ROUND 9: Gold Coast Titans v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Suncorp Stadium, 9/5/19)
The Sharks were coming off a superb 20-18 win over the Storm when they met the Titans at Suncorp for the first match of Magic Round, while Gold Coast had been doubled by the Cowboys in Townsville, and were hungry to put down their third win in 2019. Neither team had an amazing record at Suncorp, but that was because neither team had an amazing record against the Broncos, so it was intriguing to see how they would respond to one of their most challenging away venues in this new context, especially since Gold Coast had Michael Gordon back after he was taken off three minutes into their game against North Queensland the week before.
After a brief delay for firecrackers to be trollied off the field, Josh Dugan took the kickoff, and Jarrod Wallace lost the footy in goal, gifting Cronulla the first dropout fifteen seconds into the match. Dugan came close to sending Bronson Xerri across in the corner before the Sharks straightened the play on the third tackle, as Paul Gallen and Matt Prior took some big hit-ups in the middle of the park. They headed right again on the last tackle, but mistimed the passes, although two successive penalties from Tyrone Peachey – offside and hand in the ruck – got them a further bout of field position.
The Sharkies chose to tap and go each time, and for a moment Jayden Brailey seemed to have reached out a hand under Wallace and got the ball to ground, only for the replay to show that he’d knocked on at the critical moment. Although this was still the very start of the gane, Brailey’s error felt like it could be a key turning-point in Gold Coast’s favour, since Cronulla had failed to score despite having four repeat sets before the Titans even got a hand to the football. The home team now got their first touch four minutes in, and used it to recoup some much-needed field position.
Cronulla got a big blow when Andrew Fifita was taken off the field with a hamstring injury, leaving them with twelve men for a brief period before Braden Hamlin-Uele trotted onto the park. Meanwhile, Aaron Gray was pinged for a flop, and Bryce Cartwright slammed over a minute later, only for the try to be disallowed after Wallace was deemed to have obstructed Hamlin-Uele in backplay. Both teams had now had a try called back, but it was noticeable how much more quickly the Titans had managed to capitalise on a Cronulla error, compared to the Sharks’ multiple opportunities in the opening minutes of the match.
The next Cronulla set was bookended by Prior sustaining an arm injury on the first tackle, and Josh Morris being dragged into touch by a pack defence on the last, but Gold Coast didn’t do much in the aftermath, as Kurt Capewell stole the footy from Shannon Boyd early in the tackle count, before the Sharks opted to take a quick tap when Taylor was penalised for a slow peel a few seconds later. Capewell finished the sequence by shifting the footy across to Morris to score right where he’ been dragged into touch a couple of minutes before, bringing Cronulla to a four point lead after Kyle Flanagan missed the conversion.Embed from Getty Images
This left edge attack was the deftest play of the night so far, as Capewell riffed ingeniously on his second row duties, helping to recoup Cronulla’s momentum after their frustrating opening minutes. Prior was now starting to limber up again, as both teams went end to end for a couple of minutes, until Gallen coughed up the ball after regathering a ricocheted Taylor kick halfway down the park. Gold Coast now had the first scrum feed in a while, and responded with a pair of rapid sweeps to both sides, before Dugan knocked on a Mitch Rein grubber right on the line, giving the Titans a shot at a sustained bout of field position.
While the Sharks contained Kevin Proctor and Jai Arrow early in the tackle count, they couldn’t contend with the most spectacular play of the night so far – an awkward cut-out pass from Taylor to the left edge of the field that came to ground right in front of Aaron Gray, only for Dale Copley to gather it in his right hand milliseconds before it bounced into the Cronulla winger’s grasp, before curving around to slam down the first four points for Gold Coast. With Gordon adding the extras, the Titans were two points ahead – and once again they’d demonstrated that they needed less than Cronulla to score, even if they’d scored their first try later.
Jarrod Wallace took the first hit-up on the restart, and Carty followed with a galvanising run that harkened back to his game at Penrith, before a second effort from Jack Williams gave them an additional burst of field position. For a moment they seemed to be considering a penalty kick, but instead opted to tap and go – the wrong decision, as it turned out, since Gordon sent the Steeden over the sideline on the very next play, after sustaining a massive hit from Gray, who must have still been smarting from his role in Copley’s try. No surprise, then, that this sudden shift in fortune galvanised Cronulla, who scored again on the very next set.
