Brisbane Broncos 26 Cronulla Sharks 18
8:00 pm, Thursday 2nd March
Shark Park, Sydney
Has it really been five months? Not saying I’d want footy to be cancelled forever, just that I wouldn’t be whingeing if round 1 got moved back to June for this year only. What I truly want is for that early October glow to last forever. It can’t – nothing does – but one of many reasons why I’m going is to try and stretch this joy out across another week. Weeks; weeks; they blend into one. All I noticed about Monday is that it wasn’t Thursday. Everything else just felt like noise. Wednesday I saw Big Thief at Newtown Social Club; one of the last times I’ll go there before the fangs of the O’Farrell / Baird / Berejiklian government sink into yet another Sydney live venue. Big Thief were brilliant and you’d do well to check them out. Still, my thoughts on the train home pertained more to Thursday. Thursday. Gotta get down to Shark Park on Thursday. Torn between wanting the season to start tomorrow and to start in about ten years.
I get in at 7:20. The under-20s have a four-point lead with one minute remaining. They have the ball, until a questionable grubber allows a Bronco kid to run 95 metres and under the posts. I pay less mind to omens than I used to, so this doesn’t throw me off my optimistic mood. It’s a spectacularly Sharks way to lose, to give credit where it’s due. Thinking we could’ve got a bigger crowd in. I know it’s hard when people have work and school on Friday morning but the premiers deserve a full house for their first match back at home. Atmosphere’s cracking despite the relative shortage of numbers. Cronulla kick off and do the driving gang tackle thing that nearly everyone does from the kick off now. Except Cronulla don’t stop there. They keep on driving until maroon shirts are back behind their own posts. Seen worse starts in my time. Four enormous minutes where Brisbane don’t have a clue what’s going on, but the try doesn’t come. Instead it’s the away side who strike first.
After a couple of messy sets, the reaction arrives when Bird turns inside off a Lewis ball, supported by Beale backing up in the way he could’ve done more of against Wigan. First Cronulla try of the season. I’m glad he gets that moment after being on the outer during the finals series. He’s not great for Brisbane’s second, though. I was stood right behind the in-goal, and to be fair, the kick looked long off the boot. But you need to shield the ball more watchfully in case it holds up. Back-to-back penalties; 4th tackle penalties; 5th tackle penalties. As a team that plays on the edge of the rules, Flanagan’s Cronulla often used to double down on indiscipline when things weren’t happening for them. That was largely eradicated in 2016, but there were signs of it creeping back in the other night. A litany of handling errors doesn’t help. Though given how garbage the first half is, eight points down is hardly disastrous.
I’m not gonna slaughter Edrick Lee; firstly because slaughtering him helps no-one, and secondly because most of his teammates also had moments they’d want over again. All I’ll say is that his positioning needs to be spot on against his old club next week. Tell you what, Jordan Kahu magically turning into Daryl Halligan didn’t help our cause, either.
The fightback is heartening. Actually no. “Heartening” implies a lost cause, whereas Cronulla’s spell from 50 to 65 ignites the crowd, and threatens to overwhelm Brisbane. Townsend deceives rookie centre Tautau Moga (otherwise solid in his first match) with a dummy, kicks infield for Bird who’s dealt a rotten bounce, but Maloney more or less gets it down. Next it’s Leutele, and Brisbane must have at least briefly feared a repeat of the 28-point half we put them through last May. Maloney’s conversion in via woodwork to make it 20-18, and you’re dreaming of the kick that beat the Bulldogs and a new golden night to rank with it.
Can’t remember many other cases where a match’s pendulum was swung by a ball ricocheting off a fella’s head and straight at his offside teammate. But it happened here. Ben Hunt switches the play to Milford, whose agility is too much for tired forwards. Never felt as though we had two more tries in us after that. Brisbane were good value for their win. They’re a well-rounded side who’ll probably be involved in the competition’s final two weeks, and the already ridiculous doubts around Wayne Bennett now sound even dumber. The frustration is that they were able to build a 14 point lead without looking invincible. Tough ask to beat anyone when you’re only managing a 70% completion rate.
In my grand final review I stressed the importance of drinking in this season; of appreciating the relief we’ll feel without that horrid tag hanging above our heads. What I didn’t mention – and something I’ll no doubt make into a theme – is the importance of refusing to settle back into our comfort zone of 5th to 10th. 2017 is a chance to make further statements. Not necessarily by winning the comp, though we shouldn’t abandon that goal until it’s mathematically impossible. Simply by telling the rest of the league that we’re not going anywhere in the near future. That we’re no longer content to be plucky-old-Cronulla.
It’s a funny squad with tonnes of know-how and a deficit of young legs. Jayden Brailey, who held his own on debut, will go some way toward correcting that imbalance, while the Origin rounds could be the making of Kurt Capewell. Yet the impression remains that both Barba and Ennis left the club a year earlier than Flanagan would’ve planned for. Will be interesting to see how the coach plugs these and other gaps in the next six or seven months. However that happens, and whoever he chooses, please get behind them. A repeat of 2016’s injury-free run can’t be relied on, and there’ll be moments when they’ll need us to help them over the line (both figuratively and literally). Keep heads cool. Canberra Saturday week. Might head down if I can find a ticket. Give us a shout if you have similar plans. Til then, up the refusing-to-settle Sharks.
Brisbane Broncos 26 (Jordan Kahu, James Roberts, Corey Oates, Anthony Milford tries, Kahu 5 goals) defeated Cronulla Sharks 18 (Gerard Beale, James Maloney, Ricky Leutele tries, Maloney 3 goals). Crowd: 11 493.