ROUND 11: Gold Coast Titans v. Newcastle Knights (Cbus Super Stadium, 19/5/18)
The Titans’ match against the Knights on Saturday afternoon was only their third home game of the year so far, and resulted in one of the most spectacular games of their entire season. After having come from behind to unexpectedly to beat the Raiders, and then losing to the Sharks in torrential weather, Gold Coast were looking for a calm and assured Cbus win to steady their season, especially since this was Nathan Peats’ first game back on the park after spending a month nursing a rib cartilage injury.
Add to that the fact that no Gold Coast forward ran for more than 100 metres during their loss to the Storm at Suncorp last week, and the Titans entered Cbus with a special sense of purpose, determined to make the most of the glaring patch of light that gradually narrowed on the eastern edge of the field as the match proceeded. An opening shoulder charge from Mitch Barnett was a good platform for all that energy, but a flop from Max King saw Barnett make up with a strong run shortly after, forcing Gold Coast to dig deep quicker than they had expected.
Nevertheless a handling error from Josh King got the Titans the ball again, laying the platform for their first try, which came off the back of a last-tackle kick from Ash Taylor and then some brilliance under the high ball from Michael Gordon, who jostled his way up against Kalyn Ponga to pop the footy backwards into the field of play. From there, Ryan James caught it, bobbled it and then sent an over-the-head basketball pass to King, starting a rapid movement across to the left edge that made the most of the Knights’ surprise at suddenly having to defend their line again.
Full credit has to go to King for sending the Steeden across to AJ Brimson in turn, but there was no doubt that the Gold Coast five-eighth was the star of the show here, drifting into the dislocated Newcastle line just long enough for his long ball to catch Philip Sami unmarked out on the left edge. While Sione Mata’utia might have read Brimson’s intentions well, he arrived too late on the scene to prevent the four points, and with Gordon bookending the sequence with a superb sideline conversion the Titans were now 6-0.
A couple of sets later, a huge effort from Barnett on Jack Stockton looked like it might be a game-changing tackle for the Knights – a way of resuming some control of the game – and yet when Gordon kicked a last-tackle Griffin grubber into his hands the sense of control was just as powerful, and perhaps more powerful for being so understated. The Titans only consolidated further with a scrum win against the feed, thanks in part to a fairly average ball from Ponga, but also some deft work with the boot from Peats in the midst of the huddle – a brilliant way for the New South Wales hooker to re-inject some of his sly playfulness back into the Gold Coast game.
Moments later, Gordon took the two after Daniel Saifiti was called offside within the ten, and by the final fifteen minutes of the first stanza Gold Coast had kept an opposition scoreless for the longest time this season. Whether that made them complacent, or the Knights more aggressive, a pair of penalties – a slow peel for Moeaki Fotuakia, and an offside penalty for Taylor –now built some strong possession for the Knights, with Griffin capitalizing upon their renewed momentum with a long ball out of dummy half to Connor Watson, who became the Knights’ first try assister in turn.
In some ways, the deftness and assurance of Watson’s play now mirrored Gordon’s pickup under the high ball earlier in the game, as he moved slightly into the Gold Coast line, but then defied expectations by sending the footy across to Sione Mata’utia more rapidly than any of the Sharks were expecting, setting up the big backliner for the first blue and red try of the afternoon, as Copley was forced to slide too hard to try and contain him. With a great sideline conversion from Brock Lamb – every bit as good as Gordon’s – Newcastle were now neck and neck, while the Titans had lost a fair amount of the rhythm and momentum they’d generated in the opening minutes.
A period bookended by Brenko Lee said it all, as a touch from Lee during a carry from Herman Ese’ese saw the tackle count restart for the Knights halfway down the field, while a damaging run from Nathan Ross – almost a tryscoring run – and another penalty for Taylor for crowding got the Knighs yet another shot at the line. With a ball strip from Lee to finish it all off, Lamb booted the football through the posts once again, bringing the score to 8-8 with about eight minutes left on the clock.
It was paramount now that the Titans score before half time in order to start the second stanza with the same sense of entitlement and ownership of Cbus that had made them such a force to be reckoned with over the opening thirty minutes. Despite a bit of a spotty afternoon so far, Taylor now provided exactly the kind of leadership he exemplifies so well during these clutch moments, poking his nose through the line and skipping out of a low tackle from Mata’utia before getting on the outside of Fitzgibbon to offload to Copley just before hitting the turf.
From there, it was inevitable that Copley would crash over and get some closure for letting Mata’utia through a couple of tackles before, making the most of a sublime one-handed flick pass from Taylor to put the Titans four points ahead after Gordon missed the conversion. The Knights didn’t take long to come back, however, with Herman Ese’ese slamming over a couple of minutes into the second stanza off a quick ball from Griffin after Motoeika was sinbinned for a professional foul.
