ROUND 4: Dolphins v. Brisbane Broncos (Suncorp Stadium, 24/3/23, 12-18)

The Penrith-Parra grand final rematch may have been an epic start to Round 4, but there was no doubt that the centerpiece this week was the first ever Battle of Brisbane between the Broncos and their new crosstown rivals, who were hosting at Suncorp, Wayne Bennett’s old cauldron. Incredibly, both teams were undefeated, sitting first and second on the ladder, while there were seven ex-Broncos in the Dolphins lineup, including Anthony Milford as a late inclusion at five-eighth, back against the club that he took to the grand final back in 2015.

Brisbane had the upper hand, given they were coming off a bumper end to their contest against the Dragons last week – four straight tries after the score was locked at 18-18 – while Felise Kaufusi was contentiously suspended for his hit on Jackson Hastings. But the Phins rallied, and almost made it four from four here, despite not scoring until the end of the third quarter, and losing Sean O’Sullivan to a torn pec a few minutes later. Only the most inspired and heroic of individual plays from Kotoni Staggs stopped Milf bringing them home.

The Broncos had first touch, with Jesse Arthars taking the kickoff and Tom Flegler, the future Dolphin, making the first charge. Patrick Carrigan already looked dangerous on tackle four, and Adam Reynolds was the the Phins forty by the time he booted his first end-over-ender, which almost split the red and white backline before Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow conceded the catch to Tesi Niu. Sean O’Sullivan kicked his first one from about the same spot, and Jordan Riki made the most of his opening run on the next set with a bone-rattling carry.

Reynolds was even further forward for his next kick, which the Hammer took under pressure, and once again the Broncos kept the hosts trapped in their own end, with Kodi Nikorima taking over kicking duties, again from the forty, and not getting much depth on it, such that Brisbane would have been over halfway in a few tackles, even if Kenny Bromwich hadn’t been called offside in the ten. Two plays after the bump up field, Billy Walters took a searching run from dummy half, and Reynolds followed by attempting their first great sweep out to the left.

In the first big swing back in the Dolphins’ direction, Kurt Capewell missed the catch, the hosts packed the scrum, and then received a penalty of their own when Kotoni Staggs infringed it. The red and white now had their first incursion into the opposition twenty, and came close to scoring, off an O’Sullivan kick that Mason Teague drove right to the chalk, only for a Reece Walsh led pack to hold him up at the death. O’Sullivan took another crack with the same kick at the end of the set, but Selwyn Cobbo read it perfectly and narrowly avoided the dropout.

Walsh booted the next one within his own forty, keen to clear some distance between the Dolphins and his own line. The hosts looked good to make it back to the twenty without the aid of a penalty, reaching their peak with a Niu-O’Sullivan offload, but at this very moment leaked a penalty of their own, when the Hammer was called out for an obstruction. Brisbane accelerated now, as Reynolds faked the kick, and flicked it out for Walsh, who would have popped it on for an unmarked Cobbo if not for a committed Aiken-Niu tackle.

This was the best Dolphins defence so far, sending the Steeden sailing across the sideline, although the Niu knock-on in the midst of it meant that Brisbane almost regathered immediately, when only the toughest of three-man defensive efforts prevented Walters from planting it down on the left edge. The visitors responded by going wing to wing on the next play, until Walsh had space to reprise his attempted assist. While he got the flick pass out to Cobbo this time, Niu did the job again, slamming in to shove his quarry into touch.

Milford consolidated by launching his next one high, forcing Walsh to stagger back over his ten before he finally contained it. Meanwhile, both wingers were discombobulated from this last period, as Niu got some heavy strapping around the right knee before returning gingerly to the left edge, and Cobbo rolled his next play-the-ball a couple of metres backwards without making contact with the boot. Niu was clearly the worse for wear here, while the Dolphins felt momentarily exhausted on the next set, which saw Brisbane accelerate once again.

First, Walsh glimpsed that Milford was out of position on the left and experimented with a mad dash on tackle one, then Carrigan came close to a break up the middle, and finally Reynolds misfired the cut-out on the right edge, prompting a near punch-up with Tom Gilbert, as players from both outfits crushed in. The Battle of Brisbane had officially witnessed its first fracas, and so the game brimmed with a new volatility as the second quarter approached, especially since the score was still locked at 0-0, crying out for someone to break it open.

