If the Broncos weren’t aware of the level at the top end of the NRL, now they are. They went down 15-4 to Penrith to start the Indigenous Round, their third defeat in four, and yet again came out as the better-footed team.
The Panthers have been the benchmark for a number of years and are now properly driving the machine, turning into a classic Clearyball dominance performance thanks to both Ivan’s ideas about defensive control and patience in attack and Nathan’s ability to execute them.
It was the best season from the midfielder and on the eve of Origin. He reached a personal best, the youngest to 1300 points in first grade, and showed every facet of his game: creativity on the ball, line-taking, boot control and muscular strength in defence.
“We dominated field position and possession,” Ivan said. “We didn’t have the polish tonight, but the way we like to play the game, I thought we did a decent job. It was a well-deserved win.
“We lost a couple of closers early (in the year), but we were playing well, we just weren’t as consistent as we like to play. the last three weeks have been more like it.
“After the disappointing loss to the Tigers, I felt we responded well and looked a little more like how we like to play.”
Brisbane couldn’t go with Penrith at the end, but the way they fended off mountains of pressure can only leave Kevin Walters feeling his side are going to be something special.
“It’s all about learning for us,” the coach said. “They’ve been doing it for three or four years now, and we’re just getting into it. It was a good lesson.”
Although they went down 7-1 before losing to South Sydney late last month, it’s a poor run of results because it was more impressive. The first two months were a rollercoaster ride, a confidence-building exercise for the attack.
This was the real thing, the kind of football that wins finals, and even though they lost now, it will help them win in the future.
“We’re one of the bottom four, but it’s not alarming,” Walters said.
“We would have preferred to win more, but I’m fine with where we are. Once we get it right, and we’ll get it right in September, we’ll be fine.
“If you had said at the end of September last year, when everyone was throwing bricks at us, that after 12 rounds we would have won eight games, I think you would have taken that from the Broncos’ position.”
Brisbane did it without Adam Reynolds, who was also ruled out with injury. Had he played, they could have turned the early pressure into points and put pressure on Penrith on the scoreboard.
Instead, they succumbed to first Jarom Lua and then Cleary, both of whom created tries.
It could have been more. Penrith did not concede many tries in the first half as they camped in the Broncos line.
But it also could have been closer. At 14-4, tested a strange bunker call in Brisbane that could have sparked a comeback; The Cotton Stags thought he had scored and Bunker agreed, only for referee Adam Gee to question the video call and find an obstruction in the construction. up. The right call was found, albeit with unconventional methods.
The Panthers haven’t gone anywhere
It was a lesson in efficiency from Penrith. The Broncos were clearly ready for the game and came out firing early on, stopping the Panthers inside their 30 at times and forcing them to punt.
Defense was fueling Brisbane’s attacking chances but their lack of clinic, remember, no Reynolds, saw last-ditch tackles wasted twice.
Needless to say, Nathan Cleary didn’t let that happen. In the Panthers’ first serious attack, they scored through Sunia Turuva.
The second time they should have, but for a miracle to clear the ball from Moses Leota, they should have. For the third time, they both went away from the penalty spot.
What everyone knows about Penrith is their defence. On the limited occasions in the first half, when Brisbane came to a close, consistency showed to keep them out for five tackles, and then the absence of a classy midfielder was evident in the last.
While Joc Madden had a good game, he’s no Reynolds. Ezra Mumm and Rhys Walsh are big talents, but they are nowhere near the batting threat of their captain.
More than once, the Panthers’ lack of scoring wasn’t as much a result of their offense as it was an exceptional job of stopping them from the Broncos.
And as always, they just kept at it and eventually reaped their rewards. The truth, as Ivan Cleary knew all along, is that offense only needs to be done in September, especially if the defense is on all the time.
The Broncos aren’t a threat yet
This is becoming a bit of a theme for the Broncos. For the third time they faced a Premiership contender, a real big gun, and for the third time they lost.
But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, so let’s separate them.
Against Souths, they struggled to cope with the best attack in the game and were eventually beaten at the top, without Payne Haas and Ezra Mam, of course, who were suspended.
Against the Hurricanes, they lost Reynolds early, then endured three sin bins that hampered their ability to compete, but they competed with nothing but finishing and discipline.
So what did we learn here? Well, for one thing, there’s an improvement. For a long time, this was the best of the three shows, going toe-to-toe and toe-to-toe with masters of grinding, defensive footwork.
The pressure the Broncos were under was immense. Penrith played almost flawlessly for an hour, making almost no mistakes and dominating both field position and possession, but Brisbane’s defense was mostly solid.
To concede only two tries in that period under the conditions of such an attack says everything.
It’s worth remembering how far this side has come. When the Panthers began their period of dominance, Brisbane were the worst defensive team in the comp and could fold like armchairs at the slightest push.
There was a whiff of a comeback in attack, but it was never likely given the energy that had fueled it to keep the score respectable. The number of zero line breaks to five told everything about who was most likely to win.
The past three weeks have shown that, despite vast improvements, the Broncos remain below their respective heavyweights. But the trajectory is there. They’re probably a year away, but it’s coming.
Penrith are in the final stage of the Premiership or still in the middle of the Premiership stage. The Souths are moving into their own, and the Hurricanes never seem to leave one. Kevvy will know that his is just opening, and that’s good.