Wayne Bennett’s ultra-hyped return to Brisbane could hardly have been more successful as the 2015 premiership emerges from the Origin malaise and the 16 clubs head into the straight to jostle for top-eight spots.
After a 36-6 thrashing at the hands of premiers South Sydney in their Suncorp Stadium backyard in Round 1, the Broncos have lost just two of 15 games to stand alone at the top of the table with eight weeks remaining.
They are currently on a six-match winning streak after brilliantly negotiating the arduous representative period – contributing five players to Queensland’s triumphant campaign – with a perfect record.
At this stage last season, the Anthony Griffin-coached Broncos had an 8-8 record and scraped into the finals on for-and-against; they were just 6-10 after 18 rounds in 2013 and finished 12th, the worst result in the club’s decorated history.
But the messianic Bennett, who steered Brisbane to six premierships in a record 21-season reign from its 1988 inception until 2008, has put an underwhelming three-year stay at Newcastle behind him to return the Broncos to the pedestal their fans took for granted for so long.
The Broncos boast the second-best attack in the premiership, but their work on the other side of the ball has been equally eye-catching and important – highlighted by the memorable goal-line brick wall they put up against Melbourne four days after Origin II.
Will-o-the-wisp five-eighth Anthony Milford has proved an outstanding recruit after a shaky start back in his hometown, regularly turning matches with his electric feet and taking the pressure off the Broncos’ 2014 breakout star/one-man band, halfback Ben Hunt.
Likewise, dual premiership winner Darius Boyd has added another dimension from fullback after making a shock return from a snapped Achilles in Round 9.
Bennett hasn’t been afraid to make the tough calls, either, despite his six-year absence from Red Hill. The revered mentor took the captaincy off Corey Parker and handed it to Justin Hodges, while he benched another former skipper in Sam Thaiday during the early weeks of the competition after a Round 1 shocker.
Rookies Matt Parcell and Kodi Nikorima have been revelations, Jordan Kahu is showing his exceptional ability after overcoming several injury-hampered campaigns, and the likes of Corey Oates, Jarrod Wallace, Lachlan Maranta and Andrew McCullough are in career-best touch.
Much like he did with St George Illawarra during his charmed 2009-11 stint with the joint venture, Bennett has instilled belief and commitment in the Broncos squad that has largely been lacking since he was last in charge.
Their consistency has also been a standout feature, crafting multiple four-match winning streaks for just the second time in 11 seasons. But history suggests that although the minor premiership is the Broncos’ to lose, they are by no means home and hosed for the first-past-the-post prize.
Bennett will be acutely aware that the Origin program may take a greater toll during the latter rounds of the competition as his weary rep veterans battle to maintain their lofty standards.
During every season from 2001 to ’06, the Broncos led the competition at some point mid-year before fading to finish third or lower.
The most pertinent examples were in 2001, when they were in top spot after Round 15 but won just three of their last 11 to finish fifth; 2003, when they led the way after 17 rounds before losing their last seven games to scrape into the playoffs in eighth; and 2005, when the perennial heavyweights headed the table for 15 weeks before losing their last five regular-season matches to slip to third.
The Broncos’ place in the September action is virtually assured, but to miss out on a home final from this point would be a shattering blow. Missing the top four would be a disaster.
Although their efforts to date ensure they are one of the teams to beat, the Broncos are far from infallible.
The season-ending injury suffered by recent Origin debutant Josh McGuire has decimated their front-row stocks, and Bennett will be eager for greater output from Kiwi Test prop Adam Blair, who has barely earned a pass mark after joining the club this season.
Firepower on the wings is also a weakness compared to most other clubs – not aided by Dale Copley’s injury-wracked year after a career-best 2014 – while strike centre Hodges’ fitness is always a week-to-week proposition.
Early front-runners St George Illawarra and Melbourne felt the Origin burn almost from the series opener and are in the midst of lengthy losing streaks.
Current bookies’ favourites Sydney Roosters and Johnathan Thurston-inpsired North Queensland loom as the biggest obstacles to Brisbane ending its 15-year minor premiership drought and claiming its first Grand Final win since 2006, although Souths cannot be discounted from going back-to-back and the surging New Zealand Warriors have emerged as a dark-horse threat.
But the omnipotent presence of Bennett is Brisbane’s trump card. The 65-year-old master coach will be relishing his first finals appearance in the box since the Broncos ended his Dragons tenure in the 2011 semi-final.
Love them or hate them, it’s exciting for rugby league to have the Broncos reclaim their NRL superpower status – even more so with the club’s ‘Godfather’ back in the stirrups.