The Titans hadn’t defeated a top eight team for over a year when they hosted the Raiders at Cbus on Saturday afternoon – and they had a big job on their hands with a lot of players off the park, eventually conceding a twenty point loss at 16-36. Key playmaker Ash Taylor was out with a quad injury, replaced in the no. 6 jersey by Tanah Boyd, while lead tryscorer Anthony Don was off the park for the second straight week nursing his rib cartilage issue.
Top lock Jai Arrow was also out with a shoulder injury following his collision with Siosifa Talakai in Round 15, while captain Kevin Proctor had been suspended for his already infamous bite on Shaun Johnson the week before, meaning Jamal Fogarty was skippering Gold Coast for the first time. There were less changeups on the other side of the Steeden, where Ryan Sutton, Joseph Tapine and Corey Harawira-Naera were starting in the forwards, and Dunamis Lui was celebrating his 150th NRL appearance.
The sun defied Nick Cotric under Jamal Fogarty’s first high ball, but he managed to recover it after fumbling it backwards, while the Raiders got some breathing-space when play paused for Keegan Hipgrave to get his ankle examined after trying to hold up a rollicking run from Jordan Rapana. The Gold Coast second-rower got his boot strapped, and returned to his feet, but three or four minutes had still elapsed, allowing Canberra to put Cotric’s near-error well and truly behind them.
Wighton steadied the ship with the biggest bomb so far, and Fogarty responded in kind, but by now the sun had moved behind the clouds, meaning Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was able to collect it with full visibility. Canberra rolled down the field as the sun gradually came out again, and the shadow of the stadium impressed itself along the edge of the middle third, before dimming once more, paving the way for a game where the mercurial weather would play a big role in directing and organizing kicks.
The Raiders got the first scrum at the end of the next Gold Coast set, when Sam Stone made an error in the play-the-ball. Wighton hadn’t run the footy at all during the first half against Brisbane last week, but he compensated now to accelerate Canberra into their fastest set so far. John Bateman offloaded for George Williams, in some English second phase play, and Elliott Whitehead followed his countrymen with a strong run on the third, before Corey Harawira-Naera danced across the ruck on the fourth.
By the time that Williams chipped to the right edge, the Titans already seemed exhausted, as Sami leaped up to collect it but knocked it backwards, where AJ Brimson bumped it over the dead ball line, although not without conceding an offside penalty to make this a restart instead of a dropout. Canberra were now in first gear, shifting from side to side before Williams got his dropout after all – this time with a deft grubber off the left boot that Brian Kelly had to clean up as CNK charged him down.
It was a big let-off, then, when Hipgrave bounced back from his ankle injury to force a knock-on from Wighton, who took out his frustration with a hand in the following ruck, gifting Gold Coast some augmented field position of their own. Boyd sent Stone through the line a play later, in what looked set to be an incredible turnaround from the Titans, only for Jaimin Jolliffe to cough it up. In one final twist, however, Gold Coast won the Captain’s Challenge to prove that CHN had actually pulled the footy free.
The hosts now had two more tackles up their sleeve – and Jarrod Wallace took the first, while Nathan Peats grubbered on the second, although the Steeden didn’t make it through the line, resulting in an easy pickup for CNK, and then a further burst of Canberra field position when Wallace was deemed offside downtown. They spread it from side to side midway down the field, and Williams ended with a chip-bomb out to the right wing, where Brimson leaped above Cotric to secure it safely.
Gold Coast got the first six again on their next set, thanks to a strong run from Fogarty, and then a penalty for a CHN shoulder charge. Brimson made the most of it, breaking through the line as Tapine dashed in desperately to get him to ground. With these two advances up the field the Titans had suddenly drawn on Canberra’s speed from a few sets before, as Sami and Foutaika both barged at the line from close range, before Sami chased down a Boyd grubber to score the first Gold Coast try on the final play.
Fogarty missed the sideline conversion, but this was still a great comeback from the Titans after Canberra’s dominance during the opening ten minutes, especially since this marked the fourth week when they’d scored the first try. Corey Thompson did well to collect a tricky bounce to begin the restart, and was unceremoniously dumped on his head a moment later by Ryan Sutton, who got pinged for a dangerous tackle, giving Gold Coast a piggy-back up the park, only for Wallace to knock on again a play later.
Canberra now got their first call of six again, ten minutes out from the line, and then another, ratcheting up their attack right when Gold Coast should have been arriving at the end of their restart. Curtis Scott lost the ball backwards on play three, but it was Sami who knocked it on, as the Raiders now got a midfield scrum at the ten, having compressed their opening field position into their sharpest period of attack so far.
They remained focused on the right edge, moving between lateral and forward plays before CNK sent Cotric over with a brilliantly timed short ball, opening up so much space for his winger, amidst a sea of Gold Coast jerseys, that Cotric only had to send a left fend backwards to brush off Sami as he slammed down the first Canberra try. Jarrod Croker was looking directly into the sun from the sideline, and so the footy ricocheted off the right post, keeping the score set at 4-4 as the second quarter arrived.