Gilbert took out some of his residual aggro a play later, with a superb shot on Carrigan that saw the Queensland representative tumbled to the turf, while a soaring Reynolds kick from deep within his own end, and a tough Riki hit on Niu, who was starting to seriously struggle, ushered in the second twenty, which Brisbane stamped as their own almost immediately. The first hint came when Herbie Farnworth offloaded on the ground through a Gilbert tackle, and found the knee of Walsh, who chased it down, kicked it, but weighted it much too hard.

Still, this was eyes-up footy from the Broncos, proof they could combine creatively when they got their next chance, which came with a Teague forward ball on play one of the next Phins set, the whistle blowing right when Mark Nicholls was plunging his way into the defence. All it took was two plays for Brisbane to settle into the silkiest sweep so far, building on Walsh’s speed, an exhausted Dolphins defence, and finally a perfectly-pitched double pump from Farnworth to put Jesse Arthars across in the corner with Jamayne Isaako on his back.

It remained four points when Reyno’s kick ricocheted off the right post, but the Broncos compensated with a barnstorming restart, burrowing their way up the middle before the little general bombed from halfway, injecting enough of a spin on it that the Hammer had to kneel for the collect, putting his body on the line as Riki flung himself into the contact. Milford showed Reynolds he could go bomb for bomb, laying a reverse spiral on it for good measure, but the Phins didn’t have the chase to follow, and copped another blow a moment later.

Not only did Nikorima come in high on Staggs but he was the main casualty of the contact, leaving the park immediately for an HIA that would end his evening, as Ray Stone trotted off the bench earlier than expected. Luckily Gilbert, the other Phin in the tackle, was fine, but this was still a gee up moment for Brisbane, so it was the biggest let-off so far when Corey Jensen was caught napping at the back of a Carrigan pass. Even better for the hosts, Cobbo got done for an illegal strip late in the next set, gifting the visitors a full set in the opposition twenty.

At least, that’s what they would have received, since this last act in the Battle of Brisbane reached its climax when Gilbert, the man who’d survived the Staggs hit, and got up in Reynolds’ face, put the footy down on tackle one. With Isaako pinged for crowding Farnworth a beat later, the Broncos had recovered their rhythm, and had ten minutes until half time to reach double digits. Payne Haas elasticized with an offload for Corey Paix, who was downed by a tough Stone hit, before Carrigan failed to offload, and everything suddenly escalated.

No sooner had the Broncos received six again off a Nicholls ruck infringement than Niu transcended his injuries to intercept the Steeden on the wing, make a few heroic metres, and then flick it on to the Hammer, who initially defied Paix with his footwork, and required a good five or six Broncos to hem him in before Cobbo finally led an epic pack to drag him into touch. Once again, though, Brisbane were their own worst enemy, as a Walsh error gave the Phins a chance to claim this eruption of energy, this accelerating footy flow, as their own.

For a moment it looked like they might just deliver here, as Aiken set up Niu on the left edge, and fully fit the ex-Bronco might have crossed over here, but in this condition he was no match for one of the most committed tackles Walsh has ever delivered – pure physicality, low contact, shoulder-led, man on man, a metre out from the line. It was the kind of defence that wins games, a reminder that Suncorp is Broncos territory, no matter who might be technically the home team, one of the big turning-points and belief-builders in Brisbane’s eventual win.

Nevertheless, the Dolphins were no walkover, as Gilbert started the next set, and made up for his error, by reading a Reynolds hook brilliantly, before an early shot from Capewell bumped them back into the opposition twenty, where Isaako came as agonizingly close to scoring on the right edge as Niu had on the left, off an elegant catch-and-pass from Brenko Lee. An extra millisecond, or millimetre, and this would have done it, but Ezra Man was speedy enough to ensure that the ex-Bronco, frequently so reliable, lost possession at the death.

True to the ebb-and-flow momentum of this match, however, Mam made the next error, losing the ball cold and then peeling slow on the following play to give the men from Redcliffe one last burst of possession before the break. Milford drifted across field showing it, O’Sullivan tried to make space in the line for Kenny Bromwich, who was met with a bone-rattling Staggs shot, successive errors from Farnworth and Staggs turned this into the longest period for either team on the opposition line, and it all peaked in the final five seconds.

