NRL Round 1 predicted teams: Brisbane Broncos – After going close in 2023, was that their best chance at glory?
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, it’s time to see if the Broncos can go one better and take out the premiership.
So near, yet so far. After being 20 minutes from glory, Brisbane were comprehensively Nathan Clearyed and lost a Grand Final that they, really, probably shouldn’t have.
But then again: should they have got there in the first place? Plenty of things conspired to help the Bronx along their way, not least the collapse of other contenders, and taken on a long lens, the playing group might well have been a year early on arrival at the big occasion.
How about a third viewpoint? Last year’s second place finish was both ahead of schedule and a missed opportunity, because going into 2024, there’s plenty to suggest that things won’t quite be the same.
They’ll still be good, of course, and one of the teams to beat.
They’ll still get the structural advantages of being Brisbane, meaning better turnarounds from regular night fixtures, multiple sides giving you bonus home games and guaranteed rivalry matches against opponents who, historically, have been easier to beat.
On the other hand, they will struggle to have the same things break their way.
The Roosters, Souths and Parramatta, who would kill for a draw as easy as Brisbane’s, cannot surely be as bad in 2024, instantly increasing the competition at the very top.
The roster is, at least on paper, not as good either, with three first 13 players departing and internal promotions required to backfill their spaces.
Kevin Walters and his backroom staff, not least attack coach Lee Briers, will still have plenty to work with, and huge expectations to go again.
Payne Haas and Pat Carrigan remain in the middle, as do Reece Walsh, Adam Reynolds and Ezra Mam, who make one of the truly elite spines.
Reynolds is a year older, but so too are the other key players, who only get better. This is a year where only a Premiership counts for the Broncos.
The list of arrivals is short, with only Fletcher Baker coming to the club from the outside. If you’re Brisbane, however, that tends not to matter much: historically they’ve had one of the biggest junior nurseries and can turn to that to replace departing stars.
Baker is a straight replacement for Tom Flegler – more on whom later – and beyond him, that’s pretty much it.
Jaiyden Hunt arrives from St George Illawarra, but it would be a surprise if he was anywhere near the starting 17, at least at the start of the year.
There will be new faces, just not completely new.
Long-touted hooker prospect Blake Mozer has already debuted, for example, in the last round of last season, but don’t be surprised if he usurps either Tyson Smoothy or Cory Paix to slot in as Billy Walters’ relief option.
Deine Mariner managed six games across 2022 and 2023, but will be expect to play every week now as starting centre.
Brendan Piakura and Xavier Willison have kicked about for a few years, going in and out, but are now going to be an essential part of the future. Let’s see how they go.
Those departures are what move the Broncos down from the best challengers to Penrith to one of a group of contenders.
Neither Tom Flegler nor Herbie Farnworth are as essential to the side as a Walsh, Reyno, Carrigan or Haas, but they vital in their positions.
No prop is so good at filling in as Flegler, who moved to the Dolphins to be the top dog after years backing up the two main middles. He was a deluxe option in that role without any comparison across the league.
Farnworth is an even bigger loss. He was central to the set starts in a way that few other centres are in a team that made more than most out of transitional moments. Throw in that he was incredibly effective in attack, too, and you suddenly have an outsized loss at centre.
Kurt Capewell also departs, joining the Warriors a year ahead of schedule. He was a clear weak link on the field last year, the Bronx worst regular starter, but off it, he was a culture leader and a proven winner.
His edge defence can be upgraded upon, but filling his spot in the sheds might be a lot more challenging.
Last and probably least, Keenan Palasia out the door, moving to the Titans in the hope of more than a bench role.
Had things worked the other way around with Capewell, Brisbane might have been able to keep their man and offer him more, but them’s the brakes.
Either way, that’s four from their starting 17 of last year who are gone and only one in externally to replace. On paper, Brisbane are weaker, but could be stronger if their young guys work out.
Key spots to unlock?
With Brisbane, it’s not so much unlocking spots as picking and sticking. Without Flegler and Farnworth, two key cogs in the machine are gone, plus the back row spot that, underwhelming or not, Capewell filled for all but a handful of games last year.
They’ll promote from within for two of them, with Piakura likely getting first crack at the edge forward role and Mariner slotting in where Farnworth left, but the middle rotation hole is a little more complex.
They could just keep as is, move Corey Jensen to start and use a Hass +1 approach with the other guys, but there’s potential to box a little more clever and get more from their big two guys.
Carrigan is a lock who plays like a middle a lot of the time and the temptation will be simply to put a 10 on his back rather than 13 and give longer minutes to Kobe Hetherington, who was down at just 30 per game last year but is surely capable of more.
Doing so would allow for a much more impactful bench, with potentially three middles able to rotate around Haas and Carrigan in Martin Taupau, Jensen and new signing Baker, or even for a more flexible option with two of those middles plus Corey Oates as a combination backline/backrow option.
Whatever happens, Kevvie needs to be consistent with it. Guys like Flegler and Farnworth got good because they were given time, and the blokes coming through – Piakura and Xavier Willison, if he features – are on fewer than 20 NRL appearances.
Last year, the Bronx could dominate by having three rep-level middles, two of whom played huge minutes, meaning that they almost always had two out there.
Now, they have to either ask players with 50+ games to become as good as Flegler – which seems unlikely – or give younger guys a solid crack at going to the next level.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Reece Walsh
2 Selwyn Cobbo
3 Kotoni Staggs
4 Deine Mariner
5 Jesse Arthars
6 Ezra Mam
7 Adam Reynolds
8 Payne Haas
9 Billy Walters
10 Pat Carrigan
11 Brendan Piakura
12 Jordan Riki
13 Kobe Hetherington
14 Tyson Smoothy
15 Martin Taupau
16 Fletcher Baker
17 Corey Jensen
Other squad members: Jock Madden, Tristan Sailor, Cory Paix, Blake Mozer, Jordan Pereira, Corey Oates, Delouise Hoeter, Benjamin Te Kura, Jaiyden Hunt, Xavier Willison
Development players: Cobe Black, Josh Rogers, Israel Leota