One of the few genuine question marks hanging over Brisbane’s 2015 premiership credentials was answered emphatically during Saturday night’s 16-12 triumph over North Queensland, with boom halves Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford playing a key role in propelling the Broncos into their first preliminary final in four years.
The more cautious pundits wondered whether the young livewires would be able to transfer their blistering regular-season form onto the finals stage in front of a heaving 50,000-plus crowd at Suncorp Stadium.
The 25-year-old Hunt, who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2014 that culminated in a Kangaroos Four Nations call-up, had started in just one post-season match – last year’s qualifying final loss to the Cowboys – courtesy of serving a long apprenticeship as the Broncos’ bench utility.
Canberra recruit Milford, 21, had not experienced September action during his 42-game stint with the Raiders.
But the exciting duo ultimately proved the difference in a gripping, torrid encounter against the much-fancied Cowboys, both scoring tries at crucial junctures. Hunt produced a trademark dummy and step in a 25-metre solo effort during the first half, while Milford backed up a dummy-half break by Kodi Nikorima and scorched 40 metres to the line for a decisive touchdown with 15 minutes on the clock.
— NRL (@NRL) September 12, 2015
They were outstanding throughout, Milford racking up 134 running metres and Hunt steering the side around the park like a veteran. Tellingly, the superb collective performance came against arguably the NRL’s most highly-regarded halves pairing, current Queensland Origin reps Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan.
Hunt’s kicking game has previously fallen apart in tight games, while his shaky last-tackle options held the Broncos back last year. But he has worked on those shortcomings and is rapidly developing into the complete halfback.
Milford’s tentative start to his tenure in Brisbane – struggling to impose himself in attack and coping with an increased defensive workload in the No.6 jumper – prompted many to question whether he and the club would be better served by a return to fullback. But he, too, has resoundingly quelled any doubts over his suitability to the vital playmaking role.
The Samoan international has scored 12 tries this season, while his mate in the No.7 jumper has crossed 11 times. Milford and Hunt boast 14 try assists apiece.
Prolific offensive stats like those make it easy to see why the burgeoning double-act is being compared to legendary Broncos halves Allan Langer and Kevin Walters – who are both on the club’s staff, and are no doubt imparting their wisdom on ‘Alfie’ and ‘Kevvie’ Mark II.
Milford has been tagged as a superstar virtually from his 2013 debut, but it’s been a tougher road for Hunt. The inaugural NYC Player of the Year in 2008, the stocky ball-player occupied a regular place in the Broncos’ 17 from 2010, but started just 22 of his first 89 first grade games in the halves. He was stuck behind the likes of Darren Lockyer, Peter Wallace and Scott Prince.
But the long apprenticeship that seemed increasingly unlikely to develop into a full-time gig has steeled Rockhampton-born Hunt, ultimately making him a better player and more determined to be the Broncos’ go-to guy.
Hunt’s leadership qualities have also come to the forefront, to the extent that he shapes as a future captain of Brisbane, destined to follow in the footsteps of the club’s esteemed linchpin skippers: Wally Lewis, Langer, Walters and Lockyer.
— UBET (@UBET) September 12, 2015
Of course, there’s far more to Brisbane’s title bid than their brilliant halves. A well-balanced, experienced and international-laden forward pack, the wily influence of Justin Hodges and Darius Boyd out wide, and the presence of coach Wayne Bennett – the Broncos’ version of Yoda – has contributed heavily to the side edging into premiership favouritism.
The path to the grand final is a rocky one; they are likely to have to overcome the Sydney Roosters in the preliminary final after the minor premiers were upset by Melbourne in week one. But one thing is certain: in Hunt and Milford, the Broncos possess the halves kingpins to go toe-to-toe, try-for-try and assist-for-assist with the Tricolours’ shot-callers, Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney.
Let’s just hope that if the Broncos do go all the way, Hunt doesn’t brush the revered Lockyer’s handshake request again…