As the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Sydney Roosters prepare for a possible collision course in this year’s grand final, spare a thought for two fallen powerhouses: the Brisbane Broncos and St. George Illawarra Dragons.
Last week I wrote an article about the downfall of the Dragons in the years following their long-awaited and well-deserved premiership in 2010.
The club has suffered from consistently poor performances since that premiership.
Since then the club saw Wayne Bennett’s departure, as well as the retirements of club legends Mark Gasnier and Ben Hornby, and the departures of Darius Boyd and Jamie Soward, both of whom were instrumental in anchoring the Dragons’ success under Bennett during his three-year reign, followed.
Those untimely events, although inevitable, have seen the Dragons lose so much experience and success which Wayne Bennett instilled into the club when he took over from Nathan Brown at the end of the 2008 season.
Brown, for his part, was a successful coach, though he was never able to take the Dragons to the premiership with the squad which he had at the time.
Now, the Dragons are severely inexperienced in the playing ranks, are coached by a dead man walking in Steve Price, and sit second last on the ladder.
But the Dragons are not going at it all alone.
Another team suffering from the effects of a very successful era are the Brisbane Broncos.
Like the Dragons before them, the Broncos enjoyed a very successful era which spawned six premierships from six grand final appearances and also the best coach and player in the NRL, if not in the entire game, Wayne Bennett and Darren Lockyer.
They were also responsible for the upbringing of some of the biggest names in rugby league, such as Wally Lewis, Allan Langer, Kevin Walters, Shane Webcke, Petero Civoniceva, Gorden Tallis and more recently Karmichael Hunt, Darius Boyd, Sam Thaiday and Justin Hodges.
Throughout their history, the Broncos had become world beaters, to the point that a few clubs were forced to fold at the end of the 1998 season due to the Queensland club’s relentless dominance of the competition.
Wayne Bennett had been the club’s coach from day one, until he left the club at the end of 2008 to coach the St. George Illawarra Dragons for three years.
Bennett then left the control of the club to Ivan Henjak, who became just their second coach in the club’s proud and rich history. After the Broncos failed to reach the finals in 2010 (their first absence from the play-offs since 1991), Henjak was sacked as coach and replaced by the current incumbent, Anthony Griffin.
As Henjak did in his first year coaching the Broncos, Griffin led the club to within one game of the decider in 2011, falling to eventual premiers the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
And after finishing eighth last year, the club now appears destined for only its second absence from the play-offs since 1991. Reports, though, suggest that Griffin should see out at least the end of this year.
Darren Lockyer, for his part, broke the NRL games record (355) during a playing career which lasted sixteen years between 1995 and 2011, but it wasn’t until 2005 when he took control of the club on the field, leading them, in tandem with Bennett, to the 2006 premiership in what was a dominant year for Lockyer himself.
He also led his state to its first outright State of Origin series victory since 2001 and the Tri-Nations series that year.
Since then, the Broncos have not returned to another grand final and are currently enduring the club’s longest premiership drought, which is six completed years and counting.
Following their narrow loss to the Sharks over the weekend, which followed a 32-0 shutout at the hands of the Melbourne Storm, the once-dominant club will finish Round 18 third-last on the ladder, just ahead of the Dragons.
Thankfully, the Broncos do have a bye this coming round, which would allow them to recharge their batteries and hopefully try to salvage something from what is set to become their worst ever season in the final seven rounds.
After the bye, the Broncos face the Cowboys, Knights, Dragons, Eels, Panthers and the Knights before they wrap up their regular season (and very likely their season) against the Bulldogs at home.
The home match against the Dragons in Round 22 will be worth watching, even though both teams are currently languishing at the bottom of the ladder.
In the past, matches between the Broncos and Dragons would be the must-watch match of the round, as both teams not only bring out the best that they can, but also spawn a rivalry which dates back to the Broncos’ first two premierships won against the Red V in 1992 and 1993.
After the second premiership, Allan Langer taunted the Dragons, who were then in its un-merged state as St. George, by urging Broncos fans to chant that “St. George can’t play”.
Then, at the turn of the century, the Dragons started to dominate the Broncos on a regular basis.
Very notably, in the final round of the 2003 season, a virtual second-string Dragons side missing the likes of Trent Barrett, Mark Gasnier, Matt Cooper, and a host of others through injury, famously defeated the Broncos 26-25 at Suncorp Stadium with Mark Riddell kicking a late penalty goal from very far out wide.
The height of this rivalry came in the 2006 season, when the Dragons scored three victories over the Broncos – including in the first round of the finals series, from which the Broncos would eventually rebound to win the premiership.
The hat-trick of victories by the Dragons that year was part of an eight-match winning streak which the club would enjoy over the Broncos – the longest by any club over the Queenslanders.
But now, the long periods of success in which both teams have experienced in the past two decades have all but diminished, and flash forward to 2013, both teams find themselves in rebuilding mode.
The Broncos have already gotten the better of the Dragons this year, winning 22-6 back in Round 2 at WIN Stadium.
The Dragons’ need to rebuild was brutally exposed in that match, and they also had a few tries disallowed on that Friday night back in March.
What would have been a battle of the heavyweights in past years will, by the time these two clubs meet in less than a month from now, instead become a battle of the fallen powerhouses, given the experience both clubs have lost in the last couple of years.
As for the future years – which club will be quicker to return to the finals? And which coach out of Anthony Griffin and Steve Price will not oversee their club’s rebuilding process?