On the very last play, Connelly Lemuelu busted through the line, and offloaded for the Hammer to take one closing shot at glory, only for Walsh to lead the charge and defend his chalk as the siren rang out. Jarrod Wallace got the first set back rolling with an offload, and Milford sent the Steeden spinning with an opening kick that Cobbo leaped a metre above the turf to take clean. Marty Taupau and Jensen responed by rolling up the park, laying a platform for Reyno to strike the spiral just right as the Hammer staggered back to his try line to take it.

Two plays later, Lee smashed into a cluster of Broncos, and lost the ball, making it 10-10 errors as the Broncos packed the first scrum of the back forty. Another near-try on the edge ensued, as the visitors swept left for Walsh to dummy and pop it out for Farnworth, who was poised for an around-the-corner offload for Arthars, and would have nailed it too if not for a heroic last-ditch effort from Isaako. Even so, the Phins had to clean up the footy behind the line, and so Brisbane had the first dropout since the break too, but couldn’t do all that much with it.

In large part, that was due to a rare howler from Reynolds, a loose ball that Walsh had to scramble to clean up. It cost the Broncos a good fifteen metres, and they never really recovered, while Milford capitalised with another reverse spiral that Arthars scrambled to contain. Staggs compensated with ten metres after contact, and and Reynolds hoisted it high on the last, but while Riki had set his sights on the Hammer, Milford swooped in to distract and deflect the chase, allowing the ex-Cowboy to make fifteen metres without any contact.

This had been one of the more chaotic periods of the game, and yet it felt like the next error, a Ray Stone putdown, might bring it to an end and usher in a new Brisbane surge, if only because it was so egregious, and so anticlimactic after the rousing start to this Dolphins set. Yet the chaos hadn’t quite come to an end, as Taupau barged his way into the red zone, and made one of the messier offloads of his career, flinging the footy back with no awareness of who was there to take it, getting lucky when it ricocheted off Gilbert for a repeat set.

Now, with a full set inside the twenty, the Broncos had to consolidate and put an end to this devolving period of play – and they came to the table in two tackles, as Taupau made up for his error with a much more secure charge into the ten, and the Suncorp locals settled into their best right sweep so far. Paix started by angling his head left and shifting it out to Mam, who drove it deep into the line, clearing up space for Walsh, who was always going to outspeed O’Sullivan as he lobbed a pitch-perfect cut-out for Cobbo to smash over untouched.

It was pure football synergy, bringing the Broncs to an eight point lead after Reynolds imissed a second sideline conversion. Walsh continued to accelerate early in the restart, and Farnworth was raring for a break two tackles later, bringing them inside the Dolphins thirty by the time Reynolds booted his next attacking kick, and yet another rousing chase from Riki ensured that the Hammer wouldn’t break his ten. Jesse Bromwich couldn’t have chosen a better moment to trot back onto the park, as Gilbert took a well-deserved rest.

Walsh’s speed almost paid dividends a second later, when he pivoted off both boots a couple of times before finally clearing up space for Arthars to break through the line and make it all the way to the Dolphins red zone by the time the Hammer brought him down. Brisbane had more than enough momentum behind them to score now, so it was agonising when Mam dummied one time too many on the line, with the result that his short ball ricocheted off Farnworth, meaning the whistle had already blown by the time Reyno crossed the chalk.

This was another big let-off for the Dolphins and they got more energy on their very next set, when Nicholls dragged Jensen ten metres up the middle, and Cobbo offered the most eccentric response to the high ball tonight, pulling back from Niu contact and so allowing the footy to bounce over the sideline. The hosts got the ball back, had a full set in the twenty, and finally scored their first try against their crosstown rivals, and from a former Bronco, as Stone capitalised on a quick play-the-ball to pop a short assist across for Wallace to take on the line.

From there, the big bopper delivered one the barnstorming beside-the-post tries that distinguished his time with Gold Coast, squeezing through Riki and Taupau for the most momentous putdown of his career to date. Isaako banged through the two from right in front, and we were at a two point game, two minutes out from the final quarter. The Phins might have waited nearly an hour to score, but the speed, strength and sheer brute determination of Wallace’s try felt like a statement of purpose for the last twenty minutes of football.

