The Brisbane Broncos rarely drop games at Suncorp Stadium. The Brisbane Lions NEVER drop them at the Gabba. It's with this statistical assurance in mind that tens of thousands of highly optimistic supporters march to the river city's two most iconic sporting arenas late on Saturday afternoon.
Rugby League and AFL have enjoyed a fortnight long cuddle in Brisbane, on account of the Broncos and Lions ascending in near-parallel fashion in season 2023. Both sides finished second, earned a home preliminary final, are near impenetrable at home and are pursuing a long absent Holy Grail with a crop of hardened veterans and irresistible emerging talent. For Brisbane's footy loving public the two results have become linked at an almost spiritual level.
Penrith dropped an emphatic marker on next week's NRL Grand Final in its obliteration of Melbourne on Friday night. A Panther beating blueprint is required and the architectural matchup in the second preliminary final is excellent. Andrew Webster - the guy who by all reports used the attacking IP he created for the Panthers to construct a season worthy of challenging the All Blacks for the affections of New Zealand. And Kevin Walters - the guy who won everything as a player, won a fair bit as a coach and spent the year disproving the impressions of many - dreaming of returning a powerhouse club to its promised land. Different stories.
All to play for.
Across town, the Brisbane Lions have leaked 30 points in the opening quarter. Not at all to script, one might even say they're getting 'Vossed,' in recognition of the legendary Carlton coach who has a grandstand named after him at Lions HQ.
Junior games are taking place on the Suncorp Stadium surface at around 6.30pm. Watching on from halfway in their club polo's and tracksuits; Adam Reynolds, Ezra Mam and Patrick Carrigan. Nearby are Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Te Maire Martin and Shaun Johnson. The media box sparks up with discussions of some of the match-ups on offer.
"Reyno's played a heap of finals, he's got more around him and he'll strangle them with his boot."
"If Fonua Blake and Barnett are rolling, Johnson's gonna be massive. Give him some space and he'll unlock the backs for sure."
"Fonua-Blake's definitely got it in him to get over Haas. He has to get over the top of him right from the start or they'll struggle."
"If Haas is running for 200 metres and finding offloads the Broncos win."
"I'd take either of them against (James) Fisher-Harris."
"Carrigan and Harris is a tough one to pick."
7.30pm and at the Gabba the Lions have roared back to be 17 points clear in the early part of the second half. The Warriors are still in the middle of Suncorp warming up. Webster's on the ground laughing with his staff. Walters is being interviewed on Channel 9; intense, spitting into the mic like he's centre stage at a Hip Hop concert.
7.42pm and the fireworks erupt. Carlton are mounting a late fightback at the Gabba and much of the Suncorp media box is distracted by another code for a few final minutes. The Lions weather the threat and seal a 16-point triumph. They break a painfully long AFL Grand Final drought, and there are hearty cheers among Brisbane's rugby league media.
7.50pm and Suncorp is fully illuminated once more. Can the Broncos complete the hometown double strike?
The Warriors big men are pouring down the field early and the Broncos are nervous. Selwyn Cobbo and Jesse Arthars are both guilty of early brain fades, and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak dives over inside 5 minutes. Ivan Cleary take note.
The Broncos shake their early nerves and the ensuing blitz is breathtaking to watch. Reynolds, Reece Walsh and Cobbo combine to dial up the intensity in a single play, Carrigan charges through the midfield like he's playing Under 8's, and Billy Walters fools everyone to cross from dummy half. A wonderful display of balance and power. Ivan Clearly, keep scribbling.
Just over 10 minutes in and the Broncos are beginning to accelerate. Payne Haas is offloading, Reynolds is scheming, Walsh is electrifying. But a young man's enthusiasm proves his hubris, as Watene-Zelezniak snatches a long ball from the Brisbane fullback and sprints 60 metres to score.
Johnson is nursing a finger niggle and generally struggling to impose himself on the game. Billy Walters is showing any would-be opposing coach that focusing solely on Brisbane's superstars is a path to ruin. He makes a break, opening up space for a shift to the left. Walsh shortens his pass this time, and Herbie Farnworth slams it down. Sixteen minutes, four tries, and Brisbane are showing an irresistible capacity to advance when holding onto the ball, driving through the midfield and proving impossible to contain on either edge. Now it's Haas rampaging down the ground; earning comparisons to Steve Renouf from Fatty Vautin in the Channel 9 commentary box.
