So, how ’bout them Broncos?
Look, I don’t want to write about these guys again while there are bizarre new rules being trialled and Australia’s most famous rugby sevens Olympic gold medallists are joining the NRLW.
But when the biggest team in rugby league officially becomes the worst team in rugby league for the first time in its 33-season history, it can’t be ignored.
So how bad was the 2020 season and what’s next as Brisbane tries to swim out of uncharted waters?
How bad were the 2020 Brisbane Broncos?
Really, really very bad.
Despite not being confirmed as wooden spooners until the last round of the regular season, the Broncos have been the worst team in the NRL for a good few months.
They kept their nose ahead of Canterbury for most of the season thanks to two season-opening wins before the coronavirus shutdown.
But when the NRL came back with new rules that sped up the game, the Broncos were stuck on a treadmill as the rest of the league ran past them.
Their only win in the bubble came against the Bulldogs in round nine, but the Dogs beat the Dragons in round four, and top-eight teams Newcastle and South Sydney in the back half of the year.
Canterbury looked like a bad NRL team this year. The Broncos barely looked like an NRL team at all.
For the first few weeks, every game seemed to be a new low — losing 34-6 against Parramatta in the season reopener, embarrassed 59-0 by the Roosters, then blowing an 18-0 lead against Manly in successive weeks.
Going down 48-0 to the Tigers, 46-8 to Melbourne and 58-12 against the Roosters were some of the other lowlights, but every team can have aberrations. The problem was this quickly became the new norm.
Since 2004, only two teams have finished with a worse point differential than the 2020 Broncos (-356) and only one team has finished with fewer victories (the one-win Knights of 2016).
While the latter stat can be taken with a grain of salt because they only had 20 rounds, Brisbane hasn’t really earned the benefit of the doubt that they could have jagged a few more wins had the season been extended by two or three more weeks.
Let’s not forget that two thirds of the Broncos’ victories and 19 per cent of their total points scored came in the first two games of the year, more than six months ago.
Since then, the Broncos lost 17 of 18 games with an average scoreline of 33-12.
Even the points they did score were more often the result of individual brilliance by Kotoni Staggs (who scored more than one fifth of the team’s 48 tries), Xavier Coates or David Fifita than it was part of a concerted game plan or the outcome of a set play.
Off the field things weren’t much better
Being in Brisbane, the spotlight is always bright for Broncos players, but the stakes are even higher when even average Joes are being publicly shamed for standing too close or hugging people from outside their designated bubble.
The coronavirus-imposed biosecurity was the extra added spice for Brisbane this year, with a series of slip-ups compounding the pain.
Alfie Langer and a few other assistant coaches, a group of 10 players and Tevita Pangai Jr were all scrutinised for their outings.
Then-coach Anthony Seibold missed two games to support his daughter, who was then viciously trolled on social media, taking a toll on the family.
Seibold was fired not long after, in the second year of a five-year contract, after apparently losing the locker room.
Cutting bait with Seibold was never going to change much in 2020 and seemed as much about the club wanting to be seen to be doing something as it was about actually fixing any problems.
What worked for the Broncos this year?
No doubt the Broncos have promising youngsters.
If not for injury, 21-year-old Staggs would likely have been picked for NSW this year, Payne Haas is one of the best props in the game at just 20 and teenage halfback Tom Dearden has shown flashes of brilliance. Tom Flegler, Xavier Coates and Pat Carrigan all project as future State of Origin players.
But young teams rarely succeed without strong leadership, which is in short supply in Brisbane.
Part of a veteran’s job on an NRL team is to teach the new kids how to conduct themselves, but at least one of the Broncos’ most experienced players, Issac Luke, seems to be reinforcing bad habits.
Last week against the Eels he chose to complain to the referee rather than dive on a loose ball, resulting in a turnover.
On Thursday night against the Cowboys, the 19-year-old Bronco who had the best view of last week’s laziness followed suit, with Dearden appealing to the referee for a penalty rather than moving to stop a rampaging Valentine Holmes who went on to set up a 100-metre try.
Those are just two plays from a season full of shocking performances, but they are indicative of the problems plaguing Brisbane.
Where to now?
The Broncos appear to be starting a complete top-to-bottom rebuild.
They started 2020 with Alex Glenn as captain, Seibold as coach and Paul White as chief executive.
None of those people will be in those positions in 2021.
As former player Ben Ikin, one of the front-runners for to become chief executive, said, the on-field product has to be the focus because everything (public sentiment, advertising revenue, sponsors, better player recruitment and retention) flows from there.
And right now, the on-field product is about as appealing as a root canal.
Boom forward Pangai Jr almost sued the club for unfair dismissal and is now one social media post away from being axed; arguably the best player in the team, David Fifita, is going to the Titans; while the highest-paid players — Jack Bird and Anthony Milford — are constantly injured and look out of form even when they’re allegedly fit.
Even the brightest spot of the season, Staggs — who emerged as one of the best centres in the game and could also answer the team’s halves dilemma — appeared to tear his ACL in the last game of the season.
When Darius Boyd was dropped as captain and his replacement Matt Gillett retired, the armband was given to Alex Glenn, who only snared a contract for 2020 after seven months of negotiations and was barely guaranteed a spot in the starting side.
Injuries prevented him from leading the team regularly in 2020 and the mantle has now been passed to 22-year-old Carrigan, who now needs to be allowed to keep the captaincy as he grows into it alongside this young squad.
He does need savvy veterans to help him out, though, and flashing some of that Broncos cash at Cameron Smith feels worth it at this point. Bringing in a Broncos legend like Kevvie Walters as coach would also help.
If the night is really darkest just before the dawn, then it would be about one minute before daybreak in Brisbane, because it is pitch black in the Sunshine State at the moment.
But honestly, this rebuild is going to take a few years and it’s going to be painful.