All the hype ahead of the Bulldogs’ NRL clash with Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night surrounded Ben Barba – and at the time he wasn’t even playing.
But even Canterbury’s last-minute injection of the controversial No.1 could not steal the limelight away from a desperate Broncos as they ran out 16-11 winners in front of 26,599 fans.
Barba was the name on everyone’s lips ahead of kick-off after the NRL launched a probe into the Bulldogs’ handling of his early-season suspension.
And tongues were wagging again when Barba received a late clearance for an ankle complaint and came off the bench in their final hit-out ahead of the finals.
Especially with Brisbane also sweating on the NRL investigation’s outcome after recently trumpeting a three-year deal with Barba just last week.
And Brisbane would have been forgiven for hoping Barba’s Broncos arrival was sooner rather than later after explosive fullback Josh Hoffman – the man expected to make way for their star recruit next year – went off with a shoulder complaint in the 25th minute.
But backrower-cum-winger Corey Oates stole the limelight, latching onto a Peter Wallace cross-field kick in the 75th minute to notch a try-scoring double and lock up the gutsy win.
It provided some solace as the Broncos drew the curtain on the worst season in their club’s history.
Brisbane – who trailed 6-4 at halftime – finished with 10 wins for the season.
Their previous worst season was an 11-win effort in 2010 – a tally that resulted in then coach Ivan Henjak being sacked.
But it seems Brisbane are looking at a rosy future with Barba on board who made the most of his limited opportunities on a night both sides threw caution to the wind.
Barba did not emerge from the bench until the 36th minute but showed glimpses of his 2012 Dally M Medal winning form to help set up Krisnan Inu’s 66th minute try that locked up the scores at 10-10.
And the Dogs looked to have become the ultimate party poopers on veteran Brisbane pivot Scott Prince’s 300th and final game when Canterbury halfback Trent Hodkinson potted over a 72nd-minute field goal to give the visitors the edge.
However, Oates crossed in the dying minutes before Prince capped a dream farewell with a sideline conversion to seal a face-saving win for Brisbane.
It wasn’t a massive blow to Canterbury’s finals campaign – they will still host a knockout playoff next week – but Bulldogs coach Des Hasler was far from impressed by their sloppy display.
“If you only complete 18 sets with the ball for two halves then you can’t expect to win too many games – let’s be honest the Broncos had enough ball to win four games,” he said.
“It wasn’t a good performance.
“But it’s sudden death from here – the players know that.”
Asked if the return of Barba ahead of the finals could add something to their title tilt, Hasler interjected: “if we hang onto the ball”.
Meanwhile, Broncos coach Anthony Griffin said the win was a “good sign of character” after enduring a lead-up that included criticism from club greats such as former captain Gorden Tallis who called for a “massive shake-up” at Brisbane.
But he preferred to focus on Prince after he drew the curtain on his 16-season career with style.
Prince said he savoured hammering home the sideline conversion that secured the rare win.
“It was sweet, and it was needed to just put them out of reach,” Prince said.
“I am very fortunate and humbled. There was that milestone but I was more impressed with how we finished the season – it was good to finish with a win.”
Griffin said Hoffman had torn an AC shoulder joint but remained hopeful the fullback could contest the end-of-year World Cup for New Zealand.