In order to respond with a twelve-man team, the Titans now had to focus on professionalism and economy above all else, so it was fitting that they scored their next try off the back of their most elegant and efficient block play all night. In a super string of passes, the ball moved through Peats, Taylor, Brimson, Gordon and then Copley before Sami crashed over in the corner for another four points once Gordon missed his second conversion of the evening.
Everything about the timing and management of this leftwards play was perfectly executed, from Taylor’s wide ball to Brimson, to the way in which Brimson and Gordon progressively condensed the play and played with the Knights just enough to force them to over-commit to their respective tackles. To top it all off, Copley managed an offload on the ground to mirror Taylor’s offload to him at the end of the first stanza, sending the footy almost vertical as Shaun Kenny-Dowall got him to the turf, and allowing Sami to simply run through and gather it into his chest before scoring.
So accomplished was the timing of this sequence that it effectively silenced the Knights for the rest of Fotuaika’s duration of the bin, which was pretty fortunate given than Jarrod Wallace found himself sent off for a professional foul shortly after, leaving the Titans with a precarious eleven-man team for about two minutes. At first a pair of one-on-one tackles on both sides of the field – Brimson on Fitzgibbon, Hipgrave on Ponga – signaled Gold Coast’s determination to hold their ground, followed up by an offload from Taylor and a brilliant, barnstorming, tackle-busting run from Hipgrave that very nearly saw him cross over in the right corner.
From there, the Titans shifted the play across to the left side of the field as Fotauika trotted back onto the park, only for a penalty from Hipgrave for being offside to leave the home team vulnerable to yet another onslaught from the Knight. Ross tried to tap and go, and while he might have been called back, his projectile speed still signaled Newcastle’s energy at glimpsing the possibility of more points against a twelve-man Titans outfit after Ese’ese’s solitary effort.
An inside ball from Ponga to Watson now allowed the red and blue to carve up the middle third of the field, culminating with a pair of offloads from Fitzgibbon and Mata’utia that almost sent SKD across in the left corner. Shifting the ball to the left much as Gold Coast had done for their previous four points, the Knights now demonstrated some superb timing of their own, concluding with a short ball from Ross that got Sio four points, and which seemed to continue and consummate all the blistering energy of the Newcastle no 4’s attempted tap and go at the start of the set.
Full credit has to go to Ponga, who somehow managed to deft four Titans defenders with some of the slyest timing and dummying of the game, as well as Sio himself, who initially looked to have been held up by Gordon only for the replay to show how emphatically he’d got the footy to ground. With a fantastic sideline kick from Lamb, Newcastle were now two points ahead, and a well-placed kick from Gordon a set later seemed to give the Knights a considerable challenge to make their way back up the field.
In one of the best sequences of the year so far, however, Sio brought the footy back and popped it across to Ponga five metres into the field of play, setting up the Newcastle fullback to accelerate 75 metres, as he somehow managed to break through every tackle and make the most of every gap in the middle third of the field – or, rather, open up gaps and fissures in the Gold Coast defence at every opportunity – in a truly superhuman effort that culminated with the most exhilarating and emotional try of the afternoon so far.
In a way, it was like a missive from the future – a vision of what Ponga will be once he has graduated into full GOAT status – bringing the Knights to their most second half points so far this season once Lamb had booted through the extras. The game was too precarious for the Titans to allow themselves to be shocked, however, and they made the most of an error from Daniel Saifiti on the first tackle on the restart for a try that may not have been quite as spectacular as Ponga’s, but which was nevertheless emphatic and clinical enough to shut down some of the the Newcastle energy it had produced.
It came on the first tackle of the scrum, as a huge pass to the right edge from Taylor combined with a massive left hand fend on Ross from Lee allowed Don to cross over for the next Titans try. Shortly after, Don provided a sequel with a linebreak and run that would have surely led to more points, only for a low tackle from Ponga and – more importantly – a brutal high shot from Watson to get the Titans a penalty kick, as Taylor booted the footy through the posts to bring the scoreline to 26-26.
To make things even more suspenseful, Taylor missed his next penalty kick – following an offside call for Sione Mata’utia – a couple of sets later, leaving the score set at 26-all as the last five minutes of the game approached. Nevertheless, this seemed to galvanise Gold Coast much as the spectacle of Ponga’s previous try had done – both unbearable clutch situations – leading to Brimson collecting a crossfield kick and smashing over on the left edge for his first NRL try and a six point lead once Taylor had added the extras.
A field goal for Taylor with two minutes on the clock brough Gold Coast their first win in five matches, and a spectacular conclusion to one of the most visceral, exciting and combative matches of the year to date. So much plosive energy was bundled into these eighty short minutes that the Knights and Titans will be certain to bring something special to their matches against the Roosters and Sharks next week – whether out of joy or frustration – which promise to be some of the most memorable clashes of Round 11.
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