After a devastating 0-34 loss to Brisbane at Cbus the week before, the Titans were keen to make the most of a depleted Roosters outfit when they hosted Sydney City on the Gold Coast for a late game on Sunday. With James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell out following Origin, Blake Ferguson was at fullback and Sio Siua Taukeiaho was on kicking duties, while Sean O’Sullivan was making his debut at halfback as Cooper Cronk awaited the birth of his first child.
Add to that the absence of Victor Radley and Mitch Aubusson – whose utility skills would have been invaluable in this particular match – and the Titans had a real chance at making a dent in the Sydney City armour, especially since Paul Momirovski was also making his debut at centre and Poasa Faamausili in the front row. As it turned out, however, Momirovski put down the first points, following some early warning signs from the Titans. The first involved some miscommunication between Michael Gordon and Anthony Don under the high ball, and helped pave the way for a spate of Sydney City possession about eight minutes in.
Oddly, the Roosters chose to take the two following a slow peel from Will Matthews, but they got a chance to score shortly after, at the back end of a set bookended by errors from Ash Taylor. It started with the Gold Coast halfback kicking too far on the final tackle, gifting the Chooks the first seven tackle set of the night. At the other end of the park, Taylor found himself under the high ball, which he only just contained, five metres out from the line, before being driven backwards by Ryan Matterson, with Ferguson launching in for additional support.
Taylor must have assumed he would be driven in goal, since he now proceeded with one of the riskiest offloads of the season so far – a one-handed pass to Brenko Lee, who was directly in front of the chalk, and had no chance of collecting the ball. Sure enough, it bounced off the ex-Bulldog’s knee, and came to ground, as Nat Butcher leapt into scoop it up and muscle his way through Michael Gordon for what initially appeared to be the first try of the night, and the low point of Taylor’s performance this year.
In slow-motion, however, it emerged that Gordon’s tackle had been a trysaver, as Butcher momentarily lost the footy into his opponent’s leg – yet another of the gutsy and understated efforts that makes Gordo such an underrated player. For a moment, Taylor could breathe again, but he didn’t enjoy the reprieve long, since three tackles later Momirovski scored on debut, after collecting the football from Luke Keary and changing the angle of play to storm through Lee, who’d had a pretty rough couple of minutes defending his try line.
The last line of defence was Kevin Proctor, who brough Momirovski down with a low tackle, but by this stage the stand-in centre had made the most of his massive wingspan to plant the football over the line. It was virtually the same part of the park where Butcher had almost scored – a testament to the Roosters’ ability to self-correct – but there was a sudden reversal of fortune on the restart, as Jake Friend lost the footy on the third tackle.
Anthony Don now proceeded to ask some big questions of the defence, skidding back and forth along the ruck and nearly breaking through a couple of times, as Keary spearheaded a scrambling effort to prevent the Titans jacking into the adrenalin of their opening try. He’d counted without Jarrod Wallace, who gained possession right in front of the posts, and then seemed to float in slow-motion in the way that only big forwards can, reading the play one tackle ahead as Liu came in for the inevitable clash.
Wallace’s reading was good, as he timed the collision perfectly to get a hand free and send the football around to Moeaki Fotuaika, who found himself in prime position to score on debut in virtually the same position as Momirovski. Two players had scored on debut in the same part of the park, and with Gordo sending through the extras the Titans seemed to glimpse the equal playing field they’d been hoping for from the very beginning of the match, given the number of Sydney City playmakers who were absent from the park.
Maintaining that vision was harder, though, especially once a professional foul saw Matthews sent to the sin bin about fourteen minutes out from the break. Gold Coast hearts must have dropped when Fergo crossed over on the next tackle, slicing through the gap that Matthews had left behind him and slamming through Konrad Hurrell to put the ball down in the right corner. Luckily for them, an obstruction from Liu on AJ Brimson let the home team off the hook, but with Taylor simply losing the football on the next set, under pressure from Butcher, things were hardly ideal.
