NRL

In 1988, a brash new club turned rugby league on its head and went on to become a dominant force in the NRL. But this year the Brisbane Broncos parted with the coach, left fans dispirited and finished bottom of the ladder. Where did the club lose its way? By Joe Gorman.

What next for the Brisbane Broncos?

NRL wooden-spooners the Brisbane Broncos react to an opposition try in their final clash of the 2020 season against the North Queensland Cowboys.
Credit: AAP Image / Darren England

There is a story Barry Maranta likes to tell about the establishment of the Brisbane Broncos. It was 1987 and Maranta, along with three other Queensland businessmen, had won the licence to enter the team in the Winfield Cup, the premier competition of the New South Wales Rugby League.

“I’ll never forget: when we got the licence, I got a phone call from so-and-so from drive-time radio in Sydney,” Maranta recalls. “The guy asked the simple questions and then he said, ‘Which club have you got your sights on?’ He was virtually asking me who we were going to emulate. And I said the Denver Broncos, or probably the New York Yankees. He goes, ‘No, no, I meant which club in Sydney?’ I said, ‘Mate, the last thing I’m going to do is look at any club in Sydney.’ ”

In the two decades that followed, the Broncos operated in total opposition to the established order. Unlike the Sydney clubs built on suburban identities – Manly, Parramatta, Balmain, Eastern Suburbs – the Broncos represented the entire city of Brisbane. Maranta and his fellow directors borrowed from the American school of sports marketing, offering fans a complete entertainment package at every home game. The club was one of the first in Australia to deliberately target female supporters, catering for the whole family rather than simply father and son. And, to the chagrin of many traditionalists, they became a public company listed on the ASX, with News Corp the majority shareholder. To supporters and detractors alike, the Broncos represented progress.

For all those off-field innovations, however, the Broncos’ most significant points of difference were both on the field: they were a team of Queenslanders taking on a Sydney-dominated competition, and they were winners. From their debut in 1988 through to 2006, the Broncos won six premierships with teams stacked with charismatic, talented players who hailed from the Sunshine State. The marriage of parochialism, success and a disruptive, chip-on-the shoulder approach to business quickly endeared the club to an entire state and turned it into one of the most successful and profitable sporting franchises in the country.

Which makes the Broncos’ fall from grace all the more spectacular. This season, the club lost its brightest young forward, David Fifita, to the Gold Coast Titans; ostracised many of its legendary former players; parted company with coach Anthony Seibold less than two years into a five-year contract; lost 11 games in a row and finished bottom of the ladder for the first time.

As Queensland’s flagship rugby league club, the decline of the Broncos has precipitated a statewide crisis. Not since 1991, when the Broncos were just three seasons old, has the competition entered a finals series without the presence of a Queensland club. This season, however, the Broncos finished last of 16 clubs, North Queensland Cowboys 14th and Gold Coast Titans ninth. Peter V’landys, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, has already blamed the NRL’s lacklustre television numbers on the dire performance of the usually high-rating Broncos.

For the past four years the Queensland derby between the Cowboys and the Broncos had been the blockbuster clash of the NRL – not just for Queenslanders but for neutral fans, too. In 2015, the two sides were responsible for one of the most exciting grand finals in Australian sporting history, when Johnathan Thurston potted a golden-point field goal to win North Queensland its first premiership. In the four seasons that followed that epic grand final, six of the nine matches between Brisbane and North Queensland ended in either a single-point or one-try margin. The Cowboys won four, the Broncos five. Attendances and viewer numbers grew as fans were virtually guaranteed a thrilling contest. “No other rivalry can match it,” wrote one Sydney reporter in 2017. “More than a million spectators can’t be wrong. Sydney-based derbies have become outdated and insular compared with this.”

Not so anymore. The final-round clash between the Broncos and the Cowboys on September 24 was a stark illustration of Queensland’s downfall. As both teams had no chance of reaching the finals, the match was deemed so inconsequential that the NRL used it to trial some experimental rule changes. In the end, the Broncos lost again.

Worse than the woeful results, however, is the manner in which the Brisbane club has lost its identity. Queensland’s greatest coach, Wayne Bennett – who delivered all six of the Broncos’ premierships in 25 seasons – has been estranged from the club since his acrimonious departure in 2018. In hiring Bennett’s replacement, the board snubbed Kevin Walters – a much-loved, five-time premiership-winning former Broncos player – only to hire him this week to save the club.

Walters will inherit the first Broncos side in history to contain no genuine Queensland State of Origin stars. From a Queensland perspective, the roster is an embarrassment: Tevita Pangai Jnr, Matt Lodge, Kotoni Staggs, Jack Bird and Payne Haas – all first-team selections when fit – hail from New South Wales.

It would be trite to single out southerners, and they are certainly not the reason for the team’s terrible run of form. But the fact they are at the Broncos in the first place is symptomatic of a philosophical and organisational malaise: the club seems to have forgotten its foundational purpose. Unlike all the Sydney clubs, the Broncos cannot draw on decades of history and tradition. Rather, they are a product of rugby league’s modern era, existing only to support the parochial ambitions of Queenslanders.

Localism, though it may be an increasingly quaint notion in modern sport, remains an essential part of the state’s rugby league culture. The Cowboys’ best years, between 2004 and 2017, were built on a solid foundation of North Queenslanders. The Gold Coast Titans, after years of losing their best talent, are now pursuing a strategy of retaining or repatriating players from south-east Queensland and the northern rivers of New South Wales.

It used to be the case that Cyril Connell, the Broncos’ legendary former recruitment officer, would scour the state for the best young footballers and funnel them into the system. But Connell died in 2009, and it has been a long time since the Broncos truly represented the best of Brisbane, let alone Queensland. During Queensland’s famed decade of dominance between 2006 and 2015, for example, star Maroon playmakers Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk never pulled on a Broncos jersey, despite all of them having grown up in Brisbane or passing through the city as a youngster.

Meanwhile, most of the next generation of Queensland superstars – Cameron Munster, Kalyn Ponga, David Fifita, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Jai Arrow, Harry Grant, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow – are all playing for other clubs. And one of the game’s hottest young talents, Sam Walker – whose father and uncles are all former Broncos – left Brisbane last year to join the Sydney Roosters. “When I see things like that, I just tear my hair out,” says Maranta, adding that “we never wanted to be like Manly, who just went out and bought players”.

But for Maranta and many other Queenslanders, the reality is that the Broncos are now at risk of becoming just another club – one that lurches from one idea to the next, looking to Sydney or Melbourne as a way out of a crisis of its own making. Kevin Walters, who spent the past four years coaching Queensland through a transitional phase, will now take on an even more difficult role in masterminding a Broncos recovery. His appointment is both a tacit admission of failure by the board and a step in the right direction. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Broncos bucked".

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Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and author. His most recent book, Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland, won the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance.