Brisbane Broncos continue return to form against Manly, after Magic Round gets off to rough start

Organisers decided months ago what the first game of Magic Round would be.

In some ways it’s a prime slot — kicking off the most anticipated round since the opener — but it’s also a graveyard slot — off free-to-air telly and starting as people get home from work or cook dinner.

It was also only ever going to be a curtain-raiser to the main event, Brisbane vs Manly.

With Newcastle dropping just below Canterbury to 16th on the ladder last week, it ensured the graveyard slot would be occupied by two teams effectively dead on arrival.

The NRL got lucky.

The people who turned up at 6pm on a Friday, less so.

While the Bulldogs seem spurred on by years of futile toil at the bottom of the ladder, energised by new faces and excited by the very prospect of building towards something, Newcastle appear shellshocked to find themselves where they are.

Their attack lacks spark, even with Kalyn Ponga at the back, although he looks more static than electric right now.

They managed to trip over the finish line first — 16-6 — but even Knights coach Adam O’Brien couldn’t watch at one point, storming out of the box when Leo Thompson dropped the ball from here.

The Bulldogs couldn’t punish Newcastle for this error. And so it went all night.(Supplied: Kayo)

Mercifully for Thompson and fittingly for the match, the Bulldogs went up the other end and Chris Patolo also dropped the ball cold.

Both mentors could have been forgiven for feigning health and safety protocols to get out of dodge, because there were any number of similar passages of play where the teams looked rudderless.

At the end of an energetic, if flawed, opening stanza, on the last play of the first half, Edrick Lee moved almost 20 metres in-field to slide out wide on a left-side shift. He got a wide ball from Kalyn Ponga and was met, by not just opposite number Jayden Okunbor, but Brent Naden. Then Kyle Flanagan. Then Tevita Pangai Jr.

The Bulldogs’ sliding defence matched the lateral attack so easily that it must have stunned the Bulldogs that the Knights were making it that easy.

Newcastle Knights' Kalyn Ponga tries to fend off Canterbury Bulldogs' Max King. The Knights won, but wouldn’t have been happy with their performance.(Getty: Bradley Kanaris)

The set before that, the ball went to ground between Lee and Bradman Best on a similarly ineffective slide. The play after that, Tex Hoy kicked dead on the full and crocked his shoulder.

Starting from 20 metres out with seven tackles under their belt, the Bulldogs replied by failing to run at the one-armed man defending at a narrow right centre, then knocked it on before reaching the third tackle.

In the second half, Newcastle strung together enough competent seconds for Ponga to put Bradman Best past some ordinary Bulldogs defence.

But, true to form, the Knights knocked on off the ensuing set. Continuing the theme, the Bulldogs failed to pack the scrum in time but were still allowed to play on, only to watch fullback Matt Dufty drop the ball on the scrumbase play.

It was a miracle Peter V’landys didn’t get on the blower before full-time and change the rules to make this win only worth one point, but by the time it was over and the Lang Park light show started, it was clear that wasn’t Magic Round’s opening act; just the support act.

Broncos looking like an NRL team again, and a pretty good one at that

Corey Oates smiles and is hugged by three other players in white shirts Corey Oates (second from right) scored a late double as the rain arrived.(Getty Images: Bradley Kanaris)

Before the 16-team, eight-game festival of footy was official, Manly had a habit of taking the occasional home game up to Brisbane.

That was evident in the support they got from the Lang Park crowd on Friday night, paired with a few refrains of Eagle Rock and coupled with some Brookvale-level booing of Adam Reynolds every time he lined up a shot at goal.

The bad news for those booing was that Reynolds was lining them up a lot. Seven times to be exact. And all of them went through — the only blemish being a wayward field-goal attempt late in the first half.

For the second week in a row, Reynolds played conductor, with Selwyn Cobbo and Corey Oates first and second chair violins, and Payne Haas and Pat Carrigan setting the tempo in the percussion section as the Broncos trampled their opponents.

Last week it was reigning grand finalists South Sydney, this week it was a Manly side with superstar Tom Trbojevic featuring in his second game back from injury.

But the gun fullback featured in the opening blunder of the game, allowing the kick-off to bounce between himself and Kieran Foran, rolling dead and handing possession back to the Broncos.

Reynolds and Cobbo combined for the first time, soon after, and Brisbane — 14th last year and stone-dead last in 2020 — were off and running.

Daly Cherry-Evans and another Manly player grab Corey Oates, who is upside down during an NRL game. Despite what you see here, it was a competent, professional and impressive display from Brisbane.(Getty: Bradley Kanaris)

Freak starts like that have happened to Brisbane over the past two years, but they’ve almost always let them slip with silly mistakes, lazy defence and bad execution.

This time they never looked like slowing down.

Trbojevic was clearly labouring at the back and couldn’t impact the game, but you got the sense even at the peak of his powers, the end result would have been the same (though maybe not as emphatic as the 38-0 scoreline that eventuated).

The aforementioned stars were of course excellent, as were Kurt Capewell, Kotoni Staggs and Herbie Farnworth.

Crucially, Billy Walters is hitting his stride, in this case meaning passes from dummy half are finally hitting Reynolds in stride, starting Brisbane’s attack off on the right note more often than not.

Even the rain that has battered Brisbane for two weeks straight held off for most of the night, only really returning for the final 25 minutes to ensure Oates could have a fun slip and slide as he dove in for his double.

On a night when four NRL teams took to the park, the Broncos looked by far the most competent, complete and copacetic of the lot.

After watching them the past two years, if that’s not enough to make you believe in magic, what is?

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Krzysztof Stanowicz

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