After a mediocre season and an abysmal conclusion, the pressure is on for Anthony Seibold to deliver at the Broncos.
Despite the hype over the changes Seibold would bring to the club, many of the issues with the Wayne Bennett-coached Broncos that began to appear in the 2018 season were never addressed. This article will tackle the issues with how the Broncos play and the proposed changes Seibold must make in 2020.
1. Defensive structure
The Broncos, following Bennett’s long held approach to goal-line defence, have stubbornly committed to a passive sliding defence for decades. While this structure has worked against strategically less developed attacks of yesteryear, the way the Broncos defend on the goal-line simply does not hold against the top attacks in the competition.
The theory of sliding goal-line defence is simple. Players will each slide outwards working hard on the inside to cover each other’s inside shoulder, corralling the attack out to the flanks and using the sideline as an extra defender. The fullback will stay in the line in order to try make overlaps even more difficult for the attack to create.
While this sounds great in theory, this approach to goal-line defence is absolutely abhorrent in the modern NRL against top attacks. I will not go into too much detail as this is a large topic.
But generally, why does the Broncos’ goal-line defence fall apart? Here are some reasons.
It is too predictable. Teams know that the Broncos will always slide, so teams are able to perfect their timing and lines to pull the defence apart. The attack is never rushed and is able to run all their shapes at maximum tempo with perfect timing.
The fullback staying in the line means the defence cannot comfortably rush off the goal-line in fear of the grubber behind. This means the attack is able to hit the defensive line much closer to the try line, accentuating the effectiveness of decoys, which further pulls the defence apart.
The Broncos do not aggressively trap the ball either, meaning the defence just has too many options to worry about. Furthermore, the fullback defending in the line, whether it be Anthony Milford or Darius Boyd, is often just used as an excuse by the player to be lazy and not clean up after kicks. You will often notice Milford or Boyd slotting into marker and making a pathetic gesture for the defence to spread out. However, often there will still only be four players either side of the posts, meaning no advantage in lengthening the defensive line is gained.
Teams can fake the grubber, and the Broncos three-in defender and winger knowing the fullback is not there to clean up will often start doubling back in fear of the kick, meaning when teams then proceed to run the ball, the defence is in complete disarray.
The structure allows the attack to easily force goal-line drop-outs. The sliding defence and fullback in the line make it extremely easy to put a well timed grubber behind. With the weight of possession, the defence will eventually break and be tired from defending set after set to boot.
The fix? Generally sliding in defence, but edges will need to learn to on occasion and as a coordinated unit, randomly rush up one player in. Fullback should accordingly sweep to cover the grubber as the defensive line rushes up and inside players should work hard to cover the Harbour Bridge pass to the unmarked winger.
If the attack is good enough to send a flat and at speed cut out ball to the winger fast enough that the defence cannot scramble from the inside, then hats off to them. Conceding a try like this is far more preferable than the attack just running through your disjointed edge. This strategy is precisely how top defences like the Storm and Roosters defend.
It is important to think of defence in the NRL not as strictly whether or not you conceded a try or not. Just because you stopped a try doesn’t mean you necessarily defended well and just because you allowed a try doesn’t mean you defended poorly.
Instead of focusing on the result, defence must be approached through the prism of focusing on how well you defended. This concept becomes much more intuitive in a sport with high scoring, such as basketball. The goal of basketball defences is not to hold the opposition to zero, but to make them take as an inefficient shot as possible. If you hold the attack to shoot or score inefficiently, while scoring efficiently on the other end yourself, you will stand to win the game more often than not.
This is why sometimes when you watch a team like the Storm where an edge will seemingly for no reason rush up on the opposition, who then scores with a big cut out pass, that is okay. By rushing up despite no overlap occurring, you will occasionally concede a try that would otherwise not likely have happened if you had slid defensively.
However, having a defence that will occasionally and randomly jam in on the opposition will prevent the attack from comfortably running through their structures every time and will reduce how often you concede a try overall, though perhaps not in that particular instance.
NRL at the highest level currently sees defences working extremely hard from the inside and rushing in on the edges, putting pressure on the attack. We see this in Origin and finals consistently. This work rate might not be sustainable throughout an entire regular season however, which is why I suggest to generally slide defensively, but occasionally jam in to ensure that you are not too predictable.
