ROUND 14: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Gold Coast Titans (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 15/8/20)

The wind was streaming over Kogarah when the Sharks hosted the Titans on Saturday afternoon, for what would become one of the more notorious matches of the 2020 season after an encounter between Kevin Proctor and Shaun Johnson at the 55th minute. Gold Coast looked strong on their first set, when Brian Kelly collected a cut-out pass from Ash Taylor and out Corey Thompson through the line on the left wing, although Kelly wasn’t as good at the end of the set, when he kicked too far out of dummy half.

Still, the Titans never had to defend the seven tackles, since Braden Hamlin-Uele lost the footy almost immediately, and while they responded with a fairly average set, Jamal Fogarty stepped up with a big one-man effort, holding up Wade Graham long enough for Jai Arrow and Nathan Peats to joing the tackle and drive the big Cronulla backliner back into goal. Two tackles later, Taylor sent the cut-out pass to Thompson himself, and the ex-Tiger delivered, collecting it at the ten and crossing over untouched for the first try of the afternoon.

Taylor was now only behind Johnson and Luke Keary for try assists in 2020, and judged the breeze well for the sideline conversion, before Moeaki Fotuaika and Keegan Hipgrave rolled up the middle to get thr restart going. Sione Katoa was lucky to knock Taylor’s next bomb backwards, giving the Sharkies their first touch of the football in some time, Josh Dugan recouped some field position with a linebreak midway through the subsequent set.

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Johnson responded with his best kick so far, trapping the Titans right on their own line, and pressuring them into their most frustrated set since the whistle, until a crusher tackle from Jesse Ramien released them back down the park. Once again Thompson glimpsed space on the left edge, but this time Cronulla were waiting for him, forcing the Titans shift right rapidly, and then scramble for options until they finally lost control of the set when Dale Copley coughed up a high ball from Fogarty.

This marked the start of a purple patch for Gold Coast, as the Sharks received their first penalty off Kelly (holding down), and the first restart a play later, producing an eight tackle-set. Dugan struck it too hard on the last, but the Titans continued to bleed field position when Keegan Hipgrave coughed up the footy on the first tackle, due to a combined hit from Matt Moylan and Graham, who got some joy after being the first big casualty of the Gold Coast defence earlier in the match.

Proctor was pinged for an illegal steal on Aaron Woods, and the Sharks chose to take on the line instead of kick for goal – the wrong decision, as it turned out, since Graham couldn’t get to the line, Woodsy couldn’t ground the ball after getting over the line, and Johnson became the next kicker to send the footy to far, gifting the visitors seven tackles of their own. This was probably the weakest Cronulla attack so far, but they got another chance when Taylor lobbed the footy forward midway through the following set.

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The Titans got a brief reprieve when Arrow caught Katoa’s next kick on the full, almost broke through the line himself, and gave Kelly a linebreak assist on the second play, but the rhythm shifted just as rapidly when Thompson put down Kelly’s offload, Peats infringed the ruck, and Woods found space to wrap around Scott Sorenseon for a left sweep that sent Dugan over for a try. Johson added the extras from the sideline to wrap things up at 6-6 as the second quarter arrived, while Gold Coast glimosed their next chance with a harbour bridge ball from Taylor to Thompson, who kicked too far, but still put in a heroic chase, running so far to tap the footy back that he leapfrogged over the fence.

Still, the Steeden didn’t find any Gold Coast players waiting in support, as once again an overlong kick turned out to be a pivotal moment, since the Sharkies scored on their next set. These six points were all Johnson, who received the footy from Moylan on the right side of the park, drifted towards the sideline, dummied and waited for the very last minute to pop it out to Siosifa Talakai for the next four points.

The Titans made a bit of headway over the next part of the game, from Fogarty putting good pressure on Katoa to prevent a try, to a pair of successive restarts after ruck errors from Ramien and Johnson, but they lost it again when Taylor finally exhausted the left-side plays to Thompson, who was always going to be dragged into touch by Young Tounameaipea after collecting an excessive high harbour bridge ball from his halfback. With Arrow taken off for a left shoulder complaint, the Titans’ goals became more modest as the siren approached – to prevent Cronulla scoring again.

