The future of Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett at the club is in fresh doubt after St George Illawarra thrashed the Broncos 48-18 in Sunday’s NRL elimination final.
Super coach Bennett, who has won six NRL premierships, is contracted for 2019 at the Broncos but his future has been one of the competition’s biggest talking points this year.
And with the Broncos seemingly reluctant to extend Bennett’s deal, it would surprise no one if the 68-year-old is not at the helm next year.
A finals push may have helped Bennett’s chances of getting a contract extension but his side were no match for the Dragons, who were inspired by a first-half hat-trick from Tariq Sims.
St George Illawarra scored seven tries in the Suncorp Stadium rout, making a mockery of the pre-match betting odds, but Bennett was not surprised his side had struggled with the expectation.
“We have had three constants all year. The injury toll, expectation, every game we were expected to win we have played badly in … the third one has been our defence. It hasn’t been where I want it to be,” he said afterwards.
“Those three things got exposed. We’ve lost two of the best edge forwards in the game [to injury] and our best performances have been against the best teams – teams we thought we could beat.
“That was my biggest fear – the expectation would raise its head again and choke us.
“Finals are about managing expectation and we had too many young guys in our team.”
Bennett refused to talk in depth about his future, insisting it was not a matter for immediately after Brisbane’s last match of the season.
“I am not going to discuss it,” he said.
“The season has been tough on everyone. No tougher on me than anyone else. To our credit, the boys responded well. It was just disappointing we couldn’t nail it here today.”
The Dragons will now play South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night in a sudden-death clash.
Paul McGregor’s side will be without star man Gareth Widdop, though, the Englishman in serious pain after suffering a shoulder injury.
Fellow Dragons stars Jack de Belin (ankle) and James Graham (concussion) will face fitness tests during the week.
Despite the heavy loss, the Broncos started brightly, with a pair of Jamayne Isaako penalties and a David Fifita try helping them to a 10-2 lead after 18 minutes.
St George Illawarra responded emphatically, though, with four tries in the next 18 minutes – three of which were scored by Sims – silencing a big home crowd.
A 28-10 lead was increased to 34-10 just after half-time, too, as Tim Lafai scored a try that looked to have sealed victory for the Dragons.
To their credit, the Broncos would not lie down, but they failed to capitalise on a quick double-salvo from Darius Boyd and Kodi Nikorima, as Isaako missed both conversions.
And even though the injuries were mounting up for the Dragons, they held their nerve before late tries to Luciano Leilua and Matt Dufty sealed a big win.
The other semi-final in week two of the NRL finals will be played between Cronulla Sharks and Penrith Panthers on Friday at Allianz Stadium.
The Sharks ran out of gas in a 21-12 defeat to Sydney Roosters on Saturday evening, with second-half tries to Latrell Mitchell and Daniel Tupou helping Trent Robinson’s side to victory.
It was the complete opposite for Penrith, which overturned a 12-0 deficit to beat New Zealand Warriors 27-12.
Tyrone Peachey bagged a double for the Panthers, who have made a habit of coming from behind to record victories in 2018.
Cronulla and Penrith will be playing for the right to face Melbourne Storm in a preliminary final.
And both sides will have every reason to feel confident ahead of playing Storm, with the Sharks and the Panthers having won in Melbourne in the last four weeks of the regular season.
Storm beat South Sydney 29-28 in Friday night’s qualifying final, with Cameron Munster’s late field goal sealing a dramatic triumph.