ROUND 14: Gold Coast Titans v. Sydney Roosters (Cbus Super Stadium, 12/6/21, 34-35)

Saturday night’s game at Robina came seriously close to being the best single fixture of the 2021 season – and would have been the best if the Titans had managed to clinch their late comeback with a field goal in the final minutes. On paper, the Roosters should have run them ragged, and were predictably dominant for the first half of the game, when they scored the first three tries and headed to the sheds with a 4-18 advantage. But the Titans fought back, hitting the lead for the first time at the 73rd minute, and staring down a deadlock at the 76th.

Put that down, in part, to James Tedesco being out for Origin, along with the Roosters’ escalating injury roster. Still, Joey Manu was as good in the custodian role as he was at five-eighth against the Raiders, proving he doesn’t need a specific number on his back to lead from the spine. Likewise, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was raring for metres in his 250th career game (and 244th for the Chooks), while Adam Keigran had a great night in the first forty, making more tackles than any other Rooster, and booting through every conversion attempt.

Joseph Suaalii may have only been playing his third game of the season, but he was just as good when it counted, right down to the tackle on David Fifita that prevented Gold Coast from settling into the restart on the back of their final try. The win, then, was all about the Titans’ passion, testament to a team who were yearning for consistency, and all the more extraordinary in that Ash Taylor went missing for most of the first hour, forcing Jayden Campbell to join Jamal Fogarty in leading the team after his terrific debut against the Storm.

Nevertheless, Taylor hit back when it counted, and the Gold Coast spine consolidated again in the final quarter, bolstered by the sheer force of Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Kevin Proctor and David Fifita, along with some absolutely punishing defence from Patrick Herbert. By the time we reached the final ten minutes, this was easily as exciting as any Origin decider, or even a Grand Final, as the Titans finally found a flow they’ve been searching for all season, a flow that was galvanising enough to propel them into the back half of the year despite the loss.

Philip Sami started the game with a twenty-metre run up the left edge, Proctor got the 266th game of his career rolling with a pair of touches on the second and fourth tackle, and Taylor bombed from thirty metres out. Matt Ikuvalu withstood a tough Titans chase to take it on the full, while Lachlan Lam booted it high and long from his own forty, forcing Campbell to showcase some of his dance moves to bring it back from the Gold Coast line. Herbert lost it a play later, and insisted on sending it upstairs for an early challenge.

His instinct was right, since the replay showed that Josh Morris had kicked the footy away from the play-the-ball, although the Titans were pretty lucky here, since you could easily make a case that Herbert had fumbled fractionally before Morris’ contact. They got another early boost in field position two plays later, when Jarrod Wallace flicked back a loose offload, and ended up flinging it straight into Manu, who was held to have played at it. For the second time, the Titans had got the better of a fairly messy play, so they had to score now.

They were right on the line by tackle two, where Erin Clark came up with the third poor option of this augmented set, lobbing the footy back into no-man’s land, and splitting Sam McIntyre and Sam Stone so precisely that all Lam had to do was scoop it up to bring this early period of Gold Coast possession to a close. JWH made up for a brief pause in play with his first really decisive charge into the defence, before leading his men in defence on tackle two of the subsequent set to prevent Brian Kelly from breaking too far over the Titans’ thirty.

Even so, the hosts made decent position here, setting up Campbell for a bomb from the thirty to the sunny corner of the field, where Ikuvalu couldn’t match his opening take, even though Sam Walker eventually came up with it. Emboldened by that opening challenge, the Titans sent it upstairs for the second time, to contest a Kelly knock-on in the air, and got a more clear-cut decision here, as the replay showed the ex-Eagle hadn’t made contact before Sami took control of it on the ground, where it was just as clear that he’d spilled it forward.

With the loss of their challenge seven minutes in the Titans took an early hit in momentum, especially when JWH made another statement of purpose with a big drive into their defensive line on tackle one of the next set. Kelly hit back with massive contact on Sitili Tupouniua a play later, before Greg Marzhew got the better of JWH two tackles into the subsequent set, when he countered strength with speed, ducking into big Jared’s arm a millisecond before he could pull it back from the contact.

JWH had to pay the dexterity of this play, grinning back at Marzhew as he was put on report, while the Titans continued to drive at the Roosters’ line despite some messy strategy. Fogarty opted to cap off this extended position with a chip to Daniel Tupou’s corner, where the Giraffe was always going to outleap the defence and take it on the full. Still, an escorts penalty from Angus Crichton set up Gold Coast for their first left sweep, and only a terrific trysaver from Ikuvalu prevented Sami from planting down the first four in the corner.

