dragons to work it back against a revitalised Brisbane outfit who looked unlikely to concede any ground. That just made it more surprising when Feagai darted away from a couple of defenders to swerve thirty metres up field, an important rallying-point for his men, but not enough in itself to dent Brisbane’s flow, which continued with a very late offload from Staggs to Reynolds early in the next count.
More serious was a Niu forward pass midway through the set. The Dragons’ big men made the most of it, as De Belin weathered a staunch line right on halfway so that Su’A could make inroads up the right, before Kerr built on their platform by playing the footy fast enough out of a combined Gamble-Hetherington hit for Amone to extemporise a grubber into the right corner. Riki reached out a boot but failed to deflect it, while Bird and Ramsey weren’t going to permit Pereira to bring it back in field this time around.
Kerr put his stamp on the dropout by again playing it fast up the middle, not even making contact with the footy as Sims again stared down his last three minutes in the bin. A trademark right step from Amone wasn’t enough to break through on the right, but it didn’t matter, since Suli built on the hard fast work from De Belin, Su’A and Kerr, and got back on top in the Staggs contest in the most dramatic way, with the best short-range run of the night, tough enough to totally eclipse Niu’s mad dash from dummy half ten minutes before.
Bird set up the assist beautifully, shaping to continue a sweep to the right wing, before flicking it back to his centre to pivot the line back inside. From there, Suli headed straight for Willison, embraced the full force of the tackle, and wrenched the Cook Islands representative to one side, before changing direction more subliminally, now heading back inside, footy under his right arm, to break past Riki and Walters, with Niu powerless to stop him with a wraparound tackle as he slammed down the most barnstorming try of the game so far.
It was apt, then, that this sublime break put Suli fifth-best in the league for tackle busts (75) behind Talakai (76), Marzhew (79), Teddy (83) and Manu at a whopping 91. Only the most dramatic gesture would suffice to reverse Brisbane’s rhythm of the last ten minutes, and Suli had provided it, making it six points apiece with Sims in the bin. All in all, then, the Dragons had done pretty well out of this last passage of play, especially since Sims was pretty lucky not to have been sent off, so plosive had his contact been on Kennedy.
The only conceivable way that Brisbane could completely hit back, three minutes out from the break, would be for Staggs to answer Suli – and that’s just what happened, after the home team got a bump up field off a Lomax marker error. All it took was some early ball, and a deft pair of passes, from Reynolds and Niu, for big Kotoni to dance past Feagai, and actually use a Suli ankle tap as a fulcrum to slide him over the line when he banged to ground two metres out, bringing the Broncos to 16-12 with a superb Reyno sideline kick.
Reynolds missed a two-point field goal on the restart, but this was still a rousing end to the first stanza, a promise to the home crowd of visionary footy to come in the back half. Staggs had ended with 107 run metres, light years ahead of Niu and Hosking at 89 and 88, while Hetherington wrapped things up with what would have been a brilliant tackle on Sims in a slightly earlier era of rugby league, but was marginally dangerous now. With only a few seconds to the siren, however, this hit was all about rallying the troops before the break.
In response, the Dragons hit back big after the sheds, cleaning up Willison, Hetherington and Hosking pretty comprehensively on their first carries, and garnering good position after Ramsey curved around to bring back Reyno’s kick for a twenty-five metre return. It came apart, though, with Sullivan’s kick, which he booted too hard to grant Brisbane an extra tackle to start resetting that deficit in position right away. They were on the brink of the red zone midway through, as Lomax came in strong to prevent Lee building on a Mam cut-out.
Still, the Broncos made decent headway, although the acceleration ended up overtaking even them, as Mam was forced to take the final kick, and weighted it too heavily to hand seven tackles straight back to St. George, who made more position off the extra play, forcing Mam to bookend this last period, and make up for his misfire at the other end of the park, with a heroic individual effort to prevent Su’A crossing over on the right. Finally, Reyno got boot to ball again, but an average enough end-over-ender to grant Ramsey another good return.