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The Sharkies glimpsed their next try when Ronaldo Mulitalo made a gymnastic effort to remain in the field of play during a tackle with Thompson, but then lost the footy into a follow-up effort from Kelly, giving Gold Coast the last set of the first stanza with just over a minute on the clock. Protor got them into first gear on the second tackle, Tyrone Peachey responded with a strong carry on the third, and Jarrod Wallace built on these two big runs by barnstorming straight up the middle, collecting a short ball from Peats and bumping off Will Kennedy, Toby Rudolf and Jack Willams to level the score again once Fogarty added the extras post-siren.

Johnson’s first kick after the sheds looked set to go dead, but Kelly knocked it on, setting the scene for the longest deadlock of the game, with both teams gradually deteriorating until a huge play from Proctor effectively reset the match. The Sharks probably started stronger, taking their first Captain’s Challenge to correctly contest a knock-on, with the replay showing that Hipgrave had got a hand to the footy between Brailey’s pass and Moylan’s fingertips.

From there, both teams wisely chose to relinquish a challenge – the Sharks when Hipgrave almost seemed to hand the footy to Graham for what was eventually deemed a Moylan strip (a call that seemed much more intuitive when watching the replay), and the Titans when Peachey was pinged for a high hit on Mulitalo a few minutes later.

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Gold Coast got their biggest surge since the break when a brilliant offload from Kelly opened up space on the left for Brimson, who broke through and shifted the footy for Thompson to duck out of a series of tackles, make his way across field, and build enough momentum for the next Titans try, only for Proctor to put down a Peachey kick right on the line instead of reprising his four-pointer against the Cowboys last week.

As the fifty minute mark, both teams started to go error for error more than set for set, as the game settled into its lowest slump, from Graham being put on report for a dangerous tackle on Hipgrave, who left the park for an HIA, to a near-putdown from Tounaimapea, who followed Katoa by losing it at the last minute on the wing. Both sides needed a big gesture to recalibrate – and they got it more dramatically than either would have expected. Fifteen minutes in, Johnson booted the ball too hard again, and all the frustration of these overlong kicks – from both sides – seemed to condense into the next set, when Johnson slammed into Proctor, and leaped to his feet crying that the big second-rower had bitten him.

Kevvie tried to claim Johnson had been choking him, but the replay clearly ratified the bite, as did the NRL judiciary the next week, resulting in the first send-off of 2020 then and there, and a four week ban for the Gold Coast captain off his 250th game of football. No surprise that Cronulla now opened the floodgates, scoring three tries in six minutes, the first of which came off Johnson’s very next kick, which Katoa caught on the full as he glided to ground on the left edge, becoming the top tryscorer of the season again in the process.

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The Sharkies had bitten back, and while Johnson still looked rattled as he set up the sideline conversion, he calmed his men with a perfect slice, and looked pumped on the restart, chasing down a Talakai kick that Fogarty only just cleaned up right on the Gold Coast line. Mulitalo started the next Cronulla set with a strong run up the middle, Connor Tracey accelerated further, Katoa got a restart of a Peats ruck error, and Brailey popped a short ball out to Graham to roll over a spectacular tackle from Fogarty that in any other context would have been the trysaver of the night.

This was sequence of pure consolidation as the Sharkies seem to go from coal to diamond in the wake of Proctor’s error, at least in terms of point scoring during this second stanza. Tracey now put in a deft left play to almost break through on the third tackle of the next set, and while the Titans got the ball back again, they were still inside the ten by tackle three, searching in vain for options before the Sharks charged down Thompson’s final kick.

In one of the most elastic moves from a big man this year, Williams scooped it up cleanly, climbed over an attempted tackle from Brimson at the ten, and came to ground beneath Beau Fermor right on the chalk, keeping his right arm off the turf to avoid a double movement as he got the footy down. The Titans were like a ship without a sail in the wake of their captain’s departure, only really catching their breath for the first time when Johnson also headed off the park, nursing the leg injury that had seen Moylan take over kicking duties for the last two tries.

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Johnson’s absence stemmed the flow of points, and the Titans actually put down six more when Hipgrave crossed over off a late Cronulla dropout, but Gold Coast were largely spent by this stage, unable to capitalize on either a Kelly or Fermor linebreak before the siren blew out. With Proctor off the park, they’ll need a strong team effort against the Raiders next week, regardless of whether they win or lose, while the Sharks will be sweating on Johnson as they prepare to draw upon that terrific trio of tries when they take on Penrith on Friday.

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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