The strength of Ikuvalu’s tackle galvanised the Roosters on their next set, as they took it hard and fast up the field, and JWH added more early run metres to his tally, moving so fluidly into the defence that he had time to show the Steeden for a second or two, even if he didn’t eventually get the offload away. Yet for the first time Sydney felt Teddy’s absence, as Manu found himself with the footy just when this acceleration should have peaked, only to let it overtake him with a mistimed pass that Tupouniua was always going to ricochet on.

Gold Coast moved fluidly out of the scrum, working their way to the left corner, where Taylor failed to cap it off with a convincing grubber. Ikuvalu easily took it on the bounce, Keighran booted it deep into the left corner in turn at the end of the next set, and a Marzhew knock-on finally got Sydney City their first real shot on the Titans’ line. After only 3 tackles to Gold Coast’s 16 in the opposition half, and none in the hosts’ twenty, the Chooks had to capitalise immediately off this scrum outside the ten – and made their mark on the very first play.

Suaalii got them rolling with one of the watershed moments in his early career, receiving the footy at the ten, bumping off Taylor, and dragging four Titans right to the try line, where he was still able to rise fast enough from the tackle for the rapid play-the-ball that set up Ikuvalu to dive through the scattered defence for the first four points of the afternoon. You couldn’t have asked for better proof of Suaalii’s readiness for first-grade, while Keighran booted through the extras to bring the Roosters to 6-0 off their first tackle on the Titans’ chalk.

JWH got the restart rolling, Isaac Liu made decent post-contacts on the third to dent some early Gold Coast defensive pressure, and Proctor swung his arm into Manu’s face on the fourth, while the high shot crackdown officially came to an end (for now) when the big second-rower was permitted to remain on the field for what was clearly careless contact. That just made it doubly frustrating when Fletcher Baker lost the ball a few plays later, although the Titans only got three tackles into their next set before Sam Stone dropped it in turn.

Gold Coast’s completion rate had really deteriorated (62%), while the Roosters were starting to accelerate into top gear, scoring a second try early in the count, when a superb Walker pass sent Crichton into space up the left edge. In one of the cockiest moments of his career, Crichton stuck his tongue out at Campbell before coming to ground beneath his ankle tap five metres out, bumping off the turf a couple of times, and maintaining just enough momentum to avoid a double movement, at least according to the referees upstairs.

This was a rhythm-building moment, and could have easily gone against the Roosters, since Crichton’s mockery of Campbell would have imploded if it had come down as a double movement. In any case, the tongue poke probably had a lot to do with galvanising the Titans into their late comeback, starting with the very next Gold Coast set, when Herbert took a soaring Fogarty bomb on the full, booted it again himself, chased it down, and almost scored then and there, only for Manu to shepherd it into touch at the final moment.

It only took a Tino ruck error for the Roosters to bounce back from this sudden infusion of Gold Coast energy. Their next try came slightly later in the count, but was also their most clinical, as Keighran collected a very late JWH offload and brought it right to the line, setting up a compressed left sweep that ended with a superb Walker double-pump for Tupou to sail over in the corner. This was a training run try, putting Walker equal with Moses for second most assists of the 2021 season (15), one behind Hynes, two ahead of Cleary and Turbo.

Keighran booted through one of the best sideline strikes of his career to bring the visitors to eighteen unanswered points, before Baker continued to make up for his earlier error with a barnstorming charge to roll in the restart. Again, Liu organised his men with post-contact metres on tackle three, while Crichton capped off this disciplined set by bringing them into the Gold Coast half a play later, where Walker soared the Steeden over the Titans’ twenty. After so much footy flamboyance, Sydney City were looking to steady themselves here.

As so often happens, this produced a new synergy on their next touch of the footy, when Manu glimpsed a break on tackle four. Yet they couldn’t quite find their feet again over the next few sets, while Gold Coast got the next scrum feed off a forward ball from Suaalii.  Marzhew broke into space right away, injecting his men with a fresh burst of momentum that Liu tried to shut down as soon as Tino leaned into it, getting himself put on report for what barely looked like illegal contact, especially compared to Proctor’s swinging arm on Manu.

The Titans now had a full set from the twenty, and their first real attacking chance since before Sydney City’s trio of tries, so it was agonising when Tyrone Peachey fumbled the play-the-ball on tackle three – until the call went the way of Gold Coast, who got a full set right on the chalk when Crichton was pinged for crowding. Even now, they couldn’t quite get their attacking options in order, and so resorted to a charge on the last from Stone, who was always going to be held up by the barrage of Roosters that converged on his desperate trajectory.

What Gold Coast needed now was a Sydney City error – and they got it with a bizarre wide ball from Walker, who lobbed it way over Suaalii and beyond the right sideline. It was the worst pass so far, bad enough to bolster Gold Coast into their first try of the match, although it took nearly five minutes of Roosters errors, and a whole sequence of restarts, to finally get them there. The first was a Crichton ruck error, setting up Proctor to motivate his men by standing in the tackle for ten seconds before JWH and Egan Butcher finally halted his passage.