The simplicity and elegance of this try was a big statement for Cronulla, as Morris simply chased down a Townsend kick to nab a double. For a period, it looked like this might galvanise the Sharkies into their next try, but all their efforts culminated with Hamlin-Uele busting through an epic cascade of tackles, and offloading to Kyle Flanagan, only for the footy to ricochet off Dugan before AJ Brimson gathered it in his right hand. All Brimson had to do was swerve off down the park to score directly beside the posts, setting up Gordon for the simplest conversion of the night, and allowing the Titans to regain their two point lead.
Cronulla hadn’t had time to really bask in Morris’ try, or use it to build momentum, and their stocks plummeted further when a pair of penalties from Jayden Brailey (holding down) and Jack Williams (flop) paved the way for Gold Coast to score once more before the half time siren. This try was just as simple and direct as the previous two, and showcased Taylor’s best kick of the night – an oblique grubber off the right boot that skidded in front of Dugan and bounced perfectly for Peachey to gather it into his chest and slam to ground, before Gordo added the extras to put Gold Coast beyond a converted try lead as they headed into the sheds.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, these would be the last points that Gold Coast scored all night, as the Sharks gradually accelerated in the second stanza to put down three tries and come away with an eight point lead of their own. Two errors from Brian Kelly and a mistake from Jesse Arthars paved the way for the first try, which came off a pair of brilliant dummies from the Cronulla halves, with Flanagan making the final assist to send Gray over in the corner. In fact, Flanagan’s pass hit the ground, but Gray still managed to clean it up, before spinning through Copley to get his own back for the Gold Coast no. 5’s try in the opening half.
While Flanagan might have missed the extras, we were back to a four point game – and Flanno got right back into it by almost replicating Gray’s twist-and-spin a set later. Jayson Bukuya now came into the mix for the first time all night, and seemed keen for a win in his 100th game as he took the first hit-up after Flanagan was held back, before Sosaia Feki chipped brilliantly to trap Gordon in goal for the first dropout of the second stanza. The Titans held on this time, dragging Capewell over the line, where he popped the footy back in field, only for Proctor to clean it up and bring a potential surge of Cronulla field position to an abrupt end.
Both teams now went set for set for another few minutes, until Kelly escorted Morris off his line, despite the fact that neither player had any chance of contesting Gordon for the football twenty metres away. This was probably the most unnecessary penalty of the match, and the Sharks capitalised on it, after Flanagan got them their second successive dropout with a deft kick that Brimson was forced to take dead. Despite Taylor sending the ball sixty metres off the boot, the Sharks were determined, and Taylor seemed to sense it, swinging a punch in backplay after Bukuya and Dugan took a couple of staunch hits to get their men in position.
They managed perfectly, as the Sharks now executed a rapid right edge sweep that culminated with Townsend sailing a harbor bridge pass over to the wing for Gray to smash over for a second try. Two Cronulla backliners had now scored a double – and while another missed kick from Flanagan meant the scoreline was poised at 18-18, the Sharkies still felt like they had the upper hand, and could nab the game if they managed to score the next try. A few minutes later, they almost did it, when Feki sliced through the line, only for the game to pause for another disallowed try when Briton Nikora was held to have obstructed the Gold Coast defence in backplay.
This was a frustrating moment for the Sharks – it was right when they should have scored – and Gallen took out their frustration with a dangerous tackle on the next play. Five minutes later, Flanagan glimpsed points when he broke through the line, but it turned out to be two points instead of four, as his run tempted Peachey into working on the ground. A dangerous tackle from Peachey also set up Gallen to bring the Sharks to a more convincing eight point lead thirty seconds out from the siren, as Flanagan nailed the final conversion with two seconds left on the clock.Embed from Getty Images
While the Titans aren’t the most challenging team they’ve played this year, then, this was still one of the more impressive Cronulla victories, given the way that they turned around the game in the second half, responding to Gold Coast’s glimpse of momentum by preventing them scoring a single point when they returned from the break. Nevertheless they’ll be looking for more consistency when they host the Sea Eagles at Shark Park for the last game in Round 10, while the Titans are now even more desperate for a third win, and will be keen to make the most of their home ground advantage when they host the Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon.
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