The Raiders now scored regularly until the siren, starting a couple of sets later, when Tapine laid the platform with strong post-contact metres, and Wighton finished with a beautiful pair of runaround plays, shifting the footy out to Whitehead before curving around to take it himself, and then passing out to Rapana and collecting the footy again for a second time to cross over untouched. You could see Wighton elasticizing his team in this one play, relaxing them into a tryscoring groove that lasted the rest of the game.
No surprise, then, that Wighton got them rolling with the next try as well, two sets later. The green machine got a restart right on the Gold Coast line, and Wighton received the footy on the first play, proving why he’s the premium running 6 in the competition by dodging away from three defenders to put down his second successive double against the Titans. For a moment it looked like he’d lost the football out of his left arm in goal, but he regathered it in both hands just before he hit the ground.
Five minutes out from the break, Canberra got their fourth successive try – and it was their simplest yet, as Tom Starling popped over out of dummy half to put down his first four points in the NRL. It was a stunning effort, as the young hooker briefly dummied and came to ground beneath Nathan Peats five metres out from the line, reaching the full length of his torso out to slam the Steeden down with his right hand. Croker booted through two more, and the Raiders had gone from 0-4 to 22-4 in fifteen minutes.
Both teams rolled up and down the park when they returned from the break, with the halves going bomb for bomb in the most serene period of the entire match. Finally, eight minutes in, the Raiders got six again, and then a dropout, when big pressure from Scott forced Sami to clean up a Bateman grubber right on the dead ball line. This should have been another consolidation point for Canberra, especially when Papalii offloaded to Williams on the first tackle, and Lui repeated this second phase play on the third.
In an inverse flashback to last year’s loss to the Roosters, however, the Raiders appealed for six again on the fourth play, and assumed they’d got it, but the call never came through – a rapid shift in momentum that continued when Fogarty caught Williams’ final kick on the full in goal, and then made seventy metres downfield, dodging away from Starling and Lui before Papalii came up with the clutch ankle tap of the year; the slightest of touches at just the right moment and just the right angle.
Once again, the subsequent scrum feed should have condensed and focused the Raiders’ attack, but instead Sami collected Wighton’s bomb pretty easily, while Fogarty made as many metres with his kick as he had with his run, booting through the best torpedo of the night to defy CNK, who lost it backwards before lobbing out a wayward pass on play two to force an offside from Whitehead. Gold Coast now showed them how to capitalise, as Jolliffe survived a Bateman strip, and Brimson scored just after.
All Fogarty’s genius of the last few minutes came to a head here, as he condensed his big run and bomb into a superb short-range dash at the line, twisting out of a low tackle from Whitehead and offloading through a swinging arm from Starling to Brimson. AJ twisted even more, careening away from CNK, Papalii and Croker on the chalk to somehow get his right arm free and ground the Steeden right on the try line – a dazzling gymnastic display that put Gold Coast at ten once Fogarty added the extras.
It was also a testament to the Titans’ spine in the absence of Taylor – and with only a twelve-point deficit, and 25 minutes on the clock, Gold Coast had a potential comeback on their hands if they could secure the next try or two. Papalii took out his team mates’ frustration with a high hit on Jolliffe, on tackle two of the restart, and was put on report from his troubles, as Fotuaika subbed on in Jolliffe’s place, only to get put on report himself for a crusher tackle a set later, gifting Canberra the field position to score.
This was a clean, crisp, clinical set, as the Raiders moved steadily up the middle, and Hudson Young ended by collecting a terrific pass from Starling to crash through Fotuaika and Jai Whitebread right on the chalk for his first try of 2020, and his second try in the NRL. Croker was always going to boot it through from right in front, making it to 2100 career points – the second fastest to that milestone behind Andrew Johns. The Raiders were now 18 ahead at 10-28, as the final quarter of the game got going.
Three minutes later, Cotric intercepted a sloppy pass from Sami to Kelly and put down the final Canberra try of the night, skidding away from the ex-Eagle before crossing over without a single Titan getting a hand to him. There was no better image for the skill with which the Raiders had stolen the game back from Gold Coast’s few moments of acceleration, as another Croker conversion brought them to a twenty-point lead, chasing their biggest total of the season after their 36-point win over Brisbane.
The Raiders were now fourth on the live ladder, sandwiched between Parra and Sydney, and had the best defensive record in the final quarter this year, so it was a small victory that Gold Coast prevented them scoring again, and put down one more try of their own. Seven minutes out from the end, Sam Lisone fended off CHN, and offloaded to Boyd, laying the platform for Peachey to send Hipgrave beneath the crossbar, bringing the Titans to 16 once Fogarty added his last conversion.
Even then, though, the Raiders still had the last word, since a Lisone obstruction led to Croker’s final kick of the night, bringing Canberra to their equal top score of the season along with their 36-8 win over the Broncos last week. They should feel confident, then, for their home game against the Bulldogs next Sunday evening, while the Titans had enough good moments here to reconsolidate for their match against St. George at Jubilee on Friday.