Queensland Preview: Old Heads, Hardheads and Young Bucks

There appear to be two obvious and undeniable facts leading into the new NRL season.

Firstly, Queensland now has four teams in the Telstra Premiership.

Secondly, Adam Reynolds definitely doesn't dress or talk like a South Sydney Rabbitoh anymore. So who better to ask about the plight of Queensland's four NRL teams in 2023?

"I love seeing all the old blokes move clubs and do well," Reynolds tells ESPN, just ahead of his second season as captain of the Brisbane Broncos.

"I see a massive improvement in the Titans. They've got an old head there. Kieran Foran's done a lot of wonderful things for the game and he's a great role model. I believe he's gonna do wonders for that club."

Ok, we're starting with the Titans. And why not? Justin Holbrook's men delivered a sharp pre-season; drawing with the Broncos with a largely fringe squad, before walloping the Dolphins at closer to full strength. Full strength might just be a little stronger with the inclusion of a fit Foran, rubber stamped as Titans player #176, and starting five eighth against the Tigers in round one.

"It's great when people do the right thing, and it's good to reward them and he's done exactly that," Holbrook told media after naming his round one side. Although Foran's quality is rarely in dispute, Holbrook may soon learn his capacity to stay on the field is another matter.

There's also the impending debut of electrified 21-year-old winger Alofiana Khan-Pereira. Twenty-five tries in Queensland's Hostplus Cup last year were augmented by another six in the Pre-season Challenge, including four against the Dolphins.

Sam Verills adds some guile to the Gold Coast pack. Whether his inclusion alongside a perpetually distracted David Fifita and the perpetually in motion Big Tino will push them ahead remains to be seen. Fifita's output will be fascinating to watch, with the season's first M1 derby between Brisbane and the Titans playing out off the field, in an apparent tussle for his 2024 signature.

Jaden Campbell and AJ Brimson could become a competition scorching rotation; Beau Fermour and Moe Fotuaika might develop a destructive 1,2 punch. But it's difficult to foresee the Titans landing anywhere above the lower third of the table; even if it all clicks. They're a quality team, but not necessarily one dripping with star quality and depth.

Speaking of star quality and depth, what about the Dolphins Reyno?

"It's gonna be interesting. There's a lot of unknowns. Obviously no one knows what the Dolphins are gonna be like, what they're gonna produce," Reynolds said.

Things didn't look great in the trials, though.

"Trials aren't a good indicator of the season ahead. They've got some real hardheads there. The Bromwich brothers, Kaufusi; it looks like it'll be a hard team to beat even if it does take them a while to get used to it all."

The Dolphins have raided the Bronco stable and shored up a few names for the future in Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler (aren't the south east signing wars shaping up juicily?), but in the short term it's looking like there'll be some teething issues. Their inclusion in the league seems so long ago; and now time has sped up to the point where Wayne Bennett is out of it. On field results become the focus, and despite the Dolphins' stronger foundations; Queensland's south east corner has chewed up new franchises before.

Bennett has again proven he won't shy away from tough calls - just ask Anthony Milford. He's assembled a pack of hardheads, and it's a real Bennett pack. It's big, it's tough, it's mobile, and it's stacked with high workrates. The story of their year though, might be just off the scrumbase. Keep an eye on Isaiya Katoa's combination with Sean O'Sullivan. Putting it brutally - it's one of those combinations that could light things up, or crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Outside them, the Dolphins fall into the Titans trap; on paper they appear a solid but unspectacular backline.

Bennett has spoken about the 'good bloke before good player' mantra for the better part of four decades, and the likes of Brenko Lee, Tessi Niu and Jamayne Isaako have been purchased for a reason. Wayne's campaign to extract enough to see them compete for anywhere higher than the bottom four will be great to watch.

Meantime, the Cowboys are seen by many as a contender to end Penrith's premiership run in 2023.

"Obviously the Cowboys, we all know what they're gonna be like," Reynolds continues.

"It's a high quality team and a high quality coach. They've got a great system up there and they surprised a lot of people last year. We'll know what we're up against this year but it wont make it any easier."