Set by set, Brisbane had lost the splendid rhythm they’d summoned at the end of the first stanza, as they got an even bigger scare up the right than Su’A’s last charge – the first linebreak since half time, as Sullivan smashed through a Walters ankle tap and set his sights on the chalk. Yet Niu now stepped up with a pair of brilliant plays, staying staunch in the face of Sullivan as last line of defence, and ushering Amone’s grubber until the very death, to win his men another seven-tackle set.
Su’A responded with a pair of huge efforts of his own, slamming Hosking to ground on tackle four, and disposing of Hetherington just as clinically on tackle five. For a moment, Reyno seemed to have recovered the attacking momentum with a dummy and pass out to Mam, but Su’A’s contact had sent a ripple across the entire set, which came apart with a poor grubber option from the five-eighth on the wing. Hosking got done for an obstruction a second later, Amone kicked too hard again on the last, and we were at peak deadlock.
At no point had Hunt’s absence from the Dragons been more painful than it was now, while the Broncos also desperately needed a visionary kick from Reyno as Walters came off the bench to give Cory Paix a crack. They got the next best thing, a set restart later, off a Suli ruck infringement, when the little general set up the first great sweep since the break, holding up the line long enough for a Mam double-pump to create just enough space for Lee, who nevertheless took the selfless option and put Hoeter through Ravalawa for a double.
Reynolds had a nasty flashback to the grand final by spraying the left-edge kick away from the posts, but the Broncos had still hit twenty, and moved beyond a converted try lead, the biggest margin of the match so far. Kennedy supercharged the restart with a very late offload to Paix, and took the very next run, before Reyno soared a good one away without too much pressure, albeit still far from his best. St. George had to be the next to score, as Moses Mbye made his first appearance, and collected a late low De Belin offload for his opening touch.
Sullivan was looking distinctively tentative with the kicks now, pausing before booting a short one to the right corner, where Hoeter was already leaping to collect it before the young half had made up his mind. The Red V didn’t have to wait long to take a second shot at this set, though, getting the ball back from Niu a couple of plays later, before play paused for a third piece of Sims contact – legal this time, when Paix came in low, copped the lock’s massive thigh in his face, and left the park for an HIA, as Walters popped back on to finish the game.
For a moment it looked like this could be a really serious injury, but luckily Paix was well enough to walk off the park without needing the minicab, as attention shifted back to Brisbane, who had to make up for this potential momentum-killer with Walters performing a much longer stint than he was expecting. They closed the gap in the most spectacular way, as Hetherington poked his nose through line two plays into the next set, and fed it out to Niu, the man whose error had produced this last St. George burst, to break right up the middle.
Reading the park perfectly, the little fullback shifted it across to Mam to finish the job by planting it down beside the right post. With twelve runs and 32 tackles, Hetherington had been a leader amongst the big men this evening, while the break, the hit on Su’A and the shepherd on Amone’s kick, all made this a critical moment in Niu’s evolution at custodian as well. Brisbane have a tradition of compensating well for missing Origin players, and that was certainly the case here, a motivator for the Maroons before they rock up at Suncorp.
On the other side of the Steeden, Ravalawa had copped contact in the leadup that saw him leave the park now, bringing Blake Lawrie off the bench as Kennedy trundled the restart into St. George territory, where Reynolds managed a fairly decent kick. Moses handled it well in his first test under the high ball tonight, bringing it back to the twenty to get his men in place for a hard straight series of opening tackles that ended with De Belin offloading the footy out for Sims, and then circling around for the third phase that Tariq couldn’t quite pull off.
Still, this Sims-De Belin combo finally gave the Dragons space to extemporise with one of their most elegant plays so far, as Bird swung around to put Ramsey into space, in what would have been the assist of the night if he hadn’t sent it marginally forward. That vision of what could have been now galvanised the Broncos into their most sublime sequence so far, as Reynolds returned to first-gear, dummying to the right before flicking a bullet ball back out to Mam, who responded in kind to provide Pereira with space for a mad dash down the sideline.
Pereira gathered all that momentum and condensed it into a kick at speed, straight past Ramsey, laying the platform for the finale to this terrific sequence – Staggs’ run. Burning across the park, Kotoni reached the footy on the fourth bounce, which was also the most unpredictable, soaring twice as high as the previous three, but he leaped up at precisely the right moment to collect it in both hands and slam it down, in a vision of pure synergy between player and Steeden, and between all facets of the Brisbane attacking machine.
