When Andrew McCullough was allowed to leave Brisbane for Newcastle to cover for the injured Jayden Brailey, it was seen as a gesture of goodwill by a team that had little need for an ageing veteran.
It was always risky, but the Broncos clearly felt the 30-year-old McCullough was surplus to requirements with Jake Turpin having secured the starting hooker role.
With no lower-grade football being played, if McCullough was dropped he would have just gathered dust on the shelves in Red Hill, but that is the very reason the Broncos needed to keep the State of Origin representative in the fold.
When Turpin broke his leg shortly after McCullough’s departure, the Broncos had a paddling pool’s worth of replacement options to pick from, thanks to the limited squad numbers and lack of Queensland Cup games — which usually serves as a life-preserver, stacked with available and match-fit players as it is.
You know what would have been handy? A proven NRL performer with a work ethic like few others.
Alas, they had no option but to turn to 20-year-old Cory Paix, who, after two games as the only dummy half in the team, was replaced in the starting line-up by, you guessed it, a proven NRL performer in the form of the Dragons’ Issac Luke, who jumped from one dinghy riddled with holes to another.
Luke was solid against the Knights after being rushed into the starting 13, showing some veteran nous in the number nine while only playing 48 minutes. McCullough meanwhile looks a new man in Newcastle, but he’s really the same man on a better team.
And unless the Broncos want to keep pilfering past-their-prime former rep players from other clubs, their avenue for improvement is narrow and perilous.
Thursday night’s loss to Newcastle was somehow a new low for the Broncos despite being their second-smallest losing margin since the resumption.
The first game back against the Eels was tough but it was a new version of rugby league and there was bound to be some adjusting. Then the extent of the 59-0 loss to the Roosters was partially explained by seven missing starters. Then they showed some spark in establishing an 18-0 lead against Manly, even if all it did was set up a more creative way for the team to lose.
The Knights clash was supposed to be a more accurate look at what the team is, with captain Alex Glenn and impact forward Tevita Pangai Jr back in the pack.
But Pangai’s presence caused more damage to Brisbane than his absence, with one impressive shot on David Klemmer unable to mask a game riddled with handling errors, mistimed and poorly executed offloads, and defensive lapses in both judgement and effort.
The Broncos have to try something, because things can’t get much worse
He was the biggest target but far from the only one underperforming in the 27-6 loss, and while coach Anthony Seibold acknowledged after the game that changes have to be made, he seemed at a loss as to how to pull the trigger on a reshuffle.
Sure, some of the young guys are training well, but so are the players who have been outscored 140-30 in the past four weeks.
Anthony Milford came in for a shellacking after another poor performance, with Tom Dearden the 19-year-old elephant in the room.
He showed competence if not brilliance in limited game time as a rookie last year, but Seibold doesn’t seem to know what to make of the teenager who has been hanging around the club for the past 18 months.
“He’s a super-talented player but he’s only played one full game of footy since last May,” Seibold said.
“He’s an NRL player of the future and he did a good job for us last year in the few games he played.
But frankly, Seibold doesn’t have a choice.
The Broncos are the only team to have lost every game since the NRL returned. And while they have had a harder draw than the teams below them on the ladder — Gold Coast, St George Illawarra, Canterbury and Cronulla — the eye test tells you the Broncos are as clueless (to borrow Andrew Johns’ descriptor) as anyone.
The Queensland Cup isn’t coming back any time soon. Seibold’s job as a coach is to fix the problems in his team now.
While that includes finding some attacking plays that his team can actually execute and fixing the apparent disconnect between players in the defensive line, it also includes assessing and mentoring young players and mixing them with the veterans.
If Dearden was good enough last year, then why isn’t he this year? If he gets a chance, he needs to know that the losses that will inevitably keep coming aren’t his fault.
And it doesn’t have to be a straight swap. Milford could be moved to fullback, allowing Jamayne Isaako to move to a position where he’s asked to do less play-making, or to the bench, as an impact player or injury cover for any position in the spine.
The shine that Milford, Pangai Jr and Seibold had when they first arrived at the club has worn off and the vultures are circling.
Seibold’s preliminary final appearance with South Sydney was two years ago, the Broncos’ runner-up season was five years ago and their last premiership was 14 years ago.
For a team that has only missed the finals twice since winning its first premiership back in 1992, this might be hard to hear but, if the Broncos lose to the Titans next week, it can be taken as confirmation that they are the worst team in the NRL for the first time in franchise history.
And in a results-based industry, right now is all that matters.