In 2002, then little known Broncos assistant coach Craig Bellamy pulled off what was described as “the biggest underdog win in history” versus the Wests Tigers. You see, being the week before Origin, all 9 Bronco stars and Coach Wayne Bennett were in Maroons camp and the “Baby Broncos” were left to step up. The name wasn’t just media hype - no fewer than 7 players were making their NRL debut and included two 17 year olds, two 18 year olds and two 19 year olds. But, in a sign of the future, Bellamy pulls off a masterstroke and they win comfortably against their more experienced counterparts.
How did they win? Was it Nick Parfitt at the back? Michael Coorey on an edge? The impact of Steve Lacaze off the bench?
No. It was more about the “culture” of the broncos beating the culture of the Tigers. In fact, the broncos could have rolled out anyone to play and they would have won. Seems extreme? Perhaps. But let’s look into it.
Brisbane were humming along in 2nd spot before that Friday night at Campbelltown. The team ended up going down to eventual premiers Sydney Roosters in the prelim 16-12 that year. Lockyer. Tallis. Thorn. Coach Bennett.
Imagine training in a full time environment with those future legends day in; day out. Tackling drills with Tonie Carroll. Taking bombs from Locky. Every player is aware of the teams defensive structure outlined by Bellamy. Those Origin stars don’t play? No worries; we might not be as talented but we can come in and play to that structure. Final score? 28-14. Debutant Scott Minto goes wild.
Now, let’s look at 2020. Canberra are instantly written off when star playmaker Josh Hodgson goes off injured. Oh, and John Bateman, Iosia Soliala, Corey Horsburgh - to name a few. When they play a Souths side with Damien Cook, Adam Reynolds and a now fit Latrell Mitchell 2 weeks later = still an easy win. The week earlier versus the roosters? A famous win at the SCG.
Actually, what about those Roosters this year as well? No Victor Radley, Sam Verrils, Billy Smith out all season as well as Boyd Cordner, Jake friend, Luke Keary all missing several games. A drop in performance, surely? Nope, we’ll just bring in a no name like Stili Tupouniua through our setup and we’ll make him great. We’ll go get Josh Morris, playing solidly at the Sharks, and we’ll turn him into the form centre of the NRL by being in our system and successful environment.
Finally, let’s compare this to the St George Illawarra Dragons of 2020, home of some of the most scathing fans in the comp. You’ve seen the banners in the crowd. “Fail Mary”. “Oust Doust”. (Well hey, both of those came true). But - they keep losing. Million dollar halves. A forward pack consisting of Origin enforcers Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims. A captain who makes 60 tackles a game. Why do they keep losing?
It’s their culture. Their environment. Their set up.
Now I’m not in the bubble down at Wollongong. I couldn’t tell you one drill they’ve done at training this year. But rumours continually persist about the board structure and the club environment as a whole and where’s there’s smoke; there’s fire. Fans thought getting rid of the coach would change things. They’ve actually gone backwards since his departure. The most alarming thing is the way they are playing. The style. The effort, or lack thereof.
Daniel Safiti, on his hands and knees in a tackle, places the ball on the try line last week like he is placing a crystal bowl on a shelf it was that slow. Dean Young pulls out the hair from his head where it should have been.
This Sunday, the dragons have been given a reprieve to finish their season with a win. The Melbourne Storm, locked into 2nd position, have named a team with TWELVE changes from last week.
Aaron Pene. Isaac Lumelume. Juddah Turahui repping the famous purple strip. The captain leading them - Ryan Papanhyzen - has played less than 50 NRL games; 350 less than their usual general. Look up the 2018-2019 Sunshine Coast Falcons and Sunday’s team is almost the same as that Q Cup team.
Straight after the teams were released, the Red V, the home team, were installed as favourites. Melbourne Storm Coach Craig Bellamy smiles to himself, no doubt thinking back to that Friday night in 2002.
I’m backing him to do it again.