ROUND 11: Gold Coast Titans v. Penrith Panthers (Cbus Super Stadium, 26/7/20)

The Titans had only won one of their last eleven matches when they hosted the Panthers at Cbus on Sunday afternoon, while Penrith had won five of their last six games against Gold Coast. If the chocolate soldiers got the chocolates, this would be their best ever start to a season – ten from eleven, thanks to their sole loss to Parramatta, who they dominated for the majority of the match anyway. Conversely, if Gold Coast won, they would have equalled their wins for the entire 2019 season.

Whether because Penrith hadn’t won during their last four visits to Queensland, or because Kevin Proctor and Dale Copley were back from biceps and ankle injuries respectively, the Titans glimpsed an incredible comeback on the brink of half time – and while they didn’t recapture it after the break, this was still a much closer match than you might have expected from the stats. Jai Arrow was sporting his most flamboyant mullet – and the hair matched the game, which was classy for long periods.

On the other side of the Steeden, Viliame Kikau was out with a calf injury, Caleb Aekins was back in the no. 1 jersey, and Brent Naden was starting at centre while Dean Whare nursed his thigh injury. Mitch Kenny was also at hooker after Api Koroisau injured his elbow in the 22-10 win over North Queensland the week before, but by and large the Panthers were playing with the same outfit that had propelled them through nine wins already this season, so it was a bit surprising they didn’t put down more points here.

Four Titans dragged James Tamou seven metres back on the first play, but Nathan Cleary still got a decent kick away, while Corey Thompson was unlucky not to get six again when he got tangled up with Mitch Kenny on the first Gold Coast carry. Caleb Aekins was safe under the first high ball from the Titans, and Malakai Watene Zelezniak followed with his first tackle in first-grade since Round 8 last year. Cleary’s next kick was the best so far, forcing Anthony Don to wait until the third bounce to collect it.

Tamou lost the ball a set later, but the call went Penrith’s way, as Arrow was penalised for holding down after somersaulting his way into the tackle, giving the visitors the first burst of field position. Cleary played around on the right edge for a couple of tackles, before booting it to the other side of the field, where Stephen Crichton went high to pop it back for Tyrone May, who was cleaned up pretty clinically by the Gold Coast goal line defence, only for Don to lose it back to the mountain men a tackle later.

This was the first big crisis of the game for Gold Coast, scrambling to contain Josh Mansour, who received a harbour bridge ball from Cleary on the first, and bumped off a couple of defenders to come down just short of the line. Cleary was everywhere, almost assisting Brent Naden, who got an offload away on the right wing, before Cleary himself took a huge shot from Dale Copley on the other side of the park, finally losing the footy after a daring dummy to the right that didn’t quite come off.

Don was determined not to lose the ball on play one of the next set, restraining himself from an offload opportunity before Kelly became the next Titan to cough it up and lose the Steeden over the sideline as Copley and MWZ tried to drag him into touch on play three. Proctor and Fogarty aimed to return the favour on the next set, spearheading a pack effort to pull Jarome Luai towards the north sideline, but the wiry five-eighth managed to retain position and possession, before Moeakia Fotuaika was called offside.

Mansour now got his try, thanks to a pair of deft passes from the halves, and a terrific catch from Sauce himself, who reached up his right hand, and pulled the footy into his chest, before rebalancing himself enough to dive cleanly into the corner. It would have been worrying if the Panthers hadn’t scored here, especially with the best left-edge combination in the competition, but even so it’s always rallying for the mountain men to see Sauce cross over, even if Cleary shanked the conversion off to the left.

Penrith now settled into their fastest and most seamless set so far – a perfect movement up the field, centred on a tough burst at the line from Liam Martin, who banged off Stone as Taylor came in on top. James Fisher-Harris followed with a huge shot on Kelly, and so the Titans didn’t seem to have any options at the moment – just a 40/40 from Taylor, who booted the ball over the sideline to give his men some much-needed time to rest and regather.

Yet Penrith showed no signs of slowing down, getting six again early in the next tackle count, and working their way up the middle as Tamou nearly got another restart, Cleary almost broke through, and Kenny ended with a neat grubber to trap Fogarty in goal for the first dropout of the night. The Panthers now had 74% of possession, and 8/9 completions, so they were in prime position to score here. Tamou took the first hit, Luai shifted it left, and Crichton made it twenty metres to cross over untouched.

We weren’t even a full quarter into the game, and it was already feeling like a training run, from the terrific short ball from Fish in the face of Fogarty that set up the sweep in the first place, to the slow-mo footage of Sauce shouting out his support as he watched Crichton accelerate to the line ahead of him. This time Cleary added the extras, booting it straight through the posts from seven metres in field, bringing Penrith to a comfortable 10-0 lead – and nineteen points at the top of the live ladder.

Luai showed he could bomb just as far as Cleary at the end of the next set, as the Panthers finished another opening quarter without conceding points. Once again, Taylor sent it over the sideline – a 50/30, rather than a 40/40 – since all the Titans could really hope for at this stage was a bit of breathing-space, so relentless and streamlined was the Penrith machine. They needed a big one-man effort to get back in the game – and they got it a few minutes later, when Fogarty intercepted and broke into space.

Seeing the footy come free as Proctor slammed Luai to ground within the Gold Coast ten, Fogarty dove on the ball, scooped it up, got away from Mansour at the ten, outpaced Martin as Don came up in support, and bumped off Naden at the other ten, tucking the ball into his chest to ground it. This was Fogarty’s first NRL try, and the ultimate try against the run of play, coming off another crisis point for Gold Coast, who’d just conceded a fresh bout of field position to Penrith off a Thompson error.

