ROUND 1: Canberra Raiders v. Gold Coast Titans (GIO Stadium, 13/3/20)

It took sixty-five minutes to get to the first try of the 2020 NRL season in last night’s match between Parra and Canterbury, so it was cathartic when the Raiders put down points in the first few plays of their season opener against Gold Coast at GIO. Bailey Simonsson took the kickoff, Kevin Proctor got the first carry, and Jarrod Wallace made a handling error on the very next play. Dunamis Lui then got a penalty on the second tackle for the Raiders, off a dangerous hit from Sam Lisone, and the green machine chose to tap and go, capitalizing immediately when Jack Wighton busted through on the left edge, skipping away from Ash Taylor and slicing past Philip Sami for the second NRL try this season, and the first hint of a terrific night with the footy.

With Jarrod Croker adding the extras, the Raiders were six ahead with four on the board, but Gold Coast survived the next set, when Sami came up with his first high ball of the evening. Wallace now made up for his opening error with a kick on the fourth, and Bryce Cartwright sent through a well-weighted kick on the last, forcing Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad to collect it within the twenty. Both teams were set for set for a few minutes, as the Raiders rotated between three different kickers, forcing the Titans backline to showcase their versatility. Wighton broke the deadlock, with a terrific kick that sat up beautifully, half a metre inside the in goal area. Yet it paid off in an unexpected way, since Sami made a great run to bring the ball back in the field of play, only for Cartwright to be penalised for a marginally late hit on Wighton.

This was the first big chance for Canberra since the opening minutes – and a frustrating period for Carty, who leaked another penalty on the second tackle, this time for a slow peel. Josh Papalii and Corey Horsburgh made big muscular runs in front of the uprights, but Wighton showed that he could barge through the line as brutally as any forward, scooping up the footy and putting down a double where he’d scored his opening four-pointer. Once again, halfback and fullback were the main casualties, as Wighton swerved away from Taylor with a left-foot pivot, and then slammed through Sami right on the line, playing more like a frontrower than a five-eighth, before Croker booted through the extras to become the seventh player – and the youngest player – in NRL history to reach 2000 points.

Wighton made another superb kick a set later, almost securing a 40/20 to get both teams a bit of breathing-space as the Titans packed the scrum on the ten metre line. Gold Coast moved the footy fluidly to the right edge on the third tackle, and Carty chipped it in that direction again on the last, but CNK cleaned it up without too much trouble. Joseph Tapine followed with a big left fend on Proctor, but the Titans got their best field position so far when Wighton went too shallow on the last kick. They were on the cusp of their first really deep attack when Lisone overran a pass from Mitch Rein, turning it into a forward pass, while Taylor took a brief spell off the park after copping Wighton’s hip on his left shoulder, but managed to return shortly after.

A Tyrone Roberts error now allowed two new Raiders to step into the spotlight, as Curtis Scott showcased some superb footwork to turn Jai Whitbread inside out and send George Williams through the line. Williams was brought down right in front of the chalk, and seemed to have the Steeden tucked pretty cleanly under his arm when Sami and Don piled on top. However, the subsequent replay showed that he’d lost it before Croker scooped it up and planted it down in goal, costing the Raiders what would have been their most plosive and exciting four-pointer so far. Yet they didn’t have to wait long to cross over again, since a dangerous tackle from Jai Whitbread and a slow peel from Jai Arrow set Emre Guler up for his first NRL try.

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This was a study in speed, strength and opportunity, as Hodgson gathered a quick play-the-ball right in front of the posts, and eluded an ocean of Gold Coast jerseys by flicking the footy almost vertically to his right, where Guler almost had to leap up to catch it. It was spectacular to watch the Steeden move from the ground, to the air, and back to the ground again – an almost triangular trajectory that took the Titans by surprise, putting Canberra eight ahead once Croker slotted through another conversion. Three minutes out from the end, Williams broke through the line for a second time, off the left foot, and Horsburgh and Tapine combined for a massive tackle on Whitbread, but the Raiders didn’t score any more points during these final plays, and headed for the shed eighteen ahead.

