Gold Coast came away with a stunning performing to conclude their 2020 season, proving to themselves and their fans that their position on the very cusp of finals contention had been no fluke. They didn’t stand a chance of moving ahead at this stage, but they still closed out the year in style, sextupling the Knights, who only had a single converted try to show for themselves before taking on the Rabbitohs in the second elimination final.
Both teams started smoothly, but the Titans accelerated immediately on their second set, when Ash Taylor sent a wide ball out to Brian Kelly, who followed with a short pass to put Treymain Spry into open space on the wing. Storming up the sideline, the young no. 5 popped it back inside for Taylor to bookend this superb sequence by outpacing a last-ditch tackle from Mitchell Pearce, crashing over the line before converting his own try a minute later.
This was clinical stuff from Gold Coast, who looked set to score again on the restart, with Spry almost reprising his terrific run up the left by bumping off a pair of Newcastle’s big men, and Jarrod Wallace making the first offload of the night back to Tyrone Peachey. It was a big let-off, then, when Kurt Mann charged down Taylor’s kick to get the ball back for Newcastle – just the one-man effort the visitors needed to get back in the game.
Bradman Best got them rolling with a barnstorming run up the middle on play two, but a wayward pass from Pearce to Hymel Hunt cost the Knights their momentum. While they swept left a tackle later, Sam Stone and Jamal Fogarty were in place to clean up a big run from Sione Mata’utia. Yet that just made it all the more incredible when neither Aidan Guerra nor Kelly managed to contain Mason Lino’s chip on the last, leaving it open for Pearce to scoot in and ground the footy behind the posts.
Unfortunately for the away team this turned out to be the first of a string of denied tries, since the replay showed that Kelly had knocked on in their air before Pearce got there. Still, Gold Coast had to come back big to resume their rhythm – and they defended the subsequent scrum successfully, holding up Hunt, David Klemmer and Daniel Saifiti in front of the posts, and containing Kalyn Ponga at the end of a left-side play, before Mitch Barnett fumbled the play-the-ball on the other side of the park.
Full credit to Wallace, in particular, for the tackle that defied Barnett, although the big no. 13 got his own back pretty quickly, forcing Kevin Proctor to put down the footy two plays later, getting Newcastle the third scrum in as many minutes. Once again, the Knights almost scored, as Mata’utia copped a huge combined tackle but still managed a brilliant offload right before his torso hit the turf, shooting the Steeden out to Edrick Lee, who gathered and grounded the footy just after Stone slid him over the sideline.
Little by little, the Knights were starting to lose control, and things got worse when Ponga was penalised for a scrum error, gifting Gold Coast a piggy-back up the other end of the park, where they got a second restart off a Mann ruck error a moment later. This had been the fastest acceleration of field position all night – and Gold Coast continued to build with the first dropout, off a clinical Taylor grubber that Hunt was forced to gather up in the left corner.
Pearce went long with the kick, booting it all the way back to the Gold Coast forty, but Fotuaika took it twenty on the first carry, Wallace dragged in three defenders with his fifth big run of the night, and Kelly added more metres with some silky second-phase play on the third. Now it was the Titans’ turn to see a try go begging, as Wallace attempted to channel Kelly – and his own opening offload – but lost the footy instead.
Nevertheless, the Titans continued to accelerate, thanks to a beautiful cut-out pass from Fogarty that cleared up space for Anthony Don to break through the line on the right, and then commence a left sweep that saw Kelly do the same on the other sideline. Ponga sacrificed a knock-on to prevent Kelly scoring, and Pearce spearheaded the most desperate defensive period so far with two massive hits on Proctor, the second of which saw the big second-rower make his second handling error.
Ponga followed with his first really decisive gesture, reaching a boot back over the chalk to get his men seven tackles. On a night where big plays had quickly bled into handling errors, it felt almost inevitable when Best put down the ball twenty seconds later, setting up Taylor to get outside of Saifiti for possibly his best last-tackle option so far – a grubber off the right boot that blasted past Pearce and careened in goal, where Ponga collected it on the first bounce as Proctor slammed in to wrap him up.
Wallace started the dropout with a deft offload to Taylor, and AJ Brimson followed with a huge run up the right edge that brought Lino offside, while the Titans gained some fresh blood when Jai Arrow came off the bench for Wallace. All the pieces were in place, as Mitch Rein crossed over out of dummy half, ducking his head down to elude Pearce, Guerra and Jacob Saifiti to score an embarrassing try for Newcastle – the try that confirmed, beyond a doubt, that they had showed up too complacent.
Herman Ese’ese gave the Titans their next chance with a grapple, but followed Barnett by regaining the footy immediately, slamming into Foutuaika to rattle the ball loose – and perhaps make a case for himself as Gold Coast no. 10 when he heads up to Robina next year. Ponga built on this rapid change in possession with his best run so far, along with his best kick – a grubber at speed after Taylor came out of the line – and while Hunt couldn’t quite get to it, Spry was forced to pop it into touch right on the back line.
