Brisbane's duopoly taking high horses and raised fins into 2024

Viva Las Fullbacks: NRL stars set to light up Las Vegas (1:04)

These are just some of the plays fans can expect to see when rugby league hits the strip for the start of the 2024 NRL season. (1:04)

The 2024 NRL season kicks off under the bright lights of Las Vegas with the Brisbane Broncos looking to crash the party.

Joe Spreadborough assesses all four Queensland teams, including whether the Broncos can go one better in 2024.


October 1, 2023. The bright lights of Accor Stadium, the delirium of a near 82,000-strong crowd, and a drought-breaking premiership win that almost was, but was never meant to be.

From one perspective Kevin Walters' Broncos went close, oh so close, to taking down the Panthers last year. They could've done it, they should've done it, they fell short. Through another lens, Adam Reynolds and Co. were nowhere near it; error riddled early and outpointed in all the big moments, save for one magical passage of try scoring brilliance.

Before the possibility of a repeat appearance on decider day 2024 there's a brutal nine months ahead, a few holes to fill, signatures to secure, and a whole other set of bright lights to prepare for. The Broncos are rockin' the USA with a squad largely similar to the powerhouse of 2023. Expectations will be high from the outside and within, and aside from a few glitches, the team should be more than capable of meeting them.

The off season had several highlights to entice the believers.

- The exhilarating potential of Ezra Mam's retention, alongside the stability and morale boosting extension of Adam Reynolds.

- The global virality of Reece Walsh taking a pass from Tom Brady.

- Selwyn Cobbo being closer to the ball at all times.

- The staunchness of Corey Oates and Tristain Sailor's recommitment. The sort of club love that elevates an entire team.

- A record breaking fan day, and near-historic front office prosperity.

- The galvanising tonic of success, which saw a record crowd turn up for the clubs pre-season fan day.

- The motivation to come from the strong likelihood this squad won't stay together far beyond this year.

Alongside them, of course, some lowlights:

- The loss of Keenan Palasia, Kurt Capewell, Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler.

- The subsequent appearance of Farnworth and Flegler on billboards, draped in Dolphins kit in the heart of Brisbane's CBD.

- Capewell handling his own departure, and the announcement of it.

- The aftermath of the fan day; a drunken future captain Pat Carrigan practicing some WWE Smackdown maneuvers on current captain Adam Reynolds, in the company of fellow team leaders Payne Haas and Reece Walsh.

- A groveling public apology, followed by Reynolds and Carrigan publicly play wrestling days later.

It's a list of pros and cons notable mainly for the fact it doesn't bear a great deal of resonance with the week-to-week onfield performance of the club. An issue that didn't make the list- the US Visa clearance saga- threatened to derail the season opener before blowing over faster than a rain cloud in a Central Queensland drought.

On the field is where the Broncos can shake the demons of last year and make good on their apparently limitless potential. The squad had the chance to shake the off season cobwebs in a 46-20 dismantling of the Cowboys in week one of the preseason challenge (a slightly glorified trial match), before showcasing depth against Manly in week two. The two biggest takeaways- The Broncos are a team blisteringly capable at full strength, and full of intense competition for spots just beneath the surface. Billy Walters had a career best 2023, only to enter this year with Tyson Smoothy, Cory Paix and teenager Blake Mozer gnashing at his heels. Billy will be gunning for a new deal in the weeks following the Vegas adventure, while Smoothy will start the season freshly re-signed, and pitting his craftiness against Tristain Sailor's silkiness in a battle for a utility bench spot. Reece Walsh and Sailor pairing up in 2024 is a ridiculously enticing prospect, while the Selwyn Cobbo and Kotoni Staggs centres pair-up has Hodges/Tate caliber potential.

Tasked with filling a Kurt Capewell sized void, 21 year old Palm Beach graduate Brendan Piakura did the skill and power side of things beautifully in the Cowboys trial, until coming off with a knee injury. Piakura runs a beautiful line and defends like a possessed wolf. He's more than capable of holding an edge together, but the Capewell loss also robs the team of a bonafide leader. The club would more than back Carrigan and Haas to fill the void, regardless of post-fan day antics, while an ever maturing Jordan Riki will be expected to assume a more senior role in 2024.

While the top team exchanged high fives with 'Magic' Johnson and sat courtside at the Lakers vs. Spurs showdown in Los Angeles, a second (or third) string team dismantled Manly at Brookvale 40-14. The preseason challenge week 2 (also known as another trial match) saw 17 cap Wallaby Joseph Tamane get a start at 34 years of age. Fifteen years his junior is Ben Te Kura- the 19-year-old front-rower carrying 122kg and 205cm worth of expectations into a potential rookie year, and duly brutalising the reserve Sea Eagles side with strong charges and surprising footwork.

In the halves, Josh Rodgers and Panthers recruit Kurt Falls are a little older and more battle hardened than other backup prospects, most notably Coby Black, the most heavily touted young halfback the club has boasted in several years. The Marsden State High product didn't play against Manly- barred from appearing due to not yet being 18. Moral of the story- there's depth, steel and potential magic in Brisbane's ever deeper extended squad, and serious premiership credentials in the first choice side that runs out onto Allegiant Stadium.