Three plays later, David Fifita beat three players on the left and got another restart in the middle of the park, thanks to a Crichton offside, setting up Campbell for a heroic run through JWH and Lam that saw him come down just short, and even then rely on the weight of this mammoth contact to almost carry him over the chalk. Between these two big plays on both wings, from the largest and smallest members of the Gold Coast squad, the hosts felt on the verge of consolidating, especially once Fogarty and Peachey focused their speed on the left.

This was still disjointed attack at times, but the Titans were still gradually reclaiming their authority on all parts of the park, and while Joseph Vuna was cleaned up on the last, they had enough money in the bank to deliver next time they got down to the Roosters’ line. It came pretty quickly, since Keighran decided to kick on the fourth, Campbell made a roaring run to break his own twenty, Kelly continued his momentum with their best left edge charge of the game so far, and Crichton conceded an offside late in the count, when they hit the forty.

It was inconceivable, then, that they could got into the sheds without points, and yet that’s what seemed to be on the horizon when big Tino was cleaned up on the last, right on the line, on the left edge. Even with a last-minute restart, off a Walker offside, the Gold Coast rhythm was by no means assured here, as Proctor took a beat to return to his feet, and the game reached its most precarious moment. The Titans had the advantage – just – but it was fragile, liable to collapse back into another Roosters try if they didn’t capitalise on the next few plays.

In fact, no sequence better encapsulated Gold Coast’s inconsistent attack throughout 2021, as the highs and lows of their season constellated around this critical moment on the cusp of halftime. Things only got more intense when Tino had a second big run at the line, this time just beside the right post, where JWH added to his stellar defensive reel by wrapping himself around his opponent forward, and getting his arm beneath the Steeden as three other Roosters piled on. Gold Coast hadn’t kicked the ball in an age, and opted to run it again now.

It paid off, but not thanks to any vision from Taylor, who’d been sleeping for this whole last sequence, and hadn’t made a single grubber kick off 31 tackles inside the opposition twenty. Finding himself bunched up the left edge, Fifita offloaded to his halfback, who was unable to contain it, and got lucky when Ikuvalu knocked on mid-intercept, meaning the onus was on Fogarty to step up out of the subsequent scrum. He delivered, driving into the same part of the park, where he showed a big dummy to Kelly before barging into Walker and Keighran.

This was just the tough one-man effort that Gold Coast needed, bringing Fogarty to fifth most points (92) of the 2021 season, equal to Kodi Nikorima, behind Doueihi (104), Reyno (114), Garrick (124) and Cleary, who was topping the list at a whopping 146. It didn’t hurt, either, that Fogarty absolutely pummelled the Sydney young guns, lifting Walker clean off his feet, and skittling Keighran without seeming to even notice him. He may have ricocheted the footy off the left post, but he’d single-handedly brought the Titans back from the brink of disaster.

The compression and desperation of this sequence made it feel like Gold Coast had traversed the most frustrating parts of their year (and Taylor’s season) in a few minutes, ushering in the second half of their season when they returned from the break and fought their way back to a one-point loss to a Roosters outfit that seemed destined to unleash a torrent of unanswered points during the second quarter. In that sense, Fogarty may have never had a more critical game as captain, since he embodied and expelled his team’s deepest fears in this superb play.

He continued to shine in the back forty, which started with Walker collecting an almost overlong kickoff to get the Roosters rolling again. Both teams moved it up and down the park, struggling to break the halfway line, or to come up with a really dangerous kick option, while big Tino came off the park for an HIA after copping head contact defending the opening set. Jarrod Wallace left the bench in his place, and wasted two tackles trying to prevent Lam from dodging and weaving his way through the line to set up Walker for a try under the bar.

After one of the most sustained set-for-set periods of the game, it was worrying to see how seamlessly Lam sliced through here, since he only had to contend with Vuna by the time he’d twice disposed of Wallace, while there wasn’t a Titan in sight when Walker took it over the chalk. It was the worst defence of the match, boosting Sydney City to a twenty-point lead when Keighran booted through the two, while Gold Coast’s woes worsened with another pair of head clashes in the Roosters’ ten, from Taylor and Fifita as they converged on Suaalii.

This ushered in one of the most convulsive periods of the match, as Fifita joined Tino on the sideline, Taylor remained on the park, Walker became the next man to leave the field, following a brutal but legal Fogarty tackle that twisted his shoulder back at an awkward angle, and Crichton was pinged for a swinging arm on Marzhew, granting Gold Coast their first second half stint on the Roosters’ line. It came down to a Peachey grubber on the third, and a trap-and-scrap from Keighran, who stuck out a boot and fell on the footy to save the day.