Sensing a swing towards the hosts, Brisbane brought Haas back off the bench immediately, while also replacing Jensen with Keenan Palasia, as Jesse Bromwich delivered a monster run to begin the restart. Unfortunately, O’Sullivan didn’t manage to bomb on the last, and Walsh took advantage of this slight cessation in momentum to barge his way up the right edge – midway through the count, and then towards the end of the count, when he laid the platform for Cobbo to bump off Nicholls and the Hammer for what should have been a certain try.

Instead, Nicholls reached up from the ground to knock the Steeden dead as Selwyn was clambering over him, a shift in possession that was every bit as dramatic as Cobbo’s non-response to the bomb from O’Sullivan, who was taken off the park just as abruptly for a torn pec. The pressure was now on Milford to steer the ship against his former club – and he delivered on the very next set, popping a deft grubber off the side of his boot to synergise totally with his fullback, who chased it down and then put it down with Carrigan behind him.

This was arguably the greatest Dolphins moment to date – better even than their opening win over the Roosters – and a definitive comeback for Milf, who’d stepped up when it counted. Isaako slotted through another one in front, and the hosts had gone from an eight point deficit to a four point lead in barely five minutes. The Hammer was now standing at five tries, the most in 2023, ahead of Isaako, Will Kennedy, Nick Meaney and Jaxson Paulo on four apiece, and for a moment it looked like the Phins might go back to back with a risky Kenny offload.

As Kenny started to shape, this looked set to put Teague into open space, but his precision was off, and so the Broncos got a midfield scrum to compose themselves. Reynolds quickly accelerated up the left, but couldn’t build a break up the wing, while Arthars delivered the worst decision off the night – kicking for himself, from dummy half, on the fifth play, with Reyno raring for it right beside him. Brisbane were lucky that Hamiso didn’t do more damage when he scooped it up, while Arthars started redeeming himself by taking Milf’s next bomb.

The game was now crying out for a visionary individual play. It would come in the final moments from Staggs, but for now Walsh tried to summon it with a 40/20 attempt that didn’t nail the angle. No matter though, because Reynolds soon drifted across the ruck, showed it, and finally found a way to expose the gap between Lee and Milford he’d been nudging at all game – with a short ball that opened up the entire footy field for Capewell, who made his way to the corner despite a heroic chase from the Hammer, who very nearly prevented it.

After two botched conversions, Reyno added the extras when it counted, restoring a precarious two point lead with a little under nine minutes on the clock. Flegler glimpsed a break late in the next set, and the little general ended with a nasty bounce that Hamiso almost had to lie down to take, causing some complications in backplay as the rest of his team mates ferried it back up the field. He was back in the fray soon enough though, while Cobbo only just managed to keep the footy in play when Aiken and Kenny smashed him on the chalk.

This was now a game of inches, pure brinksmanship in which every individual moment of brilliance, or frustration, had the chance to determine the outcome. Reynolds’ next kick was a beauty, sitting up just before the dead ball line to ensure that Milford was barely over halfway by the time he booted it in Cobbo’s direction, hoping to force an error but to no avail. Farnworth then glimpsed a break, and tried to pay it forward with an offload that Walsh tapped out to the wing, but the Dolphins scrambled, until Walters lost it a few plays later.

The last chance for the Phins came with Walsh’s first error of the night, a cold drop in his own end, at the start of the tackle count. Three plays later, Stone tried to replicate the try he’d assisted, barging over beside the right post when a sea of Broncos piled on to keep him just short. Finally, the game ended as it had to end – with possibly the most sublime individual effort that we’ve seen in the NRL this year – and it started with what initially looked like a dexterous kick from Milford, a skidding crossfield grubber from his right to left edge.

Milf couldn’t have predicted that it would sit up perfectly for Staggs, who suddenly transformed into the wiriest backliner on the park as he scooped it up, beat Aiken, absorbed a Teague ankle tap into his acceleration, and then sailed ahead of Gilbert, arriving in the corner, and rising to greet the roaring crowd with a howl of his own – a howl that reminded everyone that this was still Brisbane’s house, and the Dolphins were only hosting for this evening, in an epic ending for the historic launch of rugby league’s greatest new derby.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: