Brave Broncos edge Panthers to keep title dreams alive
BRISBANE have set up a pulsating grand-final qualifier against mighty Melbourne after the braveheart Broncos overcame more casualties to bury the Panthers 13-6 at Suncorp Stadium.
In an epic sudden-death semi-final before 38,623 fans, the Broncos prevailed, summoning every strand of courage to muzzle Penrith with a defensive desperation that wins premierships.
Already missing star skipper Darius Boyd, the Broncos were left with one man on interchange in the final 12 minutes after Corey Oates (21st), Jai Arrow (55th) and Sam Thaiday (68th) left the field with head knocks.
Amid the carnage, the Broncos held their nerve, leading 6-0 at half-time before a sizzling try from James Roberts (47th minute) and a calm one-pointer from Jordan Kahu 10 minutes from time ended Penrith's season.
Now Everest awaits. The Storm juggernaut are unbackable favourites to win the premiership, but next Friday night in Melbourne they face the Broncos club that famously broke their hearts with a boilover in the 2006 grand-final.
That just happens to be Brisbane's most recent premiership - and the Broncos will believe they have the heart to break their 11-year title drought after outlasting a plucky Penrith outfit.
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett lauded the courage of his men, saying it was evidence Brisbane was prepared to pay the price in pursuit of the holy grail.
"I was proud," he said.
"There's two or three times that Penrith could have scored but they didn't, that's paying the price. There are a lot of exhausted players in the change room."
Pressed on the Storm, Bennett did his best to avoid the looming showdown, saying: "I don't want to talk about Melbourne, I just want to enjoy this."
Asked if Brisbane could beat the Storm, Penrith counterpart Anthony Griffin said: "Anyone can beat anyone at this time of year. Defensively, the Broncos showed they will be hard to beat."
History is against Bennett's troops. The Broncos have won just four of 23 games against Melbourne in the past decade, but this performance was evidence Brisbane will go down swinging.
The Panthers hammered Brisbane's line, having 35 tackles to eight in the opposition red zone. But the Broncos' brick wall that inspired their 2015 grand-final charge is back, broken just once when Reagan Campbell-Gillard crashed over in the 64th minute to set-up a thrilling finale.
By rights, Penrith should have led at half-time. The fact the visitors went to the break with a duck egg was as much a result of Penrith's poor execution in attack as Brisbane's granite-like ethos in defence.
"For a 15-minute period I thought we would claw them back," Griffin said.
"I'm so proud of the players, but there's some mixed emotions. A lot of the younger guys in their first season went toe-to-toe with Brisbane in a semi-final at Suncorp."
Without Boyd, Brisbane's playmaking spine did a serviceable job.
Aside from fluffing one high kick, Kodi Nikorima was heroic filling Boyd's shoes. Benji Marshall played with better control at halfback, while Anthony Milford needs to be more consistent, mixing some dangerous darts with a number of misdirected passes under pressure.
It may not have been Brisbane's most ruthless display, but they have big-game players who respond in clutch moments. The Broncos have shown before they can tactically outsmart Melbourne. Bring on the Storm.