It’s doubtful if any team since 1908 will go through a more gut-wrenching off-season than the Broncos are about to embark on in the next few months.
Kevin Walters’ men head into summer with the nightmare realisation that they had the premiership won … and then saw it slip away in just 14 minutes.
The Broncos were the better team for much of one of the great grand finals, and when Ezra Mam galloped over for a stunning hat-trick midway through the second half, even the most ardent Panthers fan thought the three-peat was dead.
But it was then that the Panthers’ big game experience – and the Broncos’ lack of it – kicked in and Nathan Cleary orchestrated the great escape with three tries to snatch the decider 26-24.
Yet despite the heartache, it was a marvellous year from the Broncos, who went from wooden spooners just three years ago to within inches of premiership glory.
The team played superb attacking football all season, finishing equal first with the Panthers after the regular season with 18 wins and just six losses.
Fullback Reece Walsh established himself as one of the game’s genuine superstars, having a wonderful season, scoring nine tries and setting up countless more for his outside men Selwyn Cobbo, Herbie Farnworth, Jesse Arthurs and Kotoni Staggs.
Mam, still only 20, was sensational at five-eighth while Adam Reynolds’ leadership and direction was crucial in many big games.
Reynolds has been unfairly targeted by some critics for the Broncos’ late collapse in the big dance – without his cool head, the Broncos would never have got as far as they did.
Up front, Payne Haas continued to break records with his amazing motor, often topping the running metres and tackle count.
Fellow forwards Pat Carrigan, Tom Flegler, Billy Walters and Jordan Riki all enjoyed career best seasons as the Broncos established themselves as a team to be feared in 2024 and beyond.
When the players sit down and do their season review, it will be painful – but they will be better for it in the long run and again shape as the Panthers’ biggest danger next season.
Best player: A toss-up between Haas and Walsh – two players with vastly different styles and strengths – but two of the most exciting talents in the game.
Key signing: Fletcher Baker is the club’s only ‘name’ signing to date and he faces a tough job replacing Flegler in the engine room.
2024 gains: Fletcher Baker (Roosters)
2024 losses: Herbie Farnworth (Dolphins), Keenan Palasia (Titans), Tom Flegler (Dolphins).