Todd Payten's reign in the north has been a rousing one so far. It's been highlighted by some inspired signings and an intelligent, upbeat game plan. A largely settled squad will pick up where it left off in 2022, and if old head Chad Townsend, young bucks Tom Dearden and Scott Drinkwater and hardheads Jordan McLean and Jeremiah Nanai can resume at the level Payten got them to last year - look out.

James Tamou claiming a bench spot for the round one clash against Canberra - back where it all began for him 14 years ago - is definitely the feel good story to start the season. He joins Townsend, Jason Taumololo, Val Holmes and Peta Hiku - a core of experience Payten can rely upon, while names like Murray Taulagi and Reuben Cotter are now certified rep stars.

Off field issues will see Luciano Leilua miss the season opener, with Coen Hess given the chance to reclaim his massive potential via a starting second row berth. Throw in some serious potential on the fringes - led by local fullback prospect Tom Chester - and Payten's embarrassment of riches shines even brighter.

Adam Reynolds wasn't sighted in Brisbane's impressive pre-season campaign, as the 32-year-old balances his physical output with a healthy dose of cotton wool. His pre-season was disrupted by an ankle injury and back stiffness.

If trials mean nothing, that game wasn't a trial. The Broncos and Cowboys gave a dress rehearsal of the 29th season of their statewide rivalry, and it had fans licking their lips ahead of a more formal meeting in round two.

"We got knocked out early (last year) and we didn't have a lot of players go to the World Cup, so we've had a lot of opportunity to lock down combinations," says Reynolds.

"You saw it a bit that night, the boys gelled really nicely."

Selwyn Cobbo's larger and more powerful frame was acting destructively in both the All Stars game and the win over the Cowboys. It's not only his growing physique that's been sparking damage in the buildup to season 2023. More recently he's been speaking out against Jarome Luai's antics, before that his words were aimed at coach Kevin Walters' ability to, well, coach.

Reynolds says the fallout of that incident will provide a chastening lesson.

"You just gotta face it head on. It's a lesson not only for Selwyn but for any young athlete. Their voices are going to be heard, no matter where they're talking, and a lot of athletes slip up."

"Selwyn's a young kid and he made a mistake. He has to learn from it."

It's refreshing to hear Reynolds not offer a 'taken out of context' explanation for that drama, one of the headlines in a pre-season of great contrast for Kevin Walters. The 55-year-old dealt with the Cobbo drama, read the news about his rich contract extension, then saw the update about it being loaded with performance related landmines that could see him bumped without a payout if the Broncos produce another 2022 style fadeout. Juggling this with rejuvenating squad confidence, losing key players, and helping Payne Haas navigate the emotional fallout of his mothers imprisonment has made for a long off-season.

"He's a wonderful player for us here, Payne, what's more important from my perspective and the club's perspective is Payne's well being and his mental health," Walters said of Haas this week.

It's this sort of energy that has Adam Reynolds firmly on side with his coach.

"I'm comfortable in what I'm saying because I believe what I'm saying. Kevin's a fantastic coach, he's got a lot of great qualities. He's one of those blokes who gets you to the level that you really want to play for him."

Reynolds will slot in alongside Ezra Mam for the round one trip to Penrith, forming half of a Broncos spine that will start the season with Cobbo at fullback. His battle with Reece Walsh for the No.1 jersey will have a huge bearing on Brisbane's fortunes. Walters has a largely settled squad across the park, and a team sheet with the potential to challenge for - at the very least - a finals berth. They'll be expected to go higher, and Walters' future will likely depend on it.

Jesse Arthars returns from his loan to the Warriors, and Marty Taupau delivers 222 games of experience on the bench. The dummy half rotation between Billy Walters and Corey Paix will also develop into a selection battle if Paix can stay fit. Corey Jensen starts, Kobey Hetherington is about a month off with a bicep injury; while early signs from the Pat Carrigan and Haas juggernaut have indicated a regathering of the defensive mindset Brisbane so desperately lost last year.

"He's a World Cup winner now," says Reynolds of Carrigan.

"We have a backline to take its chances when the forwards are doing their job. Patty is the guy that lifts the rest of the boys, when he's on the field we're a better team for sure."

Are you the best of the four Queensland teams?

"I'm looking forward to what's coming. There's no reason we can't do great things."