It’s November 2000, a cold night in Huddersfield and the Kangaroos are in town. The all-conquering Australians, featuring the likes of Darren Lockyer, Brad Fittler and Gorden Tallis, are taking on Wales for a place in the World Cup Final.
Things are going as expected. The favourites score twice, through Brett Kimmorley and Wendell Sailor – but then, something very strange happens.
Wales score. Then they score again. And again. This isn’t in the script. There’s one bloke at the heart of it all, a young five eighth by the name of Lee Briers, who sets up the second and scores the third, leaping high above Lockyer to put the Dragons 18-8 up.
As if to rub it in, Briers drops a goal. Moments later, he does it again. The Kangaroos trail 20-8 to a mix of Super League talent and part-time footballers, and we are in rugby league bizarro world.
Of course, it could not stand. The Kangaroos eventually overwhelmed Wales and went on the win the World Cup, but they had received a fright they would never forget. It would have made them remember the name of the Welsh number 6.
23 years on and the Australians are still finding out what Briers can do. The Warrington legend, now 45, has been running the attack at the Broncos since the start of the year, and has transformed Brisbane from the ninth best offense in the NRL to the second best, with 24 more tries scored and, of course, a commensurate rise up the ladder that has seen the club finish in the top two.
Speaking to The Roar, Briers is humble about his role in the improvement, though it is clear that he has been the secret weapon that head coach Kevin Walters has used to propel his side into contention for the 2023 Premiership.
“Looking from afar, you could always see the quality of the squad,” he said. “It was just about making sure that they got a bit more experience. These guys have been together for a long time, coming through the juniors together a lot of them, and now making first grade.
“The potential has always been there and it’s just about harnessing that. Kev has some really good coaching staff around and we just guide them in their way. These guys are super athletes, they probably just needed some guidance.
“It’s been an awesome year so far. Did we envisage going this well? Obviously, you always want to go this well but it’s probably took everybody by surprise. It’s a fantastic group to work with.
“When you’ve got players in the ilk of Adam Reynolds, Reece Walsh, Payne Haas and Patty Carrigan, it makes my job easier.
“I just had to come in, guide them and give them a bit of structure. I work a lot with Adam and we think the same, so he’s the extension of all the coaches on the field.
“We’ve put a bit of structure into the boys and given them the confidence to play. We want them to express themselves and that’s a big part of my coaching.
“These guys are super football players, we don’t want to be robots. We want them to enjoy playing together and have confidence to go make the play. That’s what we’ve been doing so far and hopefully we can carry on with that.”
Briers was the perfect person to tap to add the polish to the Broncos – not least because he, more than most, knows how to get the best out of the best players.
Across over 400 games for Warrington, Briers was often the best player in a less-than-brilliant side – they missed the finals for his first six years and finished fourth, once, in his first 12 – and, for a long time, it was said that one could stand behind the posts at Wilderspool, their dilapidated old stadium, and predict what the attack would do by following the 6 jumper.
The half was tasked with running the game, calling the plays, doing all the kicking and thinking several steps ahead, a mini-coach on the field.
That isn’t to say he hasn’t had the chance to pick up wisdom along the way.
That Wales spine had Kieron Cunningham and Iestyn Harris, two of the best playmakers of their generation, plus Ian Watson, now one of the most respected coaches in Super League at halfback, while his Wire halves partners included the likes of Allan Langer and, for a short time, Andrew Johns.
It’s prepared him well to give tailored, useful messaging to Reynolds – and to tell everyone else when to get out of the way.
“Adam has played thousands of games,” said Briers. “He knows how to play, but it’s probably more about getting those around him to understand the game a bit better so it makes his job easier.
“He’s picking the right time to get the ball, but when he gets it, everybody else is in the right place to receive it. Probably in the past, it’s the other people that haven’t understood as well as Adam, then it doesn’t go as well.
“So if everybody else understands their role, Adam can pick and choose where he goes, and there’s nobody better in the competition at that.
“Adam can stay behind the ruck and pick his time to come or he can be flat. The best players go in and out and point where to go – he’s certainly one of those.
“You give details to people who need detail and you don’t give detail to people who don’t need details. It’s as simple as that. Rugby league is a simple game that has been made harder. My way of coaching is to keep it simple: be punchy, messaging to the right people at the right time.
“The people who don’t need to know the detail don’t get told any, they just get told where to be. But we 100% make sure that everybody knows their job and role. If they know that, there’s no confusion.”
Briers’ arrival from Wigan was a stunning piece of business by the Broncos hierarchy, with his English club posting the best attacking numbers in the Super League last year.
The Warriors averaged the most line breaks in 2022, just ahead of St Helens, with almost a try a game more than anyone else in the comp.
Wigan made a line break every 21 play the balls, with Saints on 23 and the next best Salford on 24. When they got the ball, they attacked with it constantly.
Notably, they did so laterally: their pass per run ratio was the highest in Super League – Saints were among the lowest – suggesting a willingness, backed by the eye test, to go early when the opportunity arose.
They were also one of just two sides who favoured the right to the left, running against the grain of rugby league in general, in which predominantly right-handed playmakers invariably move the ball towards the left wing.
In 2022, the Broncos were right in the middle of the pack, but now they are first, on 23. That improvement isn’t the only area where a similarity can be found.
Wigan’s biggest weapon was the pace of Jai Field at fullback, allied to the finishing of Bevan French on the right wing. The pair played 23 games together in 2022, with French grabbing 31 tries. Not all were assisted by his fullback, but if you watch the tape, the moves are the same.
