Don't Hit The Panic Button Yet
by Chris Cox by
Tuesday March 25, 2003

Many a Bronco fan have not been backward in coming forward to offer their two cents worth about what's wrong with the five-time premiers since their lucky escape from the clutches of South Sydney last Sunday.  But hitting the panic button is something coach Wayne Bennett rarely does, and certainly not after remaining unbeaten after two rounds.

Admittedly the Broncos' triumphs so far have been less than convincing, with a four-point victory over Penrith courtesy of the clock more than any particular Bronco brilliance, and a two-point miracle escape against the hapless Bunnies.  But would supporters of any other team in the league be petrified by a two-from-two start to a premiership campaign?  That's merely testament to the quality of Brisbane's 11-year long reign at the top.

Bennett has, for much of his now 400-game first grade coaching career, stuck by the principle of not changing a winning team, and that principle most certainly should remain intact at this point in time.  However, there are issues in the team's performance he's certain to be working on.

The most talked about since Allan Langer's first shock retirement in April 1999, is the halves situation.  It's a fact that the Broncos have not had a reliable, potent, successful halves combination since the Langer-Walters combination was permanently broken four years ago.

Of those that have appeared since, the Walters-Ikin combination, which guided the Broncos to their last premiership in 2000 after both players overcame horrific injury problems early in the season, has been the most successful.  Ikin took his performances a step further early in 2001, directing the Broncos around the park with precision and confidence, his long kicking and passing games working superbly, most famously engineering a 42-8 thumping of eventual premiers Newcastle at ANZ Stadium.  However, his contribution was tragically cut short when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament the following week.

Many a fan has been quick to suggest he needs to be dropped after a less than auspicious outing at Aussie Stadium at the weekend.  Let's remember that he's only played two premiership matches in the past two years.  His form in the trials, and against Penrith, was solid without being spectacular, but it's insane to expect anything outrageous from him this early in his comeback.  He is steadily regaining his confidence and match fitness however, and given time he will almost certainly return to the form of late 2000, early 2001 which saw him touted as a certain State of Origin candidate, and even a possibility for Test selection.

His halves partner, Shaun Berrigan, has also received many of the question marks after a performance that by his standards was appalling at the weekend.  But he too is readjusting to playing halfback.  He made the position his own early in 2001 before he suffered a serious shoulder injury that ruled him out for the majority of the season.  Brisbane's campaign ended not long after his return - and was well on the way downhill before he was back on the field - and then he was shifted wide and became Langer's offsider as the champion halfback made his well publicised NRL comeback last year.

Berrigan hasn't been in the best of form so far, including his trial games, but while Scott Prince is still weeks away from starting his comeback from consecutive broken legs, and youngster Brett Seymour is seemingly engulfed with second season syndrome with underwhelming performances for Toowoomba Clydesdales, there is no alternative at this stage.  Casey McGuire has been mentioned in some discussions, but he lacks the individual brilliance that Berrigan is capable of.  McGuire is a very capable player, as he's shown with numerous appearances off the bench either in the centres or at dummyhalf.

Others have called for yet another backline reshuffle, usually started with a call for Stuart Kelly to be dropped.  The much-maligned Kelly has not had the happiest of times since transferring north from Parramatta in 2001, and by his own admission his first year in Broncos colours was awful.  However, while he received next to no recognition for his efforts in 2002, he played in all but two of Brisbane's games and was a valuable contributor, usually off the bench.  His form in the trials in 2003 was outstanding and he has done little wrong in either of the matches against Penrith or South Sydney.  His only crime has been to emulate Wendell Sailor, who made being caught out of position in defence his trademark - a trademark he is transferring beautifully to his Rugby Union career.  Kelly's speed and footwork will prove valuable as the season wears on, and while Craig Frawley impressed with a four try haul against Ipswich for Toowoomba in the opening round of the season, it's a bit much to pressure a youngster who has effectively missed three seasons of football with injury to take over a full time wing position.

Other alternatives are also slim pickings.  Steve Irwin, who scored four tries from three appearances in 2002, is out with a shoulder injury and Scott Minto who has been strong for Toowoomba so far has his own niggling injury concerns.  Minto, tall, rangy and one of the quickest players in the club is almost certain to control a wing position down the track and he will see game time in 2003, but Kelly's experience is important at this stage.

Michael De Vere's involvement has improved early this season, Brent Tate has been outstanding, Darren Lockyer is, well, Darren Lockyer and Tonie Carroll has been solid if not spectacular on his return from the English Super League.

But there's one thing for certain about Brisbane's performances so far - neither of them can be attributed to the halves or backs.  It's in the forwards where the Broncos have been less than intimidating - and that was their problem late in 2002, and certainly at the end of 2001.  Many of the players seem to expect their reputation to force their opponents to cowar in terror, but it just won't happen.

Shane Webcke, who missed the trials with a calf strain and then suffered with the flu in the lead up to round 2, has been well below his best.  Petero Civoniceva also battled illness late in the offseason and has lacked the fire that gained him representative honours in 2001.  Gorden Tallis put aside his neanderthal side shown against Penrith and inspired his teammates with a superlative effort against South Sydney - in fact he was without doubt the only thing that kept the Broncos in the game.  Brad Meyers has started reasonably strongly in his quest to regain his credibility after a wretched 18 months battling his own demons more than anything else. 

Corey Parker has been strong, continuing where he left off last year, Andrew Gee has contributed off the bench and helped spark the Brisbane revival last Sunday and Dane Carlaw has contributed at times.  Phil Lee has been quiet, but he's really done little to attract attention since he returned from his own consecutive knee injuries last year.  He has the ability to offload but he seemingly hasn't learnt the best time to attempt it, often presenting cheap possession to the opposition.

Individually the entire pack has been there or thereabouts.  So why have they been so dominated over the past fortnight?  Two reasons.  The first, and most critical, enthusiasm.  Apart from Tallis, none of the forwards has seemed to play with any particular passion or desire.  That's a worry this early in a new season, but it's something that may well fix itself as early as this weekend when the Broncos take on a premiership contender in the Sharks.  The second reason is that while all the forwards have done something, they never seem to do it at the same time! If one player makes a half bust, or a big hit, his partners in crime don't turn up on the next play to follow on the momentum.  As a result the Broncos fail to get on the devastating roll that they became renowned for during their premiership campaigns of 1997, 1998 and 2000.

Then there's Richard Swain.  A new member of the maroon and gold, but one with a sterling pedigree - unprecedented consistent service at Melbourne Storm and a New Zealand Test player who was arguably the best player during the Kiwis' 1-all series draw with Great Britain in the UK last year.  He's a player that doesn't attract attention to himself on the field, but when you look at his stats at the end of the game most of the time you are blown away.

His performance against South Sydney was definitely in that category.  He made 39 tackles during that performance - 12 more than any other player.  And he was carrying the same virus that all but rendered Webcke useless.  More importantly, his service out of dummyhalf was crisp, and he allowed his forward teammates to go forward despite having no real vigour in their running.  Swain's dependability is the X-factor the Broncos so desperately need this season.

All in all, while Brisbane's performances so far have been a C+ at best, there's no need to panic just yet.  The Broncos have this incredible habit of coming out a week after a widely criticised performance and blowing their next opponent away.  The Sharks are on the menu at ANZ Stadium this Sunday, the first home game of the year.  Brett Kimmorley.  Jason Stevens.  David Peachey.  A team full of talent, experience and a team many think will be there or thereabouts come Grand Final time.

Don't be surprised if that challenge alone wakes up the sleeping Broncos giant.  If it does, the discussions of the past week will be long forgotten.

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