From NRL wooden spooners to grand final: how the Broncos lifted out of a deep hole | Nick Tedeschi

The decision to hire Kevin Walters proved a masterstroke after the Brisbane club endured one of its darkest days just three years ago

The Broncos were so close. They could taste it. The 2015 grand final was theirs. They just had to see off another Cowboys set and they were premiers for an eighth time. Reporters had written their ledes. The engravers were preparing the B. The champagne north of the Tweed was being taken off ice.

And then the nightmare. A Michael Morgan flick, a Kyle Feldt dive, a Ben Hunt drop and a Johnathan Thurston field goal. North Queensland were premiers while Brisbane were left to lament what could have been, fighting through the sting of letting slide dreams, hopes and ambitions.

The pain of grand final defeat is never easy to overcome, but Brisbane seemed to have a bright future. The return of Wayne Bennett had seen the Broncos return to their first decider in nine years. The club had legends Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday and Darius Boyd, the likes of rep players Ben Hunt, Alex Glenn and Matt Gillett, plus a host of exciting young talent led by Anthony Milford. It was a roster built to succeed.

The Broncos did not have the 2015 premiership but they were back as competition big dogs.

Bennett, in particular, was critical. He had helped bring back the Broncos ethos. Brisbane had long carried themselves with an air of superiority, a swagger that would have made Vinnie Barbarino blush. After running with outsider coaches Ivan Henjak and Anthony Griffin for six relatively unsuccessful years – the only two missed finals since 1991, two bad qualifying finals exits and just two years with a winning record – Broncos powerbrokers did all they could to mend the bridges that had been burnt with Bennett.

Reunions in sport rarely rekindle the magic and it was no different with Bennett and the Broncos. While Brisbane returned to the grand final in 2015 and the club went at least 15-9 the next three years under the veteran coach, trouble was brewing away from the paddock. Bennett was engaged in power battles across the club. He was at loggerheads with CEO Paul White. He had fallen out with former star Darren Lockyer, who had ascended to the Broncos board. He had little time for new Broncos chairman Karl Morris.

The club had not one decision to make but two and they would prove critical in leading the Broncos to a depth few thought was possible for a club as big, powerful, cashed-up and connected as Brisbane. The first was to move on from Bennett, a call made by CEO and one-time Bennett confidant Paul White. The second – and arguably more significant – was to pursue and sign Anthony Seibold to a long-term deal.

Considering the situation behind the scenes, moving on from Bennett was no surprise. After the shift to cultural mediocrity under Henjak and Griffin, it was stunning that the Broncos went all-in on Seibold. Seibold had just a single season of experience in the NRL. While he had guided South Sydney to a preliminary final in a coach-friendly environment, stepping in to replace a coaching great who a disquieted fanbase and a long list of frustrated former players did not want moved on, was markedly different.

It was a disaster from the start and less than two years into his tenure, in the midst of the club’s first wooden spoon season, Seibold was sacked. The club suffered three of the worst four defeats they ever had. Long-serving players were disenfranchised. Confused, concerned and unmotivated, never had the Broncos looked less like the Broncos.

Reece Walsh at a Broncos fan day in Brisbane during grand final week.
Reece Walsh at a Broncos fan day in Brisbane during grand final week. Photograph: Jono Searle/AAP

Pulling the club from such a deep hole, one that was not only about finding wins but returning the club to its true identity, was no easy task. Morris and the front office could easily have tried to bring in another outsider, albeit a more experienced one. Instead they opted for a club great, a decision that has proven a masterstroke, even if it was one the Broncos were partially forced into by a vocal old boys group who demanded one of their own and had the leverage to be heard after the Seibold debacle.

Few would identify Kevin Walters as a tactical genius. Many, including Bennett, did not view him as someone ready to be an NRL head coach. And at most clubs in most situations, he may not have succeeded. But at that time and in that situation, he was just the man the Broncos needed.

It was fortuitous a year into his tenure that Adam Reynolds arrived. Reynolds is an uber-intelligent player who makes those around him better and his acquisition was unquestionably one of the most astute buys in Broncos history. It has allowed Reynolds to essentially manage game plans and tactics and player roles while Walters has been able to play the critical role of instilling the Broncos values he helped develop during his playing days.

While the previous two seasons were disappointing at face value, Walters had done one thing spectacularly well: he made the Broncos the Broncos again. No player sums that up better than Reece Walsh, who had left the club in Walters’ first year and returned in 2023. He has not only set the competition alight this year but done so with a confidence rarely seen at the Broncos over the last five seasons.

It has been a remarkable return from such dark days. Three very different men – Walters, Reynolds, Walsh – have brought three very different elements that have led Brisbane back to the promised land. Clubs often talk about rebuilds but rarely do they have any true plan about rebuilding a culture. Credit must go to the Broncos, who had a plan. It worked and they are now 80 minutes away from premiership glory.


Nick Tedeschi

The GuardianTramp

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