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They say a week can be a long time in footy.
Well, for the Brisbane Broncos, that may have certainly been the case.
The Broncos entered their clash against the North Queensland Cowboys off the back of a week of criticism following their dismal season-opening loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons, in which their new-look halves pairing of Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima failed to fire so much of a shot.
The decision by coach Wayne Bennett to start Sam Thaiday at hooker ahead of regular number nine Andrew McCullough was also questionable, and to some, laughable.
Their signing of controversial forward Matthew Lodge also became a huge talking point given the family he terrorised in New York in October 2015 are yet to be fully compensated for his violent rampage three years ago.
Captain Darius Boyd said the 34-12 loss to the Dragons was “un-Bronco-like”, with the players made to sweat it out during a training session in the lead-up to their first home game of the season against the Cowboys.
By way of that training session, coach Bennett put the onus on his side to bounce back against their northern rivals, which they did after overcoming a slow start to post a 24-20 victory and register their first win for the season, breathing life back into the club’s premiership chances in the process.
And it’s fair to say that the club has two things to thank – young prop Tevita Pangai Junior and the right-side goalpost – both of which combined to prevent a certain try to Cowboys forward Scott Bolton in the dying minutes.
With the Cowboys trailing 24-20 with less than two minutes left, Bolton received an inside pass from Johnathan Thurston and was certain to score underneath the posts to give the Cowboys what would have been a 26-24 victory (assuming Thurston would have been successful with the conversion).
However, in what could go down as the biggest play of the Broncos’ season, prop Pangai Junior lunged from behind to send Bolton crashing into the padding of the right-side goalpost, forcing an error in the process and giving his side possession with 90 seconds remaining.
— NRL (@NRL) March 16, 2018
Earlier, the Broncos fell behind 8-0 and lost centre Jordan Kahu to a jaw injury (which has ruled him out for up to six weeks), and it appeared as though they would be heading for another soul-crushing defeat.
However, Pangai Junior would score their first try of the night with 20 minutes gone, sparking a run of 18 unanswered points which would see them take an 18-8 lead into halftime.
But the Cowboys refused to surrender, and when Jake Granville scored with less than ten minutes left, it was game on.
Recent clashes between the Broncos and Cowboys, including the golden point grand final thriller of 2015, have been very close and it was therefore no surprise that another grandstand finish was on the cards.
Eventually, the Broncos held on to bank their first win for the season, putting to rest a week of criticism that followed their embarrassing loss to the Dragons, rated by many as one of the club’s worst performances under coach Wayne Bennett for a while.
But if recent seasons are anything to go by, then that huge loss at Kogarah Oval last week might be the spark the club needs if it is to break what is currently their longest premiership drought.
In particular, I want to focus on their 2006 and 2015 seasons, which started disastrously for the Broncos but ended with their two most recent grand final appearances to date.
In the opening round of the 2006 season, the Broncos copped a 36-4 thrashing by the Cowboys at home (to date, it remains their worst ever defeat against their northern cousins), but only the New Zealand Warriors’ salary cap breach in which it was docked four premiership points at the start of that season prevented the Broncos from finishing the round in last place.
They were to suffer eleven losses (including one final) in 2006; as we are about to find out, it would be the most by a premiership-winning side in NRL history.
Among the losses were those to the Cowboys (for a second time, in Round 20), eventual wooden spooners the Rabbitohs (in which the Broncos were missing key players to Origin commitments) and to a second-string Wests Tigers side, who were missing key players, at home.
They also suffered a hat-trick of losses to the St George Illawarra Dragons, including in the qualifying final at Suncorp Stadium by 20-4, which extended the Broncos’ winless streak in finals to seven dating back to 2002.
However, the Broncos would then win their next three finals to march to their sixth premiership flag, culminating in a win over a Melbourne Storm side which no-one knew were illegally over the salary cap at the time.
In mid-2014, it was announced that Wayne Bennett would return to the club following his recent flings with the Dragons and Newcastle Knights, and his return to Red Hill in 2015 would spark high expectations for the club.
The super coach would receive a rude homecoming as his side copped a 36-6 thrashing by reigning premiers the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who were starting to slowly regress following their 2014 premiership triumph; this result saw the Broncos finish Round 1 in last place on the ladder.
However, the Broncos would win 15 of their next 17 matches to claim the top spot on the ladder, before losing four of their last six regular-season matches to settle for second place behind the Sydney Roosters.
They would then win their two finals matches, against the Cowboys (in golden point extra time) and the Roosters, to advance to their seventh grand final, where the Cowboys would await in what would be the first ever all-Queensland grand final in NRL history.
The Broncos looked set to break their premiership drought when it led by 16-12 in the final minute, only for the Cowboys’ Kyle Feldt to score a miraculous try in the corner in the dying seconds to level the scores.
The missed conversion from Johnathan Thurston would prove a let-off for the Broncos, and for the first time since 1989, extra time would be utilised in the grand final.
But extra time would then get off to the worst possible start for the Broncos when Ben Hunt knocked on from the kick-off, and when Thurston kicked the premiership-winning field goal for the Cowboys, the Broncos were left to taste their first defeat in seven grand final appearances.
Back on topic now, and while the Broncos will look forward to next Friday night’s clash against the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium with confidence, no one will be fired up to face them more than forward Matthew Lodge, who played 12 games for the club between 2014 and 2015.
Lodge was only 20 when he went on the aforementioned drunken rampage in New York, threatening a female tourist before threatening a family who to this day continue to be haunted by his very actions.
The Tigers wasted little time in terminating his contract and he would spend the next two years in the NRL wilderness before re-emerging with the Broncos for this season.
The NRL has been criticised for allowing Lodge to re-enter the game while his victims have yet to be fully compensated for his actions. It also comes as they have yet to give Todd Carney the green light to return, the former NSW Origin five-eighth having previously been sacked by three clubs in the past.
Given the reception Lodge copped in the Broncos’ Round 1 loss to the Dragons at Kogarah Oval, it wouldn’t be surprising if he is again booed and/or jeered when the Broncos step foot onto Campbelltown Stadium for the first time since 2014 next Friday night.
As far as on-field matters are concerned, the Tigers side the Broncos will face will be a vastly different one to the side they thrashed 36-0 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 11 last year.
They’ll also be facing former player Benji Marshall, who is back at the Tigers after his one-year stint at Red Hill in which he helped to mentor the Broncos’ halves both on and off the field.
A win will put the Broncos’ season into the black and with clashes against expected non-finalists the Titans, Knights, Warriors, Rabbitohs, Bulldogs and Sea Eagles to come before their Round 13 bye, this would set them up well for a shot at a seventh premiership title.
And who knows, two things – the desperate efforts of forward Tevita Pangai Junior and the padding of the southern right-side goalpost at Suncorp Stadium – could prove to be their saviours in retrospect if they go on to break their longest ever premiership drought and lift their seventh NRL title on September 30.