This should have got Gold Coast back in the game, but Taylor followed Cleary by missing his first conversion attempt, and Fogarty only just made it back into the field of play after Don let a huge kickoff from Cleary bounce back over the line. Foutaika knocked on a tackle later, and the Panthers regathered seamlessly, working through a couple of strong sets until Isaah Yeo bumped off Peats with his left hand, disposed of Stone with his right, and reached out his left again to plant the footy on the chalk.

Penrith had closed ranks with panache, but Gold Coast had an even bigger game-changing sequence in them – two tries in the last four minutes before the break. It all started with a loose carry from Mansour, who followed a great Aekins collect by coughing up the Steeden into a big hit from Jarrod Wallace. Crichton cleaned it up under pressure from Peats behind the line, but Taylor’s grubber on the dropout did the job, prompting a race between MWZ and Kelly right down to the dead ball line.

Kelly got both hands on the ball just before it tumbled into touch, and so the Titans were only at a converted try deficit once Taylor added the extras. This would have been a rousing end to the first stanza in itself, especially for a Gold Coast outfit that hadn’t completed a tackle in Penrith’s twenty, had only completed ten tackles in Penrith’s half, and had only enjoyed 36% of possession over the last forty minutes of football.

In an even more incredible ending, however, the Titans scored back-to-back, off an offside penalty from Spencer Leniu, and then a left sweep started by Fogarty. Copley could have popped it out to Don, but took on the line himself, not quite getting the Steeden down, but clearing up space for the cult winger to pop over from dummy half on the next play. Taylor might have missed the conversion but this was still the best period in Gold Coast’s year, narrowing the gap to two as the siren rang out over Cbus.

Wallace got them rolling with two strong carries on the first set back from the break, and only just missed get an offload way before the Panthers got underway again. It had started raining during the break, so both teams were a little more conservative with both ball handling and last tackle options, as Cleary started with a short chip, clamouring for a sin bin when Proctor ran Luai off the ball. He wasn’t successful, but the Panthers still got a penalty, and the dropout became a scrum at the ten. 

The big men made some good inroads up the middle, and Kenny followed by drawing in five defenders right in front of the posts, but Wallace still got to Cleary’s grubber before Aekins, who infringed the ruck in the process, providing Gold Coast with a boost up the park. The Titans had now scored Penrith’s defensive average of the 2020 season, so if they could score next they had a pretty good shot at breaking their streak.

Yet the burst before half time would be their last pointscoring sequence of the match, as the Panthers now dug deep to maintain their defensive record. That said, the Titans were also impressive in defence too, keeping the mountain men to only one more try over the next thirty-five minutes. In the meantime, the rain really started torrent down, turning this into genuine wet-weather footy as both teams searched for a way to break the longest deadlock and biggest arm-wrestle of the game so far.

Over the next few minutes this turned into a war of attrition, with both halves kicking for field position, and both teams waiting for the wet-weather error that would open up the game for them. Finally, Cleary was called offside – only the second penalty of the match for Penrith – as the rain got even heavier. Gold Coast didn’t do much with the advantage though, despite three quick play-the-balls, making a few half-baked runs up the middle, until Aekins collected Taylor’s grubber after a near knock-on from Luai.

Nevertheless, Penrith only made fifteen metres on the next set, while Fogarty came up with the first big bomb in several sets, and Copley put enormous pressure on Mansour as he bent to ground to gather it up. Sauce stayed strong, but his knee buckled beneath him at an awkward angle, and while Peachey conceded an offside penalty a second later, Cleary followed his earlier offside with the fourth Penrith error of the match, popping out a forward pass to Naden just when he should have been consolidating.

Penrith were experiencing one of their most vulnerable passages of play in a couple of weeks, so the game was open for Gold Coast if they could find a way to make the most of it. Fogarty spiraled the next bomb so dangerously that Aekins had to let it bounce for Naden, Proctor led a pack effort to drag MWZ back on play two, Peachey did the same for Aekins, and Mansour limped with the footy on play four. Still, Fish was staunch on the fifth, and Cleary compensated with a sublime eighty-metre kick.

The ball found the grass, resetting the balance of field position in Penrith’s favour, as the mountain men gradually put the funk of this third quarter behind them, getting a set restart off a ruck error from Taylor, and then a penalty when Jai Whitbread failed to clear the play-the-ball in time. Amazingly, this was their first real chance since the break – and they made the most of it, accelerating through a dummy-half run from Kenny, a tip-on to the left from Cleary, and a well-placed crossfield chip from Cleary.

To his credit, Copley leaped gymnastically above Billy Burns to collect the footy on the full, but the Panthers had the momentum now, surviving this brief challenge to their defence, and the next Gold Coast set, before Naden caught-and-passed a cut-out pass from Cleary out to MWZ, who danced over on the right and then curved behind the posts to guarantee the conversion for his halfback. There was a brief question of whether Naden’s pass was forward, but the Bunker cleared it, and Penrith were 14-22.

Eight and a half minutes out, the Titans suffered their last real blow when a Fogarty bomb sailed over the sideline. Not even Don was tall enough to save it, while Cleary responded with a perfect grubber, chipping it over Arrow to trap Thompson in goal. Taylor went short with the dropout, Kenny took it on the full, and the Panthers got stuck in from within the ten. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast between the halves’ boots over these last few minutes, and yet Penrith wouldn’t score again.

Nevertheless, they came away with a record-breaking win, so they’ll be pumped for a big game at Brooky when they rock up to meet Manly on Saturday night. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty respectable game for the Titans, punctuated by moments of real brilliance. They’ll be looking to draw on those superb minutes before halftime, in particular, when they travel to the SCG to take on a Roosters outfit keen to flex their muscles for the first fixture of Saturday night footy in Round 12.

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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