2. Lack of support play
The Broncos are the laziest team in the competition when it comes to supporting the ball carrier. Despite being blessed with numerous players with strong ball running, the Broncos constantly fail to convert clean line breaks into tries.
Unlike top support teams such as the Roosters, Manly, Storm and Eels who routinely convert half breaks into six points, the Broncos’ spine is either too lazy or too slow to capitalise on the individual brilliance of its ball runners. Instead, the likes of Payne Haas and David Fifita, if they were to score long-range tries, must do so completely on their own whereas at any other club they would have support screaming down either shoulder.
The lack of support play isn’t just confined to supporting line breaks, however. During metre-gaining sets, no club in the competition utilises one-out hit-ups as much as the Broncos do. While this does reduce errors coming out of your own half, it also makes it painfully obvious to anyone watching who will take the next hit-up.
Teams will then load up defensively, making the hit-up and subsequent tackles substantially harder for the Broncos forward pack to win. Every set after a kick-off reception is the same. Catch, Matt Lodge hit-up, blind side second-row run, Haas hit-up, lock hit-up, whoever else wants to run into four awaiting defenders, Milford bomb.
It’s almost as if the team has agreed beforehand on how to divide up touches so each forward can gain their running metre statistics. Now, this is something I know Seibold has focused on, mentioning numerous times about the forwards “push support” in press conferences. Some games the team will make a special effort, presumably because it’s the focus of the week, before eventually a fortnight later disregarding it and reverting back to the old system.
Given the amount of strike in the forward pack, running some simple decoys and just making yourself a viable option as recipient of the ball to spread the defence out will create one-on-one tackles, which Haas, Lodge, Tevita Pangai Jr and Fifita will feast on. Expending that little bit of energy to run a decoy or a simple ruck play will easily pay off by making following tackles easier to win.
3. Attacking set plays
Just like how defences have revolutionised as the game as changed, the best attacks in the NRL have also transformed their structures. However, under Bennett’s leadership, the Broncos had not changed how they attacked the goal-line. The default set play the Broncos have run forever must be familiar to all footy fans.
It is a second-rower running a decoy at the inside shoulder of three-in defender, fullback sweeping around the back with centre and winger trailing along. The idea is to isolate the three-in defender, who is typically the half and poorer defensively. You put the three-in defender in the difficult situation of having to defend the big second-rower running a line at his inside shoulder while a fast speedy fullback is wrapping around on his outside. This dilemma breaks down defences, causing the defensive centre and winger to jam in and a skilled ball-playing fullback to serve up tries to his outside men.
For the best part of a decade, this play was Darius Boyd’s bread and butter. While never being supremely fast, he abused poorly coached edges, who would always chew in while he threw his textbook cut-out pass to the unmarked winger. Why has this play failed Boyd as he has declined with age?
I’m sure anyone familiar with basketball knows about the rather simple concept of spacing. Even if you do not watch the NBA at all, I’m sure you have heard about Ben Simmons and his inability to hit threes. Why is Simmons’ lack of a jump shot an issue? Well, as he cannot/will not hit jump shots at an above league-average efficiency, teams can afford to not guard him far from the rim.
In doing so, this makes it much harder for Simmons to blow past his defender and therefore collapse the defence and force rotations and the open man. In basketball, your ability to shoot opens up the lane, and your ability to drive helps give you open jump shots. This dual threat makes a player so much harder to guard.
The exact same concept applies to the NRL and especially to modern fullbacks in attack. Modern attacks require a fullback with both the combination of speed and ball-playing to pull defences apart. Without both skill sets, defences can sag off in one area and bolster their defence in the other. If your fullback is fast and a strong ball-runner but cannot ball-play, outside defenders can comfortably just sag in without fear of the pass.
If your fullback can ball-play but isn’t an elite athlete, edges can stay out and trust their man to recover and effect the tackle. As teams have begun to learn that Boyd’s only strong skill set in attack is his pass, they have learnt to stay out as an edge, completely nullifying the Broncos’ attack.
Cue the excitement for Seibold coming to the Broncos in 2019. In 2018, Seibold revolutionised how the Rabbitohs structured their attack. Without a fullback known for ball-playing in Alex Johnston and a huge centre in Greg Inglis, the Rabbitohs would – instead of using the second-rower to run a decoy – have attacking formations with Inglis also running a crash line at the inside shoulder of the two-in defender. This play was much more effective than the typical second-rower decoy for numerous reasons and led to the Rabbitohs having one of the best attacks in the league.
