Brodie Croft must produce a dominant performance at halfback this weekend to keep his Broncos No.7 jersey away from Tom Dearden.
That’s the verdict of future Immortal Johnathan Thurston, who sees value in Croft’s presence at Brisbane but admits his time is running short; as fellow champion playmaker Peter Sterling said this week.
Croft, 22, was something of a curious signing by the Broncos, having been dropped for two consecutive finals series by Craig Bellamy at Melbourne.
He was touted as a saviour for Anthony Seibold’s Brisbane team, who came into this season off a record 58-0 finals loss to Parramatta and are now on a disastrous six-game losing streak with Croft at the helm.
Croft was in tears as the Broncos lost to the Warriors last weekend but has retained his spot for Saturday’s clash against the Bulldogs. Another loss could put Brisbane, the NRL’s richest club, dead last on the ladder and Croft on the chopping block.
“No doubt a lot of the pressure has fallen back on to their halves,” Thurston said on Wide World of Sports’ QLDER.
“That’s what they’re lacking, is leadership. You can say Darius Boyd and Alex Glenn … but where you need leadership is in the halves … in the spine.
“We were all singing [Croft’s] praises when they were two [wins] from two at the start of the year. He needs to strip his game back, he needs to be more dominant with his forward pack; he’s got a great forward pack there.”
There has been debate about Croft’s strengths as a halfback.
Broncos legend and current director Darren Lockyer sees him as an organiser, while Immortal Andrew Johns believes that he’s a running half who is similar to five-eighth Anthony Milford. Johns’ assessment would make Milford, a frustrating figure for Brisbane ever since their 2015 grand final run, just as endangered as Croft; ‘Joey’ has already suggested that the Queensland Origin star should be dropped.
But given that the Broncos feel Croft should be organising the team, he is the man most at risk from 19-year-old Dearden, a classic No.7 who debuted last year and is highly-regarded. Dropping Croft would also be somewhat more palatable than axing Milford while the No.6 is absorbing $1 million of the club’s salary cap.
Thurston said that Croft needed to tighten up his side, which has been a disorganised rabble during its losing streak.
“Obviously they have [attacking] structures that they stick to. Sometimes they go out of that and that’s what the halves need to do; as soon as someone goes out of those structures, they need to make sure that they get the team back into those structures so they can get on with their job,” Thurston said.
“Tom Dearden’s been sitting on the bench for the last couple of weeks and debuted last year as well, so no doubt he’s got a big future ahead of him.
“It’s a big call by Seibold, what he’ll do with Brodie Croft and Tom Dearden.”
Brisbane don’t appear to think that Croft can fill the running role of Milford, should Seibold instead be tempted to drop the $1 million star.
Their attacking stats this season are very similar; one try and four try assists each, with three line breaks to two in Milford’s favour. Milford has run slightly more often but with a lower average gain than Croft, who has done most of the kicking and also made twice as many tackles.
Thurston ruled out hooker as an option for Croft, as has happened with $1.2 million halfback Ben Hunt at the Dragons, meaning the ex-Storm player seems a starting No.7 or nothing.
The Broncos have battled at hooker after releasing Andrew McCullough and suffering an injury to Jake Turpin.
“No, I haven’t seen Brodie play in the middle,” Thurston said.
“When you’re playing in the halves, you need to rely on the boys around you [in defence] but when you’re at hooker you get exposed a lot, especially defending in the middle. While he is a strong defender, Brodie, I can’t see him defending in the middle there.”
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Thurston agreed with a call from Immortal Wally Lewis that Brisbane looked a team divided, with unrest over big-money players not earning their salaries. Milford is the Broncos’ top earner, while Ash Taylor (Titans) and Valentine Holmes (Cowboys) are also yet to justify seven-figure annual price tags.
“When the higher-paid players aren’t living up to their potential and the money that they’re earning, then of course there’s going to be some tension in the camp,” Thurston said.
“I think we’re probably seeing that at the moment, especially with the three Queensland clubs and the million-dollar players that they have at those clubs.
“No doubt Wally’s probably hit the nail on the head there with some of the tensions in the [Broncos] camp.
“The only way to silence the critics and everyone out there is to win games and I’d imagine the three clubs here in Queensland [need to do that] because there are some million-dollar players in those clubs that aren’t living up to their potential, aren’t doing their job.”
Croft was among the Broncos players openly weeping after losing to the Warriors. Thurston said that the pressure was clearly on the struggling team.
“You can tell that they’re under pressure, they’re feeling the losses extremely hard,” Thurston said.
“I’ve been in that position before, when nothing’s going your way, the bounce of the ball’s not going your way, injuries. It’s just a downward spiral and the emotion gets hold of you, the pressure gets hold of you and you just break, you crack.
“You can see how much they love playing for that club, how much they love representing that club and when they’re in dark days like this, the emotion got the better of them.
“And that’s what the fans want to see. They want to see that they’re hurting, because the fans are hurting. Hopefully they can bounce back this week.”