Without a doubt, Saturday afternoon’s match at Suncorp Stadium has to be the best performance I’ve ever seen from the Gold Coast Titans, and probably their best match since forming in 2007. Their achievement was all the more extraordinary in that they were beset by injuries, with the removal of Ryan Simpkins (at the second minute), Dan Sarginson (at the forty-ninth minute) and Jarryd Hayne (at the sixty-sixth minute) leaving them with only fourteen men to battle the team one of the top teams of the NRL ladder.
That they managed to win from behind was incredible in itself, but the fact that they held the Storm to the equal highest losing score in Australian rugby league history was more remarkable still. To make matters even better for the Gold Coast, it was an emphatic win, rather than a matter of flukes or well-timed penalty goals (as occurred, say, in the clash between the Roosters and the Warriors a couple of weeks ago). Finally, the fact that this match seemed to finally signal the total resurgence of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater – and contained one of their most sublime interactions just before half time – also made the Titans’ win feel even more remarkable.
The first stanza, in particular, felt like a definitive showcase for Smith, Slater and Cronk, even if it was bookended by emphatic Gold Coast moments. Twenty minutes in, Slater came up with his first Melbourne try of the season – and his 175th career try – as Cameron Munster choose to run the ball right to the line and then slip it over to Harris, who edged his way through the defence to link up with the Storm fullback. As Slater curved round and planted the ball right beneath the posts, the Melbourne supporters went wild.
It was a nice touch that the try was bookended by Munster, since it’s clear that Billy’s replacement is still an integral part of the team’s spirit, and that his stint at no. 1 hasn’t been forgotten. Still, it was the Big Three who shone brightest for the next twenty minutes, as Cronk brought in the second Melbourne try three minutes later, off a quick pass from Smith to Slater out of the ruck. Moments later, Cronk followed with a third thanks again to a pass from Smith that allowed Tim Glasby to find open space.
Still, the greatest Melbourne moment arguably came just before halftime, in one of the most elegant and dexterous combinations of the Big Three’s career – a deft flick pass from Smith to Slater, who chipped it forward to find Cronk running on to ground it. For my money, it was one of the best moves of the entire 2017 season – a great example of footy spontaneity, and long-standing teammates happy to be playing together again – so that made it feel all the more dramatic when it was disallowed. In the past, this was the kind of move that Melbourne would have used to silence all criticism, and the fact they didn’t quite make it seemed to somehow give the Gold Coast the upper hand.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Titans hadn’t managed anything up until this point. Sixteen minutes in, the ever-reliable Ryan James put the first four points at the board, while the Gold Coast managed to remain neck and neck for the rest of the first stanza, thanks to a great pass from Nathan Peats right on the goal line that put Leivaha Pulu over thirty minutes in, and then a brilliant wide pass from Hayne to set up Anthony Don to score right in the corner.
Following half time, however, the Titans seemed to gain a new confidence from seeing that Smith, Slater and Cronk were fallible after all – even or especially at their most sublime – and they came back from the sheds with an even greater sense of purpose, utterly dominating the beginning of the second half and managing two more tries without the Storm putting any more points on the board.
Six minutes after half time, Konrad Hurrell put down a terrific-four pointer, thanks to a swift grubber from Ashley Taylor that he managed to chase and ground just before the dead ball line before catapulting it over. This year Hurrell has brought a new gymnastic dexterity to his game, and it was hard not to feel that this level of precision was what the Storm should have delivered to seal the deal on the first half, stamping the Gold Coast as a force to be reckoned with over the following stanza.
Once again, Taylor played a critical role in Chris McQueens’ try at the fifty-fifth minute, setting up a great bomb that was followed by a surging kick chase from Don, who utterly outdid Suliasi Vunivalu under the high ball and found McQueen by his side to clean up and ground what turned out to be a surprisingly soft try. Melbourne followed suit soon enough, however, with another set of passes from Cronk, Slater and Smith putting Will Chambers in open space, where he managed to get on the outside of Hayne and tally the score.
Minutes later, Melbourne capitalised on the momentary confusion and disorientation caused by Hayne’s sudden leg spasm, with Vunivalu getting under Cronk’s high ball to bounce with it on the ground and ricochet it over to Joe Stimson for the fifth Storm try of the night. With Hayne being led off the field for the second time this season, it marked the first point in the game at which Melbourne’s wingers – normally so forceful in their presence – had managed to make a really emphatic mark on the play.
Of course, you can put that down in part to how brightly Smith, Slater and Cronk shone. But it was also a matter of the Titans contaied the wing, as well as what just felt like a fairly spotty night for the hosting flyers full stop. Between Vunivalu knocking on while grounding what would have been a critical try for the Storm (thanks in part to a great tackle from Tyrone Roberts) and Josh Ado-Carr’s inability to prevent Hurrell storming over just before half time, it felt as if the wingers needed to make a definite comeback, and Vunivalu’s role in Stimson’s four-pointer went some way towards achieving that.
From this point on, things pretty much proceeded neck and neck, with another great pass from Smith out to Harris setting up Munster to flip it over to Cheyse Blair just before he was tackled ten metres out from the line. Four minutes later, however, Tyrone Roberts responded in kind – again, off a Taylor grubber – at which point it felt as if – surely – Melbourne had toretain their dominance. It wasn’t to be, however, as Don got under a terrific Taylor bomb to pop the Steeden back into the field of play, where Hurrell caught it, put his head down and just burrowed through the defenders, in an even better NFL impersonation than Hayne’s quick tap-and-try a couple of weeks ago.
For Titans fans, it was tantamount to winning a grand final, and certainly recalled last year’s grand final in the way in which Melbourne seemed to be at once utterly dominant and strangelyvulnerable at the same time. It was interesting to see Smith’s agitation at the end of the first stanza, when Cronk’s try was disallowed, and at the beginning of the second, when Hurrell’s was allowed, since this kind of loss – a historic loss, after all – must still feel quite unusual for the team, even if it’s starting to become more of a regular occurrence.
If anything, the loss was all the more dramatic in Melbourne weren’t having a bad night of it – they were firing on all cylinders, and syncing better than at almost any other time this year, yet still couldn’t manage to bring home the win. It’s paramount for their team spirit, then, that they win – as they should – against the Bunnies this Sunday, while the Titans are going to be doing everything in their power to continue their surge when they take on the Sea Eagles at home the day before.