The Titans and the Panthers were the two lowest scoring teams in the NRL so far this year when they met at Robina on Friday night, having racked up a mere 36 and 39 points respectively. Both had a big incentive to win, although Gold Goast were also spurred further by Michael Gordon’s 250th game, while Penrith were keen to come away with a less precarious victory following their golden point win over the Wests Tigers the week before.
For the first five minutes, both teams moved the ball up and down the park fluidly, until Dean Whare found some space on the left edge, thanks to some deft passing from Nathan Cleary. The mountain men didn’t cross over then and there, but Whare’s run built the field position and momentum that culminated with James Maloney’s kick at the end of the set, which was just pointed and rapid enough to defy Jarrod Wallace, who knocked it on right on the line for the first error of the night.
Two tackles into the next set, Maloney completed the sequence, collecting a great ball from James Fisher-Harris to run up the middle untouched, thanks in part to a brilliant decoy effort from James Tamou on the previous play. It was Maloney’s first try for the season, and an easy kick for Cleary, who added the extras from right in front. The Titans doubled down on defence on the next set, which started with Mitch Rein lifting Cleary above the horizontal, but ended with Gordon following Wallace with a consecutive knock-on.
In some ways, Gordon’s stuffup was even worse than Wallace’s – or at least more visible – as he reached out his arms to collect the high ball, only to be spooked by a storming kick chase from Dean Whare. Looking down at just the wrong second, Gordo saw the footy tumble into the space between his hands, setting up Penrith for another attacking opportunity. Things looked promising when Cleary dummied on the first tackle, and Dallin Watene Zelezniak came close to crossing over on the right edge, but the Titans got a big letoff when Viliame Kikau was unprepared for a short ball from Maloney over on the left.
This would already have been a momentum-changer if the Titans hadn’t also got two successive penalties – the first a slow peel from Fisher-Harris to get them down the other end of the park, the second a crowding penalty from Tyrone Peachey to get them a quick tap-and-go. Kevin Proctor actually broke through the line to the righr of the posts, where he was held up by DWZ, only for Blake to clean up a last-tackle kick from Tyrone Roberts and get the Panthers a letoff of their own.Embed from Getty Images
Still, the Titans had started to show some muscle, and they were still pumped when a dangerous tackle from Reagan Campbell-Gillard got them some additional field position shortly after. Following a terrific tip-on play on their right edge, Ash Taylor executed arguably his best last-tackle kick of the season so far, sending the Steeden spinning beneath the posts, where Roberts kicked it forward again, and Maloney charged it down, slamming his body on it but failing to ground it with his hands.
With Maloney and Roberts tumbling over each other in goal, the ball was still live. Roberts now made one of the gutsiest plays of the night, clambering over Maloney, and actually crawling along the turf, before getting up to ground the football a metre out from the dead ball line. You couldn’t have asked for a better vision of the Gold Coast halves syncing after their forgettable start to the year – or the desperation that had forced them to sync – and with an even easier kick for Gordon than for Cleary, the two teams were now level at six points apiece.
A slow peel from RCG early in the next set got Gordon a quick tap, as the home team found themselves back within the Penrith ten almost immediately. They’d just scored up through the middle for the first time this month, and were starting to look as if they might have another chance here. As it turned out, however, this would be a right edge try, with Roberts chipping to that side of the field, and Anthony Don collecting the footy to spin down to become the first Gold Coast player to score seventy tries.
Both of the Gold Coast halves had now assisted tries, while Roberts had both assisted and scored within minutes. You could almost argue that Roberts had partly assisted himself for the first try as well, having booted through the ball, and supplemented Taylor’s kick, before he encountered Maloney just beneath the posts. Full credit has to go to Don, too, for a heroic leap under the high ball, despite significant pressure from Whare, Mansour and DWZ, all of whom did everything to prevent the big winger gaining possession.
By this stage, the Titans had become the most dexterous and inventive team on the park. To get back in the game, the Panthers needed a big show of strength, or even a one-man effort, and that’s just what Kikau got a few moments later, after Peachey was pinged for an escort. Making up for his earlier error in the most spectacular way, Kikau collected the footy just out from the line, put in a big left foot step, an even bigger right hand fend on Proctor, and then disposed of Kellly and Rein before arriving at the line.Embed from Getty Images
The last player he encountered was Gordon, but by now Kikau had more than enough momentum to slam the Gold Coast fullback to the ground, setting up Cleary for another effortless conversion. Gordon got his own back, however, celebrating his testimonial match with the last try of the first stanza, which he put down three minutes out from the siren, on the back of one of the best periods of Gold Coast attack all evening.
The play started wth a run out of dummy half from Brian Kelly, who beat a couple of defenders before getting the ball across to Rein, who almost crashed over then and there. He was forced to send it back to the other side of the field, however, where some more hard work from Kelly allowed Gordon to cross over fairly effortlessly, with most of the Panthers’ defence still concentrated on their own right edge.