These would turn out to be the final points of the night for the Broncos, once Reynolds added the extras at the sixty-first minute, but there was a poetry in that, since this Reyno-Pereira-Staggs triptych felt like a summative statement, a final word in a pivotal match in their journey towards finals football. That’s not to say the Staggs-Suli showdown was over, however, as Pereira pulled back from Amone’s next chip kick, and Bird got boot to ball for a second shot, driving it deep into the left corner where the two centres converged on it.
Staggs shepherded it for as long as possible, but eventually had to make contact with Suli on his back, although the Captain’s Challenge paid dividends, showing that Moses had actually reached his arm around Kotoni to take possession of the Steeden before losing it himself in the tackle. For a brief moment, the two players were one, bringing their contest to its visceral and logical conclusion, before a Hosking error got the Dragons back down their end after all, as Sims called it a night, and Frank Molo joined the fray for a late stint off the bench.
De Belin had the best chance this set, trying to grind his way over beside the left post, and while Riki remained strong, the Broncos failed to complete a second successive set, as Gamble flicked out an NFL-worthy forward ball early in the count. Suli was raring for metres on play one, Riki came in for another big hit on Lawrie on play two, Sullivan took it up the middle on play three, Mam came up with a David-on-Goliath effort on play four, and McCullough tried to cap off these hard fast charges by attempting a crash effort beside the right post.
By this stage, then, there wasn’t a great deal left in the St. George playback, as Reyno correctly predicted that Sullivan would resort to another charge on the last, and surged out of the line to make sure he couldn’t get anything out of it. Conversely, the Broncos came agonisingly close to reprising and condensing their visionary sixtieth-minute sequence, as Niu put Staggs into space up the right, where he kicked for himself at speed, only to fumble the footy with open space all the way to the chalk, in one of the biggest let-offs for the Red V all night.
To their credit, the Broncos didn’t allow this to dent their momentum, as Niu edged closer to three Dally M points by taking the next Sullivan bomb with aplomb, and Reyno, Staggs and Pereira converged to ensure that Ramsey could only bring a Walters kick five metres back in field at the end of the following set. Su’A was raring for post-contacts midway through the count, palming off Bronco after Bronco, looking for the offload, and laying the platform for a mad Feagai run up the left, but there was nobody in support, and so the set fell apart.
This was a dispiriting spectacle for the Dragons, suggesting, as it did, that even a big individual play might not be enough to get them on the board now, especially since Suli had pulled back so overtly from the support run. Yet that just made it all the more rousing when they made good on the repeat set, in the same part of the park, when Bird danced through a Reynolds ankle tap, and popped the footy out a millisecond before he hit the deck, as Ramsey made up for the lack of support on the previous play by reading the second phase beautifully now.
With a dart that was as clutchy in its vision as Bird’s offload, he tumbled over the chalk, narrowing it to a fourteen point game as Lomax slotted through a quick conversion. Beating Reynolds at the death had to be a big motivator for St. George here, focusing the next passage of play around how Bird and the little general dealt with the fallout. Reyno hit back first, striking the inside of the Steeden to almost garner a late 40/20, while Bird was revitalised into involving himself all over the park on the set that followed.
In fact, the back half of this set was basically all Bird, as he popped a bouncer out to Feagai, brought the footy back inside for a shift to Molo, collected the offload in turn, and then dropped it onto his right boot – or past his right boot, since a well-timed Hosking tackle brought it all undone. Not only did this cost St. George their Captain’s Challenge, but got Bird a penalty for dissent, before successive errors from Kerr and Feagai, combined with one final dropout, meant that the Red V barely touched the footy again before the siren rang out.
Thirty years after beating St. George for their first premiership at Suncorp (and Illawarra in the semis), Brisbane had their first win in six games against the Red V – a good motivator after last week’s loss to North Queensland, as they prepare to complete their local derby with Gold Coast next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a tough loss for St. George, especially against a Broncos outfit suffering greater Origin losses, so they’ll be hungry for the magic of Ben Hunt’s boot when they rock up to meet the Roosters in Gosford on Saturday.
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