A lot can change over the course of one month in rugby league, as the Brisbane Broncos found out in devastating fashion against St George Illawarra.
Five weeks ago the Broncos looked relatively safe in the top four as the finals approached - but then the wheels well and truly came off.
'DISGRACE': Phil Gould lashes out over NRL 'embarrassment'
Their 22-16 loss to the Dragons was their fifth in the last six games - all but ruling them out of the NRL finals for a third straight season.
Barring an unlikely scenario in which the wooden spoon-bound Wests Tigers demolish the Canberra Raiders by 50 points or more, the Broncos' season is over.
Not since the Raiders back in 1999 has a team missed the finals with a winning record, as head coach Kevin Walters admitted the 'effort and discipline' which guided the club through the first 20 rounds of the season had evaporated in the final few matches of the season.
Walters said he was 'hurting' after the match, while some Broncos players were on the verge of tears.
“I was animated (in the sheds) because I’m passionate about these guys and our footy club,” he said.
“I want to keep driving these guys to be better.
“The season’s over so words don’t mean too much now, we’ve got to have a good look at ourselves — staff and players — over the next couple of weeks and look forward to next season, that’s all we can do.”
🐴 "It's just disappointing mate. Six weeks ago we were in the top four and it's not only to miss finals but the way we've played this last month is not what we're about." Billy Walters @brisbanebroncos
📻 #NRL👉 https://t.co/k2VIsCqKVi
📸@rtuck17 #NRLDragonsBroncos #BronxNation pic.twitter.com/2U5H36hTJm
— ABC SPORT (@abcsport) September 3, 2022
And that is season over for @brisbanebroncos. On tonight’s form (& recent wks) probably fair enough. Defensive effort on that Dragons try reeks of a team that is spent. Ben Hunt may have clinched the Dally M medal with tonight’s performance | @9NewsQueensland @NRLonNine @wwos
— Michael Atkinson (@kinson88) September 3, 2022
— Bernie Coen (@berniecoen) September 3, 2022
It was a bunch of former Broncos who sealed the longest finals drought in the club's history.
Of the six ex-Brisbane players in the Dragons side, Jack Bird scored the game's first try before Ben Hunt starred.
In another reminder of why his contract extension beyond 2023 is so crucial, the halfback kicked a 40-20 in the lead up to one first-half try and skipped free to put Cody Ramsey over for another.
He also pulled off a crucial last-ditch tackle on Zac Hosking with 13 minutes to play to keep a 16-12 lead intact, before putting Mat Feagai into the clear from 50 metres as he bumped off seven defenders to put the match beyond doubt.
Broncos fall short of finals after woeful end-of-season NRL collapse
In comparison to Hunt's brilliance, Brisbane's attack was poor throughout as they coughed up the ball on three first-half attacking raids and then struggled to show any bite in the second half.
Te Maire Martin showed moments of danger at the back before copping a knock, while Pat Carrigan ran 181 metres on return from suspension.
And even after Billy Walters also managed to get the game back to 16-12 with 20 minutes to play, there was never enough spark to threaten a late Broncos miracle.
Still, the Broncos coach was determined to look on the bright side.
“I’m still taking 13 wins as an improvement… but I thought we could have made the eight,” Walters said.
“But if I sit back in a couple of days and have a good look, 13 wins is certainly a lot more than what we had last year (seven).
“We brought players through this year that weren’t even in our side last year so there’s some positives around the club and the team but we just couldn’t finish the season off the way we wanted to.”
Since the game moved to a top-eight system in 1995, never have a team missed out on the finals after sitting in the top four in the final six rounds of the season.
It comes just a year after Gold Coast made last year's finals with just 22 points, and on the back of only 10 wins.
Only Canterbury in 2002, Melbourne in 2010 and Parramatta in 2016 have missed the finals with a winning record this century, however each were effectively ruled out by salary cap breaches.
Meanwhile, the Sydney Roosters won't know until Sunday at the earliest whether Joey Manu, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Verrills will play in next week's elimination final after all three went down injured in the Allianz Stadium opener.
Manu limped off with an apparent calf complaint late in Friday's 26-16 defeat of South Sydney and looms as the most significant injury blow ahead of next week's elimination final rematch.
The Roosters sent him in for scans over the weekend.
Waerea-Hargreaves (hamstring/neck) came off after the 13th minute as a precaution, with Verrills (hand) following in the second half.
The Roosters are set to provide an update on the injuries on Monday, as the Rabbitohs sweat on the availability of captain Cameron Murray and Siliva Havili, both of whom suffered concussions on Friday night.
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