There were a few shifts after the break – CNK was off the park with a mild concussion and Simonsson shifted to fullback, while Brian Kelly took over duties on the left edge of the Gold Coast attack so Peachey could make more of an impact up the middle. The Titans glimpsed a try on an early set, with a rapid right sweep that might have produced points for Don if he hadn’t coughed up a bullet pass from Kallum Watkins. Still, Sami almost broke through the line on the their next set, and Peachey took a quick tap after a strip from Tapine, before almost breaking through himself. Nathan Peats went flat on the third, and finally Don got a chance to make good on the last, beating three Raiders to find the try line before Taylor sent the first Gold Coast conversion of 2020 through the uprights.

Tapine responded with two massive plays a few sets later, flattening Watkins with one of the biggest hits of the night, and then scooping up a lost ball just after Whitbread poked his nose through the line. Yet this brief burst quickly settled back into a regular rhythm, as each team went set for set again, until Horsburgh lost the footy just before Papalii trotted back onto the park. Canberra took a Captain’s Challenge to see whether the ball was stripped from Horsburgh, but they were as unsuccessful as the Eels and Dogs had been the night before, meaning that the green machine had no challenges remaining in their arsenal. Meanwhile, the Titans got a penalty almost immediately, off a flop from Hodgson – and just like that they had their best attacking opportunity since their first try.

However, as had occurred so frequently during this match – and for both Parra and Canterbury the night before – they failed to capitalise upon this bout of field position. Despite a good offload from Sami, and a hard run from Proctor, Taylor made a spotty kick at the end of it all, allowing Horsburgh to recover the footy. In one of the one-man efforts that can make or break a game, Rein now spearheaded a pack effort to drag Simonsson back in goal on the second tackle, gaining the Titans an unexpected dropout, but while Peachey and Wallace were restless around the ruck early in the tackle count, this repeat set also came to nothing when Rein dropped the footy while setting up a pass to Cartwright on the last.

By this stage, the match was turning into a war of attrition, and all Canberra had to do was hang on and defend well to wear the visitors down. Over the next five minutes, they steadily built a platform of field position off a pair of errors from Rein and Wallace that were interspersed with a pair of offside penalties from Don and Proctor. Finally, and almost inevitably, this accumulation of position got the best of Gold Coast, allowing Canberra to showcase some of their most poised timing all night – a deft pass from Siliva Havilli to Guler, followed by an even better play from Guler, who held onto the Steeden just long enough to draw Cartwright into the line, before flipping it across for Elliott Whitehead to smash over for another four points, bringing the Raiders to quadruple the Titans once Croker added the extras.

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It had been a tough night for Cartwright, who dashed a dynamic Titans set seven minutes out from the end with a forward pass – although Gold Coast got their best chance in the last ten minutes so far when Michael Oldfield coughed up the footy on the second tackle of the following set. Sami now broke through the line, and came close to scoring on the left edge, before Havilii lifted Wallace above the horizontal in front of the posts, but the set ended with another error from Carty, who lost the ball into a big tackle from Hodgson. He got a bit more joy next time he had ball in hand, nailing an around-the-corner pass on the right edge that helped lay the platform for Peachey to break through the line. Croker was then pinged for being offside, and sent off for an HIA, as the Raiders took a breath before the final Titans onslaught.

Yet it ended badly – a knock-on from Roberts – while the Raiders were hungry until the very end, as Nick Cotric made a burst at the line on their penultimate play, and Oldfield made a decent closing run, bringing Canberra to the halfway line, and an eighteen point lead, as the final siren rang out. Even though Gold Coast are without James, Brimson, Boyd and Hipgrave, this was still a pretty disappointing start to the season, placing even more pressure on them to come away with a strong home win when they host the Eels at Cbus next Sunday night. On the other side of the Steeden, it’s clear that the Raiders haven’t lost any of the passion that drove them to a grand final berth last year, so they’ll be looking to channel their best moments tonight when they travel to Eden Park to meet the Warriors next Saturday afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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