What went right, and wrong, for Brisbane in 2018
THE season finished much like it started.
The Brisbane Broncos were bundled out of the NRL premiership race in a 48-18 hiding to St George Illawarra at Suncorp Stadium last Sunday.
The Broncos' last game of the season had a striking resemblance to the first when the Dragons handed Brisbane a 34-12 hiding.
The Round 1 thrashing at Kogarah was the start of the Broncos' struggles in 2018 as Brisbane failed to enter the NRL's top four at any stage throughout the season.
In the lead-up to the playoffs there was a chance the Broncos may not even qualify.
But a late flurry of wins against the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Sea Eagles secured a home final, only for Brisbane's season to end in a 30-point shellacking.
The Broncos' search for a seventh premiership will enter a 13th season next year, the longest drought in the club's 30-year history.
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
The Broncos' achilles heel in 2018 was defence.
While Brisbane scored 556 points, the third best in the NRL, they conceded 500, ranking their defence 10th.
The Broncos had the worst defensive record of the eight teams in the finals and conceded more points than the 12th-placed Bulldogs (474).
The Broncos' defensive woes stemmed from structural issues, contact deficiencies (11th most missed tackles) and a lack of continuity in the team because of injuries.
"Throughout this year in different games our defence let us down," captain Darius Boyd said.
"We lost a bit of confidence in it."
Coach Wayne Bennett used 28 players throughout the season as injuries crushed the Broncos.
Star players Matt Gillett (five games), Jack Bird (eight) and Jaydn Su'A (15) battled serious injuries throughout the year while Test lock Josh McGuire was limited to 18 appearances.
"The injury toll has its part, we had key players out," Bennett said.
"No one knows, except all of us in the team, what we've been through this season. It's been a tough season for everybody for a whole lot of reasons.
"The toughest part of the season has been the amount of top quality players we had injured.
"It's a maturity thing for a lot of these players. You pay a price for that in finals because they are about expectation and how you manage it.
"There are too many young guys in the team without experience.
"We overcame that to put ourselves in the top eight. The boys responded well and have been wonderful in many ways."
The Broncos also struggled at times with the inconsistency of halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima.
While five-eighth Milford finished the regular season in hot form, he didn't produce a year worthy of being a $1 million-a-season player.
Captain Darius Boyd's form didn't peak until the back end as he dealt with a nagging hamstring problem and explosive forward Tevita Pangai Jr was constantly troubled by injury.
THE BRIGHT STARS
Brisbane's injury issues allowed Bennett to usher in the next generation of Broncos stars.
Winger Jamayne Isaako was sensational in playing all 25 games to be in Dally M rookie-of-the-year contention and prop Matt Lodge overcame a tumultuous start to the season to not miss a game.
Winger Corey Oates was in sublime form for much of the year and centre James Roberts secured a NSW Origin debut.
When fit, Pangai Jr was a matchwinner and Bennett got some game time into teenage stars Payne Haas (three games) and David Fifita (11).
Su'A, 20, proved he will be a backrow sensation before breaking his ankle and utility Kotoni Staggs rose from relative obscurity to play nine games.
"We've had a lot of young guys exposed to the NRL," Bennett said.
"All the NRL games the young guys have got up and the potential that's there … if you put them all together and we can start the season (fit it will be a positive).
"I'm pretty optimistic we'll be able to start the season with everybody available to be selected. This season we couldn't do that."
Brisbane had the ingredients to go deep in September this season, but lacked the defence and a bit of luck to match it with the top teams.
The Broncos showed potential in knocking off the likes of the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Sharks and Panthers, but they dropped too many games to non-contenders like the Bulldogs, Titans, Sea Eagles and Knights.
If he remains at the helm of the Broncos next year, Bennett will have one of the hottest teams in the NRL, chock full of rising stars and some seasoned veterans.
The challenge for the seven-time premiership winning coach is to find the right formula to bring it all together and not let another opportunity slip.
Bennett must also manage the distractions of what shapes as his final season in charge of the Broncos.