Newcastle now had their first dropout, and this time Mata’utia and Lee pulled it off, with an even more daring combination out on the wing. First Mata’utia ran square into Don, using the ricochet to cantilever an eccentric offload that Lee pulled off the ground with his right hand, fumbling it all the way up his forearm before pirouetting around to secure it, tucking his fluorescent boots in field as Rein tried (and failed) to follow Stone’s sideline-sliding tackle.
This was undoubtedly the most spectacular try of the game, capped off by a beautiful conversion from Lino, who glanced over at Taylor to make sure he’d noticed it. With a successful Captain’s Challenge to contest a supposed knock-on from Lee, the game hung in the balance, and the Knights reached their apex – only a converted try behind Gold Coast and on their best roll since kickoff.
If the Knights had scored here they might have regathered during the second stanza, but instead the Titans put down one of their best tries of the year. It started with a huge cut-out ball from Fogarty that looked set to careen over the sideline, only for Spry to capitalise on an unexpected bounce to leap over the chalk and send it back to Kelly. From there, the ex-Eagle barged through Tuala and Hunt, fended off Pearce, and crossed over as Hunt and then Pearce desperately wrapped around him.
In a single sublime sequence the Titans had showcased the best of their strength conditioning and playmaking, while Kelly, in particular, had provided a clinic in defensive strategy, moving through three waves of Knights to finally make it over the line. Still, Newcastle got one last chance to flip the switch when Taylor missed the conversion and conceded an offside penalty immediately after the sheds, laying the platform for a Best linebreak that resulted in yet another near-try, this time for Pearce.
Lee started with a kick over the top, and Pearce actually got the tip of the Steeden in both hands, but lost it under big pressure from Brimson. The Titans got a restart on the next set, making it 4-0, and Taylor searched for opportunities on both sides of the park, from a cut-out ball to Young Tounamaipea on the right, to a bullet ball on the left that proved too strong to Spry, who would have probably been dragged into touch anyway.
This was a pretty good let-off for Newcastle, and Herman Ese’ese did a good job marching them up the park on the third, only for Don to clean up Pearce’s bomb without too much trouble. Brimson had had a pretty quiet night before his effort on Pearce, but he compensated now, collecting the footy to slice past five or six defenders, and elude a half-hearted ankle tap from Ponga, with such ease that we seemed to be watching a linebreak demonstration rather than first-grade footy.
It was the long-range sequel to Rein’s try in the first stanza – and if the Newcastle defence had been embarrassing there, it was abysmal here, raising real question about their capacity to withstand the Bunnies when they meet next week. As with the last try, the Titans couldn’t capitalise immediately here, as both teams went bomb for bomb, and Peachey conceded the first restart to the Knights, before a Taylor error gave the visitors another shot, only for Ponga to knock on during the final play.
Seeing Ponga choke in both defence and attack was the death knell for Newcastle’s motivation, and the Titans commenced their final trio of tries a set later. Admittedly, Ponga became the third Knight to recover the ball quickly after an error, but Spry leaped up to catch Pearce’s next kick. On the next set, he collected a second kick from Lino after a banana effort from Pearce, and then dummied a couple of times to send Taylor through the line, and all the way to the try line.
Taylor barely needed to accelerate to get away from Ponga, who seemed well and truly spent, unable to muster much more than a half-hearted low grab to try and force his quarry over the chalk. This time Taylor didn’t convert his own try, but the Titans didn’t have to wait long for the final cascade of points, as a crusher tackle from Chris Randall on Tanah Boyd set up Brimson to follow his five-eighth with a double of his own.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Brimson received the footy at the twenty, got away from Best, jumped over an ankle tap from Randall, pivoted back to the ten to swerve around Saifiti, and then came off the right foot to elude Ponga, before skidding away from Mann and Lino right on the line. In effect, he’d disposed of the entire Newcastle defensive strategy in one sublime run, while the disparity between fullbacks couldn’t have been starker at this late stage in the game.
Fogarty took over kicking duties and booted it through from right in front, as the Titans synergized into arguably their best and last groove of the year. It was poetic, then, that their captain scored off the restart – an even greater achievement in that Wallace was forced to bring the kickoff back from in goal. Once again Kelly found space for Spry, who cruised up the sideline and slammed into Ponga at the thirty, where he offloaded for Proctor to crash over untouched.
Without any prior knowledge of the ladder you wouldn’t have guessed that the Knights were the team going on to finals footy. They’d only scored a single converted try in the first half, and sacrificed their chance to take on Souths at home, so they’ll be looking to do some serious team-building and soul-searching this week, while the Titans can hold their heads high as they look forward to capitalizing on their big signings in 2021.