Often, there’s one play where two forwards run decoys, allowing the space for Field, who either finds the long cut-out pass to his winger or goes himself. It’s a pattern plenty of NRL fans will recognise from Reece Walsh and Selwyn Cobbo.
“When you think about those players, the one thing they’ve got is exceptional speed,” explains Briers.
“We try to put those players into the positions where it’s hard for the defence to get them.
“We’re trying to put the defence under pressure by having space inside and out of them. We’ve transferred a bit of the Wigan stuff over to the Broncos because it’s quite similar: Reece is electric out the back and so is Jai Field.
“But they can only do their jobs if everyone else does theirs. While we all see Reece flying out the back and making that three-on-two at the edge, without the middles doing their jobs, Reece can’t do his.
“It goes back to people understanding their roles and executing. Everyone has a little something to play in that.
“There might be a play that goes from left to right, and everyone has a role in that. It might seem to the naked eye like it’s just done that way but we practice every day at doing different scenarios and the way we can get the ball out to Reece, or if they cover Reece, we can play short.
“It’s just understanding your role in our structures of play. Obviously, you want Reece in space.”
Briers has done plenty of work with Walsh, both by creating the structures that help him to thrive and by instilling in him the willingness to fail.
Walsh tops the NRL for errors and if there was a category for ‘passes chucked directly over the sideline’, the fullback would be top of that too.
“I’m a coach who is quite adaptable to the players,” says the coach.
“I don’t have one set structure and that’s all we’re doing – you’re only as good as your players, so first and foremost, what player have we got? Then, it’s how can we get them into the game.
“That’s what we’ve done. Fortunately for me, I’ve had the same people at Wigan in the likes of Jai, so it wasn’t a hard transfer over to Reece. He’s a super rugby league player, you can tell him something and he’ll get it within the first time you do it.
“Again, it’s easy to coach him and sometimes the hard part is holding him back because he wants to keep going. Reece is a wonderful player, I just let him go. Sometimes he just sees something that I don’t even see and comes to me and you have to roll with that.
“At the end of the day, they’re the ones doing it, I’m up in the box nice and fresh. They’re at the forefront and we trust them a lot to come up with stuff, as long as they practice it on the training field they’ve got a blank canvas. That’s the best rugby league you get.
“One of the big things is expressing yourself, and we don’t want you not to throw the pass if you’re worried about making a mistake. The only way you get better, not only in rugby league but in life, is by making mistakes and trust me, I’ve made a lot.
“We want Reece to throw the ball. Is he going to get it right 100%? No. That would be stupid to think of it.
“We want Reece to pick the right option, and sometimes it’ll go to hand and more often than not it will. But if it doesn’t, we just defend the mistake, which I think we’re getting better at as well.”
Payne Haas, too, has benefitted massively. He has doubled his number of offloads and added another 25m per game to his average, which was already the second best in the NRL among forwards. Now he stands alone at the top, and by a distance.
“You look at his strengths: it’s not like we’ve reinvented the wheel,” said Briers. “You’ve got Haas and Carrigan, big blokes with footwork and speed, and they’re hard to put down.
“So straight away, they’re going to attract defenders, and if we can get that offload away, a controlled offload, not just for offloading’s sake, then they’re two of the best in the game so why not use it?
“If there’s an offload and we can move the ball quick to the edge because we’ve got lightning pace, that benefits us. The key to a good offload is knowing when not to throw it – the one where you’re just about to throw but bring it back in. Those guys are super skillful at doing that.
“It’s evolving with both their games. They’re not just hit up, hit up, hit up. Payne got through most of his life because he’s been the biggest player, but when I first met him, I was so surprised at his IQ of rugby league, so it’s about giving him confidence and saying: “If you run at this point in the line, you might be able to get one away. If it’s there, feel free to do it.”
The two key tenets of Briers’ coaching philosophy have been imprinted all over the Broncos. There’s the empowering of the best players in attack, giving them freedom to create and make mistakes, but also the off-ball work, with a particular emphasis on push supports and effort to make options. As good as Haas is, he benefits from others taking defenders away.
“It’s about knowing your role,” reiterates Briers.
“I speak a lot about shape, as most coaches do, but what shape does is give you options. We like to make the field big and we speak about lanes: if you’re up and pushing into your lanes, then automatically you should be an option to receive the ball if there’s an offload.
“If you’re out the back taking photos, you’re not in the right place. You need to push up, first and foremost. That’s push supports, and anything around the ball afterwards is a reaction to the ball carrier.
“We train that once or twice a week so it’s ingrained in the boys. Not letting your mate go on his own is the big key. If you can take one defender of him, it helps. When you take one defender off Payne Haas and there’s only two on him, we’re going to get an offload.
“It doesn’t take a skill to push support. It’s an attitude. It’s energy. Everyone can do it. That means you have energy. It goes back to rugby league being a simple game: you have to get the ball as far down the other end as possible, as simply as possible. It’s just effort.
“When we make the pitch wide, it’s about making when we’re going to attack the widest point we can attack from. That could be a 50, a tram, a touchline or a short side, but even then, we know it’ll be the biggest point we can go from.
“That then helps us get offloads or to play out the back because then we know there’s going to be a lot of room around. There’s numerous ways to skin a cat and we’ve found a way now that’s a sweet spot, and that’s Broncos football.”