NRL attacks typically targeted the three-in defender, this led to an overcompensation/tendency by the two-in defender to help by biting in. Centre decoy plays exploited this inefficiency.
It is harder to rush up against a centre decoy play. The centre running a decoy basically holds the defence up, whereas in a second-rower decoy play it would be obvious for the centre to rush in on the sweeping fullback with the winger jamming in on the attacking centre. Essentially shifting the play wider, teams have not learnt how to shut it down.
Centres themselves are very caught up on marking man on man, as the opposite centre is typically their assignment in defence. In the Rabbitohs’ attacking formation, the defensive centre’s assignment now becomes the sweeping fullback instead. This results in consistent two-on-one overlaps as the centre has incorrectly come in on the wrong person.
Shifting the attack wider targeting the two-in instead of the three-in means that when an overlap is created, it creates a two-on-one and not a three-on-two. A two-on-one is much easier to execute and means overlaps are converted into tries with greater efficiency. This structural change helps around the problem of not having a world-class ball-playing fullback.
We saw glimpses of this attacking formation in the 2019 season by the Broncos. However, it was used too seldomly and almost always ran incorrectly. Centres wouldn’t be hitting their line at speed or at the right time, players would get into each other’s way, wingers wouldn’t time their runs properly. None of the execution we saw from the Rabbitohs’ masterful 2018 attack was on display with the Broncos. Whether this was players not buying in or Seibold not drilling the play down, we have no way of knowing. The constant rotation of edges and injuries certainly did not help.
While this Rabbitohs style of attack was somewhat nullified during their 2018 finals run, the structure allows for plenty of permutations that would prevents defences from specifically targeting any part of the formation. The left-edge combination of Corey Oates, Jack Bird, Jamayne Isaako, Pangai and Milford can be absolutely lethal. Looking at how the Storm use Kenny Bromwich’s ball-playing, the Broncos can similarly weaponise Tevita Pangai’s passing and offloading to add an additional wrinkle to the wide array of potential set plays the centre decoy structure can allow.
This is in firm contrast to the only real set play we saw Seibold introduce at the Broncos in 2019: Corey Oates coming in from the left wing and running this huge arcing line on the right-hand side. Broncos fans and anybody who remembered the Maroons’ first set play in Origin 1 should remember this play.
The right edge would be completely overloaded with attack, trying to pull the defence out wider and thinner. Oates would come screaming from the left edge to the outside shoulder of the three-in defender with the ball-playing taking the ball into the line. While this play enjoyed success at first, it is at best a gimmick that cannot be relied on consistently to produce results.
Firstly, with Oates rushing in from his wing, the play is extremely telegraphed to the defence. Secondly, unlike a structure that can be relied upon, it does not have multiple permutations. As the right-hand side becomes completely overloaded with attacking players, the ball-player’s decision becomes too complicated. No one else is running meaningful lines and too many players makes it too difficult for the ball-player to select the right decision.
Thirdly, this play takes forever to set up for and if it does not work, takes forever to get back to the original position. The Oates set play is at best a cheesy gimmick that you pull out in one time in an elimination game, not some structure that is relied on to consistently score tries. Sadly, this was one of the only attacking innovations we saw from the Broncos in the entire 2019 season.
The Broncos’ attacking structure in 2019 became too predictable and archaic for the modern NRL. Unlike teams that struggle in attack due to having weak ball-runners like the Titans or the Bulldogs in 2019, the Broncos struggled due to abysmal coaching. It is difficult to recall any tries that were created from an attacking structure that outsmarted the defence. Almost all points scored were from individual brilliance or ad lib from a tackle break/offload. The Broncos looked more likely to score a try from 50 metres out than attacking at the opponent’s goal-line, and this has to change in 2020.
4. Mental fortitude
When it rains, it pours for the Broncos. You will rarely see a team that gives up as much as the Broncos team when they concede an early two or three-try deficit. There really isn’t an easy fix for this, but Seibold can’t allow his team to just throw in the towel when things look bleak.
Looking ahead to the 2020 season, both the structures in defence and attack must change for Broncos to have a chance at success in September. Similarly, Seibold must fix the issues with support play and the team’s mental toughness. This team has the personnel to seriously challenge for the premiership, but will we see the changes necessary from a coaching perspective?