Over the last few weeks I’ve been shocked by the way some Brisbane Broncos supporters and sections of the Brisbane media have talked about the days when players all wanted to play for the Brisbane Broncos.
You would think that the Broncos were the team everyone had to play for. That players were climbing over one another to pull on a Broncos jersey.
People have pointed to some of the great teams the Broncos have fielded over their history as proof that the games best players all want to play for the Broncos and they want to get back to those good old days.
The problem is, times have changed. A lot of the circumstances that brought those teams together can not be replicated in 2014. So lets look back at the Brisbane Broncos and how they build their great teams of the past.
When the Brisbane Broncos came into the competition in 1988 times were very different than they are now. Their inclusion allowed a lot of the best talent in Queensland to finally play at home while taking on the best of the best in the NSWRL competition…a competition which was the basis of the NRL competition we all follow today.
The Broncos were really smart with the way they build the club in the early days. They didn’t just bring in big name players, they always had an eye on developing the best young players in Queensland. It was a great mix, one that saw youngsters who would go on to be champion players learning from the champions of the time.
It must be remembered though that plenty of Queensland’s best players of the time didn’t drop everything and go to play for the Broncos. Mal Meninga was just one of many great Queensland players that chose to stick with their current team.
Over time the Broncos developed into a great side. By 1992 they were Premiers and by 1993 they had won back-to-back titles, a remarkable feat for a young club.
Those premiership winning teams were remarkable for their youth. They were teams build around the best and brightest stars in Queensland Rugby League. A generation of players that all came through the same club at around about the same time and who were all Brisbane Broncos players.
The Broncos had managed to bring talent to the club, but you need to remember that this was a very different era in the game. Glenn Lazarus joined the Brisbane Broncos from the Canberra Raiders. At the time Lazarus was the best front rower in the game. He would prove to be one of the great winners in the game as well. Sure there was a salary cap in place, but it was something people rarely paid attention to. Like I said, it was a different era, and taking nothing away from the Broncos, they assembled a great team in a manner that was common place for top clubs at the time.
Then in the mid 1990’s the Super League War broke out. That changed EVERYTHING…
The jewel in the crown of the Super League competition was the Brisbane Broncos. When the Super League War broke out, any thought of the salary cap was obliterated! Players were being offered ridiculous amounts of money from all sides.
During this time some clubs made out better than others. Brisbane was one of a few sides that managed to make the best of the situation. They were not the only side, after all, the Sydney Roosters were no where at all before the Super League War broke out, but the Broncos did well for themselves in terms of recruitment at that time.
Importantly, the Broncos didn’t lose too many of their top players at this time. They also continued to bring through talented players they had developed themselves. A skinny kid from Roma comes to mind.
The Super League War destroyed the salary cap. It just didn’t exist for a few years. The over spending on players saw some clubs having to cut back on spending just because they were going to go broke if they didn’t. The Brisbane Broncos were not one of those clubs. They could afford to keep most of the talent they had acquired during this time. That isn’t a criticism, that is just a sign of the strength of the club at the time.
Coming out of the Super League War, the game knew it had to bring spending under control. The number of teams in the competition were cut back and spending on players was to be reduced to eventually bring clubs back under an affordable salary cap. It was a time that saw a lot of clubs losing talent to opposition teams, to Super League and to Rugby Union during this process.
The Brisbane Broncos were not immune to this at all. They lost the likes of Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri, Allan Langer, Steve Renouf, Brad Thorn…a whole host of players at different stages of their careers. Some of these players the Broncos would have loved to have held onto but the salary cap was now an enemy. The playing field was a lot more level and all clubs that had the capacity to spend more on players no longer had the advantage they once held over their rivals.
To the Brisbane Broncos credit, youth once again came to their rescue. The Broncos started to bring through a number of talented young players. At this time in the games history, a youngster who was still on a their junior contract but who was playing first grade football was the most valuable player any club could have. It allowed a team to hold onto their stars, but to get a great contribution from their young players who were not on a great deal of money.
If you look at the premiership winners between 2000 and 2010, they all have that in common. Great players surrounded by youngsters who were break out stars. Players who were not earning a great deal but who were performing at a high level.
The Brisbane Broncos were one of those teams in 2006. As Darren Lockyer put together one of the greatest seasons any modern day player has every played, and the Brisbane Broncos veterans performed well, touches of class were added to that side by youngsters like Karmichael Hunt, Darius Boyd, Corey Parker…the kids the Broncos had developed themselves.
It is at this point that things started to change a little…
The Broncos had to deal with the loss of some players to other clubs that they would ideally liked to have held onto. We also saw the Broncos bringing youngsters into their side who were good, but not quite at the same level we had become accustomed to seeing them commit to.
The evolution of the game by this time had seen the salary cap locked in. Teams across the competition were look far and wide for the best young talent in the game. While it was not a shock to see other clubs bring through top class Queensland talent, it was a shock to see the Melbourne Storm bring through Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Greg Inglis…all Queensland juniors, all playing for the Melbourne Storm. Together these players built a dynasty. They kept that dynasty in place by going way over the salary cap…but they still brought those players into first grade. That caliber of youngster is what we were used to seeing the Brisbane Broncos bring through.
By this stage the great Darren Lockyer was playing in a team that wasn’t all that good. It was a true testament to his ability that Lockyer was able to drag some of those last few Broncos sides he played for kicking and screaming into the finals.
Wayne Bennett was gone, a new coach took over, but the rot had already set in. The Brisbane Broncos went into full rebuilding mode for the first time in their history and they did so in an era in which the salary cap was in full effect and the competition for young talent had never been so fierce.
Great young players were emerging all around the competition. For a while it seemed like every great young player was from Queensland! It wasn’t a lot of fun for a New South Wales supporter who was by this time wondering when Queensland’s State Of Origin winning streak was every going to end.
The strange thing was, more and more of this great young Queensland talent was not being developed by the Broncos. The players the Broncos were bringing through their junior development systems were solid players, but not what they used to be.
Darren Lockyer’s retirement was felt immediately. The Broncos lost that touch of Lockyer class. Unlike previous era’s were a great Broncos player had already passed the torch to the next great Broncos leader…there was no one to fill the void this time.
So here we are in 2014, and the Broncos are starting to look a little better. Who has been their most impressive player this season? Who has been the driving force at the club? A Brisbane Broncos junior called Ben Hunt.
You see, its never been about buying a premiership winning side for the Brisbane Broncos. It has never been about all of the best Queensland talent climbing over each other to join the club. All of the Brisbane Broncos greatest success was build upon home grown talent.
At some point the Brisbane Broncos lost track of that. It probably happened a few years before Wayne Bennett first left the club. By the time Wayne Bennett handed the team over to Ivan Henjak the damage was already done. Henjak had to do his best with the club he was handed.
In 2014 the was way back for the Brisbane Broncos has nothing to do with some “Destination Broncos” myth. Look at premiership winning clubs over the last 10 years. Every single one of them, without fail, has build a premiership winner on the back of junior development. Sure you need the nice finishing touches here and there by recruiting players from outside the club, but you don’t win the Grand Final unless you are building on a base of elite home grown talent.
The Brisbane Broncos need to stop thinking about what other clubs have. They need to start looking within and fix the issues that have developed within their once unmatched junior development system.
There is no reason at all for the Brisbane Broncos to not have the best junior development system in the game. Money is not an issue. Their catchment area produces so much great talent that goes on to fire for other clubs.
While the media and some fans talk about bringing stars “back” to Brisbane, they are missing the obvious issue. The Brisbane Broncos need to start developing elite junior talent of their own once again. Once that begins to happen, the glory days are sure to return.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com