ROUND 2: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Gold Coast Titans (PointsBet Stadium, 23/4/19)
Both teams were searching for their first win of 2019 when the Sharks hosted the Titans at PointsBet Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Gold Coast were actually looking for their first points full stop after being kept scoreless by Canberra the Sunday before, while Cronulla hadn’t fared much better, only putting down a single try, conversion and penalty kick against the Knights in Newcastle. While the Sharks had the home ground advantage, the Titans started strong, crossing over the line twice in the opening ten minutes, only for two on field rulings to be reversed by the Bunker.
The first big Gold Coast sequence was spearheaded by Ryley Jacks, who made a strong statement in his debut game for the club with a deft offload to Jarrod Wallace right on the Cronulla line. While the footy ricocheted off the Sharkies’ defence, Ryan James managed to scoop it up and get it to ground right on the chalk, leading to an on field ruling of try. Yet the replay showed that the Gold Coast prop had bobbled the Steeden right before he got it down, keeping the scoreline set at nil all.
Gold Coast got another burst of position early in their next set, thanks to a flop from Paul Gallen, and a sequence of big runs and rapid play-the-balls that got them eight metres out from the line by the end of the first tackle. Nathan Peats compressed all that acceleration into a short ball to Jai Arrow, who tumbled over the defence, and initially looked to have scored, only for some extensive Bunker scrutiny to reveal that Matt Prior had managed to get his hand beneath the footy for the whole sequence.
The Sharks now responded with the first of several right side raids that would see them ask some big questions of the Gold Coast left edge defence over the next few sets, but this approach only started to pay dividends sixteen minutes into the game, when Matt Moylan sent the footy out to Sione Katoa in the midst of a fairly nondescript set. Breaking through the line, Katoa rapidly swerved back infield, where he danced away from six or seven Titans defenders before finally coming to ground.
While the Sharks headed left for the next few plays, there had been too much energy on the right side of the field to neglect making use of Katoa again. Sure enough, Moylan started a second right sweep at the end of the set, sending the footy through Chad Townsend to Shaun Johnson, who concluded with an enormous harbor bridge pass to Katoa, waiting unmarked on the right wing. Slamming over the line to finish the set he’d begun, Katoa put down the first four points for Cronulla.Embed from Getty Images
It remained a four point lead, too, since Johnson’s kick looked as if it would clear the posts until the very last second, when it bounced off the right upright. For a brief period, the momentum shifted back towards the Titans, after Anthony Don cleaned up a difficult kick, avoided being dragged in goal, and surged back up the field, getting Gold Coast to the forty thanks to some deft support play from Michael Gordon, before the Titans got an extra burst of field position due to Johnson being offside.
Yet this surge of Gold Coast confidence didn’t make much of an impact, with A.J. Brimson inexplicably choosing to kick on the second tackle, allowing Josh Morris to scoop up the Steeden and get Cronulla rolling again. Seconds later, the Sharks got down the other end of the field on the back of a high tackle from Wallace, and this time they got their dropout, as Gordon was trapped in goal at the tail end of a dangerous kick from Chad Townsend.
Once more, the Sharks banked on their right edge on the restart. Instead of wasting time on the left side of the field, Moylan immediately shifted the Steeden through Townsend, Johnson and Dugan to bag Katoa his second for the afternoon. While all three passes were superb, Johnson deserves special mention, drawing the defence in even as he straightened up the play just enough for Dugan and then Katoa to get on the outside shoulders of their respective defenders.
The scoreline remained 8-0 after Johnson missed his second conversion, but the Sharks would score the last two tries of the first stanza, both of which came off Gold Coast errors. The first followed a mistake from Don that garnered the Sharks a repeat set, which started with them nosing around on the left edge before Andrew Fifita mirrored Moylan and Johnson with a wide pass back infield that was clearly designed to shift attention over to the right side once again.