There couldn’t have been a more resonant way for the Titans to head into the sheds for Gordon’s 250th game, but the Panthers were quick to strike back when they returned to the park. With Cleary laying a solid foundation, Fisher-Harris went from try assister to try scorer, receiving the footy from Hame Sele, before sliding through the line right beside him. It was another conversion for Cleary right in front of the posts, while Taylor continued to nurse a cork in his calf on the sideline that had taken him from the field of play shortly before.
The most rapid shift in fortune so far now ensued, as AJ Brimson broke through the line on the fourth tackle of the next set, making it all the way to the chalk, where he slammed down the ball with one hand, only for the play to be called back for an obstruction from Ryan James. This was a big blow for the Titans, and the Panthers made the most of it, starting with a big run from Moses on the third tackle of the following set, where he paused for a moment as if slightly concussed, before rolling the ball back to Sione Katoa for the next play.
Initially, it looked as if this pause had favored the Titans, and given them more of an opportunity to reform their line. Instead, it made the speed of the next sequence all the more disorienting, as a pair of cut-out passes from Katoa and Cleary sent Josh Mansour over for his first try of the year, and only the second Penrith try of the year to take advantage of this left edge combination. The downside was the hardest conversion of the night so far for either team, but Cleary still managed to slot the Steeden through from the sideline, adding yet another six points to the scoreboard.Embed from Getty Images
There’d been some talk of Taylor returning to the field if the team really needed him, so it was dispiriting for the home crowd to see him limping into the sheds at the very moment that Cleary nailed these two points. Like the Panthers towards the end of the first half, the Titans now needed a big, gutsy, one-man effort to get back in the game – and Wallace provided it moments after returning to the field, for the first longer-range try up through the middle third of the park for the Gold Coast this year.
Like Kikau, Wallace had made up for an opening error, gifting another easy conversion to Gordon, who added the extras to lock up the scoreline once again at 24-24. Although there was still half an hour to go, a golden point urgency started to descend on the match, leading to a mammoth tackle from Rein on DWZ, and then a follow-up effort from Wallace that got some ire from the Panthers, who saw a shoulder charge in it, and started the fracas that had been building all night.
With four converted tries apiece, and no penalties so far, it wasn’t surprising that Maloney was clamouring for a kick, or even for a sin bin. But the score remained at 24-24, as both teams mounted two of their best attacking sequences of the night, and both teams came up with nothing. The first came for the Panthers, after Mansour made a miracle no-look catch, only for Katoa to fumble the footy at a critical moment.
The second came for the Titans, after Peachey made a superb linebreak on the left edge, booting the ball at speed back to the other side of the field, where Brimson would have easily ground it if he’d had even a halfway decent bounce. Unfortunately, the Steeden ricocheted back into the field of play, at such a difficult angle and erratic pace that Brimson was forced to actually curve around it before it was safe to handle, giving the Panthers just enough time to clean up the attack.
While Kelly lost the footy on the next tackle, the Titans wouldn’t have to wait too long to score, following a linebreak and kick from Dale Copley that saw Cartwright charge down the footy with DWZ on his tail. While the replay showed that Cartwright had clasped his hands together just before bringing them down on the football – and so knocked on – the interference from DWZ was enough to justify a penalty try, with Gordon kicking through another conversion to bring the score to 30-24.Embed from Getty Images
While this was one of the clearest penalty tries in some time, you couldn’t blame Maloney for trying to contest it, since the drama of an ex-Panther scoring a penalty try against a current Panther was yet another source of adrenalin and anxiety to a Penrith outfit that were starting to gradually feel the game slipping out of their hands. While the Panthers of 2018 excelled at big comebacks, they weren’t so good at neck-to-neck games, and there was a strong sense that these six points for Gold Coast might well turn out to be crucial – the most crucial – for the final scoreline.
You could sense the Titans getting hungrier and hungrier for their first win of the season as the clock wound down. Seven minutes out, Cleary opted for a trick play by kicking on the first, although it didn’t come to anything after Copley cleaned it up. Gold Coast now got another burst after a srip from Maloney, only for Brimson to put the ball down, and Maloney to make up for his error by trapping Gordon in goal, making him more than double Adam Reynolds as the top forcer of dropouts on 2019.
This was one of the last big opportunities for the Panthers, so it was painful for the away crowd when Kikau lost the footy on the left edge, especially since he could probably have crossed over himself instead of trying to shift the play out to Mansour. It was time for Gold Coast to start thinking about field goals, but they never quite got in position, partly because Ryan James was dragged over the sideline following a knock-on from Mansour himself shortly after, preveting them completing the set that might have resulted in a one-point kick.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter, since they prevented the Panthers from crossing over again, coming away with a six point lead in a match where the final penalty try had made all the difference. With their first win of the season under their belts, they’ll be keen to make the most of another home fixture against the Knights next week, while the Panthers will be raring for a really solid win – no golden point – when they travel to Cronulla to meet the Sharks on Thursday night.