ROUND 1: Gold Coast Titans v. Canberra Raiders (Cbus Super Stadium, 17/3/19)
The Titans had a pretty dispiriting start to their season on Sunday afternoon, failing to score a single point as the Raiders clocked up three tries, three penalty goals, a field goal and a conversion. The signs were clear from the opening minutes, which started with a penalty on Ryan James for a ball strip, an error from Brian Kelly on the back of a kick bomb from Aidan Sezer, and then the first dropout of the night when a big effort from Joey Leilua traped Philip Sami in goal, once again off a Sezer kick.
Gold Coast got a letoff after Elliott Whitehead fumbled a pass from Sezer, and their first big opportunity when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Bailey Simonsson – the two rookies in the backline – showed some miscommunication about who should clean up the high ball. Two tackles later, Nick Cotric crossed over on the left edge, but the previous catch-and-pass from Jarrod Croker was held to be momentarily forward, meaning that the Raiders would have to wait until the thirty-ninth minute to score their first try.
The biggest liability for the visitors during these opening minutes continued to be the relative inexperience of CNK, who knocked on under the high ball at the end of the next set, thanks to a massive kick chase from Michael Gordon and a follow-up tackle from Tyrone Roberts. An early fracas burst out between the two teams, but it was quickly eclipsed by the spectacle of Roberts being removed from the field with an Achilles tendon injury, forcing Dale Copley to trot out early in his place.
The Titans were now without both their halves, with Ash Taylor being ruled out until at least round three. For a moment, this disadvantage fueled them, and they chose to tap and go after two successive Canberra penalties – Joseph Tapine for a slow peel, Josh Hodgson for being offside – before getting their first dropout when a superb AJ Brimson kick left CNK with no option but to tap the footy into touch.
At this point, the rain really started to set in, which may be why Jarrod Wallace fumbled the football at the start of the dropout. It had been an enormous kick from Wighton, sailing clean over the head of Tyrone Peachey and coming dangerously close to bouncing over the sideline if Wallace hadn’t arrived at it. While the Titans may have got the ball back on the next tackle, as Brimson cleaned up a loose carry from Whitehead, it was followed up by the best take so far from CNK, and the Raiders were rolling once again.
Wighton now followed up his massive kick with a 40/20 attempt. This was even bigger, travelling much too far – so far, in fact, that it was enough to ensure a goal line dropout after a massive kick chase from Croker trapped Gordon behind the line. Two penalties from James – a slow peel and a second effort – set up Croker to pop through the first and second penalty kicks of the night – a bad sign for the Titans, since James’ muscle around the tackle is normally what gets them back on track.
As if to compensate, Wallace and Arrow executed a huge hit-up on Josh Papalii immediately after the first penalty kick, although Croker and Soliola got their own back on Gordon at the start of the next Gold Coast set. One minute out from half time, Soliola scored the first try of the night, following a slow and convoluted play-the-ball on the Raiders’ left edge that ended up working to their advantage, since it made Hodgson’s subsequent grubber seem even speedier and more disorienting by comparison.
All that Soliola had to do was make his way to the line and time the bounce of the ball, and he did both perfectly, landing to the left of the uprights for the first four-pointer in the Canberra season. Coming so late in the first half, and in such a simple way, there was something understated about this try – it felt more like an epilogue than a culmination of the last forty minutes of football – but that also made the Raiders seem even more assured, as if they didn’t even need a big gesture to prove their strength.
This would turn out to be the first stage in a sustained period of Canberra tryscoring that continued into the first twenty minutes or so after the break. With the Raiders becoming the quickest team in NRL history to break 20 000 points, in only their 919th game, they took on a new calm and serenity after returning from the sheds, and opened the second stanza with one of their best sets of the night, after Gordon lost the high ball under some massive pressure from Cotric.
On the first tackle, the Titans only just managed to close the defence before Croker broke through. On the second tackle, Soliola straightened the play, setting up Corey Horsburgh to catch the footy at speed and almost twist and spin over the line on the third. On the fourth, Bateman asked more questions on the left edge, before a catch-and-pass from Croker went over the sideline, but only after a touch from Kelly got the Raiders six again.
The green machine scored a minute later, on the back of a set play out of the scrum that saw Cotric collect the footy and muscle his way into the line, almost breaking through before offloading out to Leilua on his left edge. From there, Joey fended off Sami before bouncing off Gordon and heading back towards the inside of the field, where he ducked down beneath three Gold Coast defenders – Peachey was the main casualty – forcing them into a collective somersault as he slammed the footy to earth.
The final Canberra try capped a particularly frustrating period for the home team, who seemed to have scored – and scored spectacularly – an hour into the match. Collecting the footy from Nathan Peats, Brimson kicked it forward, collected it himself, and then sent a harbor bridge pass over to Brenko Lee, who popped it back to AJ to collect on the ground. It could have been the play that turned the game around, but a delayed call from the ref, who oscillated between a forward pass and knock-on for Lee, quashed any moment the Titans might have built.
To add insult to injury, Bryce Cartwright now got pinged for an – ambiguous – one-one-one strip. At the other end of the field, a Sezer kick ricocheted off the defence, allowing Papalii to showcase some extraordinary handling in wet conditions, as he scooped the ball off the toe and offloaded it back to Sezer, whose second kick found Simonsson right on the chest. Sami got there in time, but didn’t stand a chance, as the young gun scored in the corner to bring the scoreline to 0-18.
This would have been a resounding end for the Raiders, given the hesitation of the new backliners in the first half, but the green machine sealed the deal in the last ten minutes with a field goal from Sezer and a penalty kick from Croker. Having started their season in style, the Raiders will be raring to build on this momentum when they take on the Storm at GIO this Friday night, while the Titans will be desperate to put down their first points of 2019 when they travel to Cronulla to meet the Sharks.
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