Unfortunately, Fifita’s pass didn’t find Johnson, bouncing on the ground right in front of the uprights. Yet while Tyrone Peachey and Bryce Cartwright both converged on it, the ex-Panthers both failed to clean it up, leaving the Steeden standing for Fifita to storm in and kick it back in to Dugan, who gathered it up and pivoted inside, and away from Brenko Lee, to score. This was easily the most incredible assist of the year so far, since Fifita had effectively passed to himself, setting up the try with both hands and boot.Embed from Getty Images
The next Cronulla try was the simplest yet – proof, it seemed, that the Sharks were consolidating and refining their play in the face of a Gold Coast outfit that seemed unable to score, making these last few minutes feel more like a training run than a first-grade game of football. Following a knock-on from Cartwright, Moylan found himself with the Steeden on the right side of the park, where he double pumped, delaying the defence and creating enough time for Briton Nikora to complete a hard run from the twenty, receive the footy, and slice through the line for another four.
Finally, Johnson booted through his first conversion of the game – and yet these would also be the last points that the Sharks scored, despite a few near-misses as the final minutes of the first stanza wound down. On the other side of the Steeden, the Titans still hadn’t posted their first points of the 2019 season, meaning that winning the game could no longer be the prime objective – they just had to put down a try, anyway anyhow, to prevent their self-belief eroding too much during these critical opening weeks.
As it turned out, if the second stanza had been the whole game, they would have won, since they put down the one and only try of these back forty minutes, while also preventing the Sharks from scoring any more points. They also dominated the opening seven minutes, continually accumulating field position after Jacks got an offside penalty from Blayke Brailey, the only Brailey on the park after Jayden had been taken off for an HIA late in the first half.
Brimson ended the set with a sneaky grubber that Moylan was forced to kick dead in goal, while Peats got a penalty from Nikora for a slow peel early in the restart, as the Sharks were given a formal warning about their mounting mistakes. Ryan James followed up with a barnstorming run to straighten up the play, coming to ground in front of the posts, before Brimson concluded with a second grubber, a second dropout, and a near-try after Jayson Bukuya only just got to his kick before he did.
Cronulla now chanced a short dropout and got the ball back, due to some quick thinking from Kurt Capewell, before almost scoring one of the great team tries of 2019. Collecting the footy from Aaron Woods on the right side of the field, Nikora broke through the line and shifted the Steeden back into Johnson, who ran straight up through the ruck, beating two tackles before passing the ball out to Dugan, who curved around to set up Moylan for a rapid sweep to the left side of the park.Embed from Getty Images
If the Sharks had scored here they would have erased the impact of the Titans’ accumulated field position, and probably got themselves enough momentum to put down a couple more four-pointers over the rest of the second stanza. Instead, Jack Williams lost the footy over the sideline, and Gold Coast got a penalty to boost their field position once again, allowing them to continue tightening the screws on Cronulla as mercilessly as they had done over the first five minutes of this half.
No surprise, then, that they scored on this set, thanks to a pair of superb linebreaks. First, Arrow stormed through the defence on the left edge, before being brought to ground by Dugan. The tackle wasn’t strong enough, though, to prevent Arrow getting up and feeding a rapid play-the-ball to Peachey, who responded with a bullet pass to Brenko Lee, who came within a millimetre of the sideline as he swiveled back in field and dove over the Cronulla defence to put down the Titans’ first four points.
Gold Coast had now secured their own right edge try, while Gordon showed Johnson how to execute a sideline conversion a minute. For a moment this looked like it might be the start of a comeback from the Titans, but the score remained locked at 20-6 until the final siren, as each team tried and failed to make the most of their tryscoring opportunities. The Sharks will be looking for a more consistent eighty minutes of football, then, when they meet Parra at ANZ, while the Titans will be keen to score their second try of 2019, and continue searching for ways to compensate for Ash Taylor’s absence, when they play the Warriors in Auckland.
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