The Fins were well and truly up in the early stages of season 2023, remaining upright for more of the year than many would have bet. Heavy defeats came as limited depth greatly eroded the side's competitiveness, with the newbies squeezing out an impressive nine total wins despite the carnage.

Leading into season two, no one can dispute the pedigree of a full strength Dolphins 17, and it wouldn't completely defy belief to see them greatly improve from 13th last year and feature in the postseason.

Heading the Dolphins upgrades from 1-13 (as you'd likely know- unless this is the first time you've heard of rugby league) Wayne Bennett has relieved his crosstown rivals of two of their very best. Tom Flegler brings nearly 100 games of experience, a terminator-like work rate and an increasingly formidable on field presence to the Redcliffe Peninsula. The Tully banana farmer's power, agro and intensity were on full display in his dress rehearsal club debut, a 26-14 trial win over the Titans in Mackay, and again in week two's high scoring loss to the Warriors. Flegler is evidently wasting no time in his stated quest to emerge from the shadow of his former Brisbane team mates.

Herbie Farnworth took less than seven minutes to score in his first game day appearance, although he'd appeared in Dolphins clobber on streetside banners throughout the Brisbane CBD over Christmas (seemingly photographed the moment he arrived for preseason). You wouldn't be laughed out of the room for putting the Englishman at the top of the NRL's centre pile right now, and don't the Dolphins know it. Then there's Jake Averillo, now a dyed in the wool Redcliffe local after making the early move north, overcoming a PCL injury, and acclimatising in a stinking hot South East Summer. Bold prediction: put the 23-year-old into the 'buy of the year' conversation right now.

Some of the biggest pluses for the fins heading into 2024 centre around hints of depth the club didn't have last year:

- The Tommy and Herbie show.

- Tessi Niu vs. Jake Averillo to partner Farnworth.

- Val Te Whare entering that equation, or at least a fight for a bench spot, after a brutal summer that stripped 10kg.

- A full strength 17 and nuclear forward pack that can rattle the cage of any team in the competition- with talents like Connelly Lemuelu & Harrison Graham primed to further enhance reputations.

- The ability to experiment with Euan Aitken in the backrow- offering potential respite when the season's attrition hits.

- Genuine competition to partner Sean O'Sullivan in the halves- with intrigue surrounding the contest between Isaiah Katoa, Kodi Nikorima or Anthony Milford.

A couple of other things that will serve them well:

- Wayne Bennett missing out on the Kiwi coaching job.

- Eye wateringly successful commercial performance in year one, ever enhancing the club's patch and appeal to prospective marquee men.

And a few of the concerns:

- Heartbreak and an early depth test on account of the luckless Tom Gilbert's ACL rupture against the Warriors.

- Is Sean O'Sullivan a finals halfback capable of outwitting the likes of Cleary, Reynolds, Johnson or Hughes?

- Discipline was an Achilles' heel that made big losses even bigger in 2023. Now Tom Flegler joins the club's existing firebrands.

- An ageing forward pack continues to age.

- Does 'do it for Wayne' become a distraction or noose in the master coach's final year at Dolphin Oval?

The Dolphins mixed preseason challenge results probably don't give the complete picture of where they stand with the fully fit refurbished side on the park at NRL level, but signs were mostly positive. Expect to see the same grit and doggedness (see- the Bennett factor) that came in spades last year, amplified by genuine NRL quality across the park. Safe to assume, Wayne will be fully expecting them to play finals footy.


Queensland hasn't seen all of its NRL teams make the finals cut since 2016. The Titans and Cowboys both bring renewed hopes of improved outputs after an average 2023, and are more than in the mix to help the state end its drought this year. Luciano Leilua departs the north in the search for a starting spot, but otherwise it's a largely similar full strength starting 17. Arguably not quite as much full strength firepower across the park as Brisbane or the Dolphins, but more than capable of beating anyone on the day and boasting plenty of depth. Boom backline prospects Tom Chester, Jaxon Purdue and Tom Duffy push ever closer to being regular first graders, while Reuben Cotter and Tom Dearden assuming official leadership positions could prove a masterstroke given the style of players they are. Jason Taumololo will play a different role in the front row, and the incredibly mobile back row will stretch edges every week.


Des Hasler is reshaping the way the Titans defend, and undoubtedly adding a steely edge that may have gone missing in recent times. Keenan Palasia is a great signing from up the M1, adding speed and power to a ridiculous forward pack- made even more formidable when David Fifita returns from injury. There's quality in the backline and spine, but not necessarily quality depth. Attrition will test the Titans regardless of Des' best efforts to instill resilience, while in the halves Kieran Foran plays on, yet to perfect his combination with Tanah Boyd and the club's other young options, but with a great opportunity to do so under Hasler. A side that can definitely hold its hands up but doesn't quite have the ammo to go deep in the finals.

There'll be a lot of surprises and a lot of things falling into place if Queensland is to see its teams occupying half of the available finals spots in 2024. Heading into round one, it's very much a case of 'no more bets' on a jackpot run from a near generational Broncos outfit. Go all in on them blasting all the way from Sin City to Sydney, to right the wrongs of October 1, 2023.