Surprisingly, the majority of Matthews’ time in the bin passed without the Roosters get a serious shot at scoring a try. They made up for it two minutes before he returned with one of the most contentious tries of the season so far, as well as possibly the most ambiguous tryscoring combination to involve the uprights that I’ve seen this decade. The sequence started with an encounter between Wallace and O’Sullivan right on the line, and was so unusual that it was quite difficult to parse even in slow motion.
It was clear enough that Wallace had stripped the ball from O’Sullivan, but in the immediate aftermath the debutant halfback seemed to knock the footy into the posts. Yet the bunker made the call as if the posts weren’t there, arguing that O’Sullivan had knocked the ball backwards, and that only the posts had propelled it forward, despite the fact that it had also seemed to come just slightly forward off the tips of his fingers. O’Sullivan himself seemed as confused by the decision as anyone else – an apt four points for a game where so much had been aligned against the Titans.
Two minutes out from the siren, Gold Coast got their last big chance of the first half, after Zane Tetevano was put on report for a dangerous tackle, but responded with a messy sequence that ended with Brimson kicking on the last. Rather than threading through the defensive line, the Steeden ricocheted off O’Sullivan, and back to Taylor, who didn’t really have enough time to either take himself out of the play or execute a clean pickup, and so lost it as a result. You couldn’t really blame him, but this still culminated an uncharacteristic period for the Gold Coast halfback, and some frustration from Nathan Peats in the scrum spoke to the mindset of the entire team at this point.
The Titans showed more resilience at the start of the second half, but they were still vulnerable. Ten minutes in, the Roosters got the ball back at the end of the set, moving it quickly out to the left edge where Daniel Tupou almost leapt his way through the Gold Coast defence. A tackle later, Tupou scooped up a lost ball, while a further error from an irate Ryan James gave the Chooks a further shot at the line. They probably would have scored too, were it not for an impulsive decision from Butcher, who flipped the footy blind out to the left edge, where it was intercepted by Don, instead of taking a fairly standard tackle in the middle of the field.
No moment in the match captured the aborted momentum of Taylor’s game quite so painfully as an error the young halfback made shortly after. Initially appearing to have wrenched the footy away from the Roosters, Taylor started to accelerate down the field, for a run and try that would have been just the injection of adrenalin the Titans needed if he hadn’t been called back for an error. Instead, all that energy was transferred back to the Roosters, who now got stuck into one of their most energetic sets of the second half.
It started with a barnstorming run from Fergo, who would have simply steamrolled his way over the Gold Coast defence were it not for a spectacular trysaving tackle from Brimson, which rivalled Gordon’s opening effort on Butcher for its courage and precision. A couple of tackles later, and only five minutes after having made his NRL debut, Poasa Faamausili collected a no-look pass from Baptiste, skipped over the first line of Roosters defence, and found himself colliding chest-on-chest with Gordo, muscling him out of the way to slam down with the footy beside the uprights.
Not only had the Chooks not suffered without Teddy, Mitchell, Radley and Aubusson, but all three of their debutants had scored – an incredible testament to the depth and reach of their team. It was a fairly shattering prospect for the Titans, then, as Fergo booted the extras through to bring the score to 6-20, especially since the Chooks haven’t conceded more than sixteen points during their last five games.
Nevertheless, the last points in the game came with a very sudden shift back in Gold Coast’s direction, bookended by a pair of superb linebreaks from Latu. The first saw the ex-Panther poke his nose through and pop the ball across to Brimson, resulting in a chaotic passage of play down the other end of the park that culminated with Keary sent off for a professional foul. With the away side now sporting a twelve man outfit, the Titans consolidated, as a second offload from Latu sent Wallace straight through Fergo and Liu to score triumphantly right beside the posts.
It was the kind of galvanising play that should have led to a comeback, but Gold Coast were let down when Wallace crossed over a couple of minutes later. The replay clearly showed that James had obstructed Jared Warea-Hargreaves, a frustrating prospect for both James and Wallace given the calls that had gone against them earlier in the game. No further points were scored, in a match that had almost benefited from the absence of the Roosters’ big playmakers, given the way it allowed their young guns to shine. They’ll be raring for a fight, then, when they take on the Sea Eagles at Lottoland next week, while the Titans will be keen to put the last two weeks behind them when they show up against the Knights in Newcastle.