Brisbane are living proof that home-grown players can deliver on the biggest stage in the NRL.
The Broncos of 2023 are a tribute to the club’s academy system, with 14 of the 17 players that beat Melbourne 26-0 in the qualifying final coming through the junior pathways program.
That same 17 are set to play the Warriors in a preliminary final at Lang Park on Saturday night.
Brisbane players have a close bond that has enabled them to excel, now they have matured and become regular NRL first graders. Nine of the 14 have played Test or Origin football in the past two seasons.
Halfback and captain Adam Reynolds, hooker Billy Walters and winger Jesse Arthars are the only three that did not come through the academy.
The nurturing of players within the Broncos system took time, but with 12 of the 14 home grown stars just 25 or under it has been worth the wait.
“The boys that we got at a younger age have all committed to the program from their early years and they are connected to the Broncos,” head of recruitment Simon Scanlan said.
“They are playing for the jersey because the Broncos was their club from a junior age.”
Scanlan, formerly head of the academy program, said the recruitment and retention of the Broncos players through the junior pathways was a team effort and that head coach Kevin Walters had unlocked their best.
Electric fullback Reece Walsh, 21, was contracted at the age of 15 when he was attending Keebra Park High School and playing five-eighth for the Nerang Roosters.
Winger Selwyn Cobbo, a Cherbourg Hornets junior, was also brought into the academy when 15. He has scored 20 tries this year.
Former Brisbane centre Jack Reed, who works for the club in game development, was previously involved with the Sunshine Coast Falcons U16s. He pointed Cobbo out to Scanlan at a training camp.
“Selwyn was a skinny kid back then but what he did well was play a very physical style of football, as he does today,” Scanlan recalled.
“He would take a tap from the 20m or catch it from a kick-off and just run the ball hard. Defensively he always had a lot of courage.”
England-born centre Herbie Farnworth visited Australia with his uncle Brian Foley, who had known late and great Broncos recruiter Cyril Connell.
Farnworth would make the trip south in the northern hemisphere summer to play with the Burleigh Bears.
He attended sessions at the Broncos academy when 15, inked a deal as a 17-year-old and came through the U20s system.
Centre Kotoni Staggs was flown up as a 15-year-old after being brought to the club’s attention by scouts from Wellington, near Dubbo.
“Kotoni did a testing and training session with us and we signed him for his athleticism and speed,” Scanlan said.
Five-eighth Ezra Mam was strutting his stuff with the Goodna Eagles when the Broncos signed him at the age of 15.
Prop Payne Haas, Brisbane’s player of the year for the past four seasons, was signed with the Gold Coast Titans initially but visited the Broncos as a 14-year-old with his family after they had relocated from Newcastle.
The Warriors had Haas on contract for a year but Brisbane, after retaining a close relationship with the family, finally got their man when Payne turned 17.
“Some guys have evolved, matured and progressed a lot to get where they are. Payne was very good all the way through,” Scanlan said.
Prop Thomas Flegler was signed from an U15s state carnival at West Arana Hills.
“Thomas was a big, loping forward who worked hard and tackled everything that moved,” Scanlan said.
“He was playing under 16s for Northern Pride and was in the Cowboys development program, but unsigned.”
Scanlan and former head of recruitment Peter Nolan waded through banana plantations on the Flegler family’s farm in Tully, in Queensland’s north, to get his signature.
Lock Pat Carrigan was signed as a 17-year-old and went straight into the U20s program. He’d been spotted playing schoolboy rugby for St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace College and shining off the bench for the Easts Tigers in their junior league system.
New Zealand-born second-rower Jordan Riki featured in a tournament in Christchurch when Scanlan liked the look of what he saw when he was 15. Riki has never wanted to play anywhere else.
“I’m huge on loyalty. I came through the academy system and advanced to the NRL,” Riki said.
“We went through tough times together at Brisbane but now we are reaping the rewards of sticking together.”
Back-rower Kurt Capewell came through the Broncos U20s program, plied his trade elsewhere and then returned to the club in 2022 after winning a NRL title with Penrith.
“I had a great time with the Sharks and Penrith, but I’m back at the Broncos now and want to get the job done,” Capewell said.
“What drew me back here was the chance to be part of something special, which was getting the Broncos back to the top where they should be.
“I’d love to finish my career here as a Bronco.”
Hooker Tyson Smoothy was in Brisbane squads from the age of 13 before being signed at 15 when he was playing number six for the Kawana Dolphins.
Bench forward Kobe Hetherington was in Broncos development programs before he was snared at 17 while playing at The Cathedral College in Rockhampton as a hooker.
“What he was doing then is what he does now … tough, hardworking, determined,” Scanlan said.
Prop Keenan Palasia was at the Titans before the Broncos brought him into the 20s system.
Back-rower Brendan Piakura, also showcasing his superb line running off the bench, was strutting his stuff at Coombabah State High on the Gold Coast when he was snapped up as a 15-year-old.
“Brendan got better as he got older, but was always a tough kid,” Scanlan said.