The End of Empire: The Sharp Decline of the Brisbane Broncos

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

Most historians argue over how quickly it took for Rome to fall and the reasons behind the decline of the most powerful empire the world has ever known. Some see the decline starting with the political anarchy that reigned supreme in the third century lasting all the way through to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Others view the decline as much sharper, a combination of the rise of barbarianism, political corruption, overexpansion and religion seeing Rome fall in less than a century.

The rugby league equivalent of the fall of Rome is the abrupt and severe decline of the Brisbane Broncos.

The Brisbane Broncos have been the powerhouse in Australian rugby league since entering the New South Wales Rugby League in 1988. Since then, Brisbane have claimed six premierships. They have not missed a finals series since 1991. They have never lost a Grand Final. The club was the driving force behind Super League. It is the most popular club in Australia. It is also one of the wealthiest. The club has had 37 internationals and 52 Origin representatives in a little over 20 years of existence, the vast majority home grown products. Four Australian captains have been Broncos. On five occasions, Brisbane have had 11 players in a single Origin match. Darren Lockyer is revered as one of the greatest players ever and arguably the best player of the post-Super League era. The likes of Langer, Lazarus, Tallis, Webcke, Civoniceva, Renouf, Lewis, Miles and Walters are generally regarded as some of the greatest players of the modern era. Six Broncos were named in the Centenary of League’s 100 greatest players. By comparison, Canterbury, who have been around since 1935, only had six players named while Penrith, around for over forty years, had only one player in the hundred best. No club has had more wins or a better record in the period since Brisbane joined the competition. Wayne Bennett, who coached the club from 1988 to 2008, is the most decorated and admired coach in the history of the game.

Make no mistake. The Brisbane Broncos have been the preeminent rugby league team and arguably the most successful sporting franchise in Australia for the last two decades. They have not known failure.

That is, until now. The bell has tolled for thee. The end of empire is upon us for the Broncos.

Historians will argue the exact point when the walls came tumbling down but all roads most surely can be traced back to the decision to push Wayne Bennett out the door. Bennett was forced out of the Broncos in 2008 after a power struggle with Chief Executive Bruno Cullen. Bennett had, until Cullen’s arrival, almost absolute power at the Broncos. During that time Brisbane had been unparalleled in their success while players rarely displayed attitudinal problems. Success was expected, insolence wasn’t tolerated and any trouble was dealt with swiftly. Brisbane was a proud club and a certain standard of performance, both on and off the field, was expected.

Cullen’s refusal to allow Bennett the total power he has had since slaying “The King” Wally Lewis in 1990 forced Bennett to look elsewhere. His aborted move to the Roosters was the trigger Cullen used to finally rid the club of Bennett. The ramifications of the move are only now being felt as the influence of Bennett on the processes, attitudes and direction at the club evaporates each and every day. No single person has been as powerful at a football club in my lifetime. No person has ever had the success Bennett has either.

Bruno Cullen could not let that be though. He had to tangle with Bennett. He had to belly bump with the Zen Master for reasons purely personal though they were no doubt disguised as acting in the greater good of the Broncos club. Cullen seems like a personable and well meaning chap but he is a politician first and foremost and self-preservation is his natural instinct. Cullen could never feel safe with Bennett in the picture. He also could not attack Bennett directly. So he poked and he prodded, he shimmied and he swerved, he positioned and re-positioned. It was pure Machiavellianism.

The end result, of course, was Bennett leaving the Broncos. By the time Cullen came along, Bennett saw himself, quite rightly considering his achievements, as above such low-brow football club politics. He expected that his record would speak for itself. With Cullen, his record spoke but it spread fear rather than trust in the mind and body of Bruno Cullen. In the end Bennett was worn down by Cullen’s political manoeuvring. He made a deal with the Roosters and though it didn’t result in him hanging himself at Brisbane it allowed Cullen to be rid of Bennett without getting any blood on his hands.

When Bennett left he rightfully said that Cullen “just did not get it”. He also stated that Brisbane assistant Alan Langer was not a leader because he liked to be popular and surrounded by people. Neither statement was likely made out of spite but at any rate it doesn’t matter because was and is right. Recent happenings certainly suggest so.

In regards Langer, his lack of leadership was shown last weekend when Langer was done dancing on a pub table in his derps before being nabbed drink driving. Little more needs to be said other than the fact Langer was always kept in check by Bennett and would never be allowed to embarrass the club or the game like he has this week.

Cullen doesn’t get it and he has presided over the disintegration of the Brisbane Broncos Empire. He hired a coach that doesn’t appear capable of getting a team to play for him. He has allowed many of the club’s best players to leave while signing a parade of fools, soft-cocks and glorified reserve graders. He has allowed a once solid team-first culture to dissipate in less than eighteen months. Attitude problems reign supreme both on and off the field. Front office politics and internal factionalism is rife. Players are prepared to throw in the towel when the going gets tough, something that simply was not tolerated under Bennett. This is predominantly on Cullen though his boy Ivan Henjak and the players must also be held responsible.

Look at the Broncos personnel moves since winning the premiership in 2006 when club legend Shane Wecke retired. Broncos icon Petero Civoniceva was allowed to move on to Penrith. Brent Tate, Ben Hannant, David Stagg, Michael Ennis, Darius Boyd, Greg Eastwood, Joel Moon, Dave Taylor, Shaun Berrigan, Brad Thorn and Karmichael Hunt have all left the Broncos to head to another club. Only Hunt left receiving a fair offer to stay in Brisbane. The rest left because Brisbane either chose to lowball them or forced them out because they had run into salary cap problems. That is ten Origin or international representatives who have left the club since Bennett has left or had his powers severely reduced.

Replacing this lot were Joel Clinton, Ashton Sims, P.J Marsh, Peter Wallace, Lagi Setu, Ben Te’o, Aaron Gorrell, Israel Folau, Scott Anderson and Tim Natusch. Gorrell and Marsh are now out of top line rugby league. Joel Clinton was released to play in England. Sims and Setu are both being touted for release in the coming weeks. Natusch has not played first grade. Anderson has not played first grade well. Te’o has been a fringe top grader at best. The only decent buys Brisbane have made over the last three seasons are Peter Wallace and Israel Folau and the latter has taken up such a large portion of the salary cap that the team has been lacking in experienced, talented and tough forwards since he moved north from Melbourne.

The net outcome of simple recruitment and retention is astounding. In less than three years a premiership team has not only been gutted but completely dismantled. Part of it would have come about naturally through the salary cap but most of the damage done has been self-inflicted, paying big money to Joel Clinton and Ashton Sims only to let Petero Civoniceva and Ben Hannant head elsewhere. By any measure, the recruitment and retention of the Brisbane Broncos over the last three years, led by coach Ivan Henjak (who over that time has either been the coach or coach-in-waiting) has been an atrocity of astronomic proportions.

The result has been a sharp decline in the players playing for Brisbane and their commitment to the jersey. If the Henjak years will be remembered for anything, it will be the players willingness to throw the towel in when the going gets tough. Brisbane may have made a preliminary final last year but that final standing merely papier-mached over the systemic cultural and attitudinal problems that have been allowed to flourish under the leadership of Bruno Cullen and Ivan Henjak.

Last year Brisbane finished 14th in defence, giving up 24 points per match. At one stage the Broncos lost seven of eight, allowing 34 points in all bar two of those matches. They lost to Canberra 56-0 and it was obvious that a good number of the players threw in the towel. There was not an ounce of pride in the jersey. Commitment is exhibited through defence and Brisbane showed little last year. Their season was only saved by the commitment and leadership of Darren Lockyer and Corey Parker and the class of Justin Hodges, Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt, Dave Taylor and Sam Thaiday.

Hodges is currently on the long-term injury list. Parker and Folau won’t be back for at least a month. Hunt is playing rugby in France. Taylor is jogging around at Souths. Only Lockyer and Thaiday are about to lift a team that looks nothing like the Broncos teams of days gone by.

This year the Broncos are last in points allowed after four games, leaking an awful 29.8 points per match. They tossed the towel in, embarrassing the jersey, against the Warriors while they have looked lifeless and bereft of class and commitment against both Canberra and the Roosters. No team has missed more tackles this year. While 5 missed tackles cover the 6th to 15th worst defensive outfits in the NRL this year, the Broncos are 5 tackles worse than the second worst team. Players have clearly been seen shirking the task. Two established first graders were this week suspended for missing training as the team is battling through an injury crisis. The club is trying to move two more players on. The side to take on the Dragons this week is full of names even the most ardent rugby league fan would struggle to recognise. Front office politics and factionalism is, by all reports, crippling the club.

The problems at Brisbane are more than just short-term nuisances. They are systemic and they have been allowed to flourish by the top brass who have bought in the wrong people and allowed the proud Bronco culture that always got the best out of most players to disintegrate. These lacklustre, guileless, insipid on-field performances coupled with the selfish and careless attitudes of many of the senior players suggest that last drinks have been called. We are at the end of empire.

A strong Brisbane Broncos is good for rugby league. They may no longer be the sole pride of Queensland but they are the most popular team in the most rampant league loving city in the world. And at any rate, I have come to like and respect the Broncos, the storied history of the club and the proud culture of success, the long line of champions and the strong pillars on which the institution is built. This is not an attack born out of vindictiveness but rather a commentary delivered out of respect and a want for the Brisbane of the Bennett years to return. Times are dire at Red Hill. Rome has been allowed to burn. It is time for responsibility to be taken. Bruno Cullen must step aside. Ivan Henjak must be moved on. The recruitment and retention team must be overhauled. Those charged with identifying and developing young talent need to better prepare those coming through the ranks. The culture of pride, selflessness, commitment and success, all tenants of the Broncos tradition since day one, must be re-discovered. Club legends need to be included. Talented home grown talent must be kept. Failure to do all of this will leave the Brisbane Broncos anchored down the bottom of the table and mired in the mediocrity we are currently witnessing.

Hopefully the Broncos board get their act together soon before much more damage to the Broncos brand, image and legacy is done.

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