Wayne goes all-in on biggest ever Broncos gamble
RUGBY LEAGUE: Thirty years ago Wayne Bennett was putting the finishing touches on the maiden Brisbane Broncos team comfortable in the knowledge that he had the game's best five-eighth at his disposal.
The master coach has placed similar faith in Anthony Milford taking ownership of a youthful-looking Brisbane team in 2018 but the precociously talented 23-year-old is a long way from the resume possessed by 'The King' Wally Lewis three decades ago.
The halves combination of Milford and Kodi Nikorima operated with great success in 2017, winning 10 of the 12 games in which they were the chief architects of the Brisbane attack, but this year will be the time that Milford is expected to earn his rich pay packet.
Entering his fourth year as a Bronco, Milford will be tasked with emerging from the role of brilliant matchwinner into accomplished game manager, and in so doing, justify the belief Bennett showed in not only luring him to Red Hill in 2015 but handing him a four-year contract extension midway through last year.
If Milford is under pressure, Nikorima has an opportunity to prove to the doubters that he is an NRL standard No.7 and not simply a stopgap to a more high-profile replacement for Ben Hunt in 2019.
The elevation of Milford and Nikorima to key roles is part of Bennett's generational turnover that saw Hunt, Adam Blair, Benji Marshall and David Mead move on at the end of the 2017 season.
Controversial prop Matt Lodge has been issued a career lifeline and will bring size and skill to the front row, Sharks premiership winner Jack Bird has been promised plenty of ball out wide and expectations are that 18-year-old Payne Haas will be given a taste of first grade at some stage in 2018.
Former Shark Sam Tagataese adds further physical presence and experience in the front row, which should help to lighten the load on Queensland Origin regulars Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire and back-rower Alex Glenn.
Outside of his trusted starters there is little depth in the halves and at hooker, so more than ever Bennett needs his finely tuned footballing instincts to be proven right yet again.
Over the next month, foxsports.com.au will be previewing your team's best 17. As always, there will be some contentious decisions - and some unlucky omissions. NB: These line-ups don't take into account current injuries (unless they're season ending) or suspensions.
Darius Boyd - Skipping the Kangaroos' World Cup campaign due to an ongoing hamstring complaint has given the Broncos skipper a chance to rest his body and mind as he enters the first of a new four-year deal with the club. The 30-year-old missed Origin III in 2017 and a month of the NRL season with a hamstring injury but has been running freely in the early months of pre-season training and will again anchor the Brisbane attack.
His calming influence on Milford and Nikorima will be crucial and there remains no more astute fullback when it comes to hitting his winger with a precision pass on a lateral shift. With so many young faces coming into the squad, the success of the Broncos in the next four years will rest largely on the standard set by Boyd.
The halves - The way they performed in 2017 suggests there should be little concern regarding the halves pairing of Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima but with no experience in the squad behind them it's very much all or nothing. Milford has proven his brilliance but is yet to mature into a half that can control a contest while Nikorima had never started an NRL game at No.7 until last year. The pair had 29 try assists and 14 tries between them in 2017 and their team's fortunes will rest on how they handle the pressure of the close games.
THE RISING STAR
Payne Haas - Following the departures of regular first-grade forwards, Adam Blair, Jai Arrow and Herman Ese'ese and Sam Thaiday in his final season at the club, the Broncos will turn to generation next during 2018 and Haas is the one everyone is talking about. Still just 18 years of age, the 194cm, 120kg teen behemoth has been leading many of the fitness drills among the forwards and looking completely comfortable in NRL company. Along with Matt Lodge, George Fai and Jaydn Su'A, it will be a very different looking Broncos forward pack come the Origin period.
IT'S A BIG YEAR FOR...
Kodi Nikorima - Quite possibly the NRL's cheapest starting No.7 in 2018, Broncos officials have no doubt that Nikorima will perform the job expected of him this season but how well he performs will dictate whether the position is his for the foreseeable future. Nikorima, who won 11 of the 13 games he started at halfback last year, signed a new three-year deal last July and will be given every chance to showcase his full range of skills and become the long-term successor to Ben Hunt.
THE BEST 17
1. Darius Boyd
2. Corey Oates
3. James Roberts
4. Jack Bird
5. Jordan Kahu
6. Anthony Milford
7. Kodi Nikorima
8. Matt Lodge
9. Andrew McCullough
10. Korbin Sims
11. Alex Glenn
12. Matt Gillett
13. Josh McGuire
14. Sam Thaiday
15. Jaydn Su'A
16. Joe Ofahengaue
17. Tevita Pangai Jnr
OTHERS: Sam Tagataese, Andre Savelio, George Fai, Salesi Funaki, Payne Haas, Gehamat Shibaski, Jamayne Isaako, Jonus Pearson, Troy Dargan, Marion Seve, Mosese Pangai, Sam Scarlett, Todd Murphy, Tom Opacic, Patrick Mago.