Another near undefendable shift and Arthars is over for the fifth try of the game. The Broncos are throwing it around, offloading at will, playing it fast and shifting it to both sides with equal danger. Tom Flegler offloads, Mam draws, Walsh ignites, Billy Walters finishes. The home side have carried out a ridiculous 16-minute assault and its legendary mascot 'Buck' has already cantered four laps of the ground. It's 24-8. Just over a quarter into this contest the question for Ivan Cleary is - 'can you coach against whatever this is?'
Walsh errs again with a bomb over the dead ball line. The Warriors work it quickly downfield and Adam Pompey nearly pegs one back. The Broncos are far more vulnerable to the counter than Walters would like. A team with the competition's second best defence and a well established habit of turning into a brick wall on their own goal line soon concedes again. Marcelo Montoya finishes a simple shift, and the Warriors have three tries to show from a limited number of forays into the Brisbane half. Unfortunately Pompey can't convert a single one of them.
30 minutes in and the Warriors have overturned significant deficits in possession, territory and completed perfectly. Until a first tackle error from Pompey lets the air out of their balloon.
Haas is in command of the metre count. Fonua-Blake isn't even in the top 5 when subbed off in the 33rd minute. Tohu Harris is the only Warrior to feature, and his effort isn't enough to create breathing room for Johnson and Martin. Errors creep in as the half fizzles; Brisbane's impact dulling after Kobe Hetherington and Keenan Palasia replace Flegler and Haas. Not the first time this season but another note for you nonetheless, Ivan.
Brisbane get right back into expansion mode when the second half begins. Jordan Riki is pulled down short of the line in one set, before a slew of midfield offloads get them back downfield in the next. The Broncos are galloping for more metres per set and it's difficult to see where the Warriors will find the petrol to reel in a 12-point deficit. Egan's temporary HIA departure In the 54th minute brings Fonua-Blake back, while any plan to target Walsh falters as the 21 year old sparks the right edge and sends Riki over next to the posts. Never mind the two enormous forward passes in the buildup. 30-12. Cobbo gives Ivan Cleary another dot point when he lets a ball bounce, but the Warriors are unable to capitalise. The Broncos bench is all in the fray and the momentum has been sustained against a rapidly tiring opponent. Mam breaks his 48th tackle of the year to score his 15th try. 36-12.
Reynolds is taken off in the 64th minute, joining Carrigan in cotton wool. Even Buck the horse is traveling noticeably slower as Farnworth joins Mam on 15 tries for the year. 42-12 and Brisbane fans are madly Googling flights to Sydney.
The Broncos repel back-to-back sets on their line late despite their 30 point margin. The siren sounds and the city officially has achieved cross-code history with an incredible Broncos/Lions double. It's delirium at Suncorp. Kevin Walters' men are back in the big dance, three years after collecting an historic wooden spoon. Cries of "one more!" can be heard in the grandstand, a reminder from Broncos fans that 2020 was also the year Penrith began its unfathomable run of grand finals. The two clubs destined to meet in the 2023 decider have progressed with preliminary final routs, and now all attention turns to a fascinating final matchup.
Brisbane's middle destroyed the vaunted Warriors pack. Fonua-Blake ran sub-100 metres for the first time this season, Haas cruised past 200. Nicoll-Klokstad also managed to pass 200 metres, while Walsh set up three tries and poked holes in the defence all night. He epitomised the fearlessly expansive blueprint that drowned out the Warriors best intentions and has enormous potential to worry Penrith, while Brisbane's ability to mix it up has shown the Panthers that a clear plan B, C and D can be deployed against them in any part of the field. Few teams can defend the blitzkrieg of speed, shape and second phase magic the Broncos can produce.
"We're just having fun out there, that's the main thing," Reynolds said post match.
What happens if the fun subsides on a dewy Sydney night in seven days time? If offloads aren't sticking, edges aren't opening up, errors are creeping in and Penrith's trademark grind and patience is limiting time and space? If Fisher-Harris is creating time for Nathan Cleary, and Jarome Luai is sparking counter attacks the way the Warriors did for a fleeting glimpse of the preliminary final, using the roving blueprint devised by Andrew Webster to create uncertainty and rapidly evaporate fuel from the Broncos petrol tank? If Moses Leota and Liam Martin outmuscle Carrigan and Flegler and Dylan Edwards is lurking through the midfield behind every minor incursion?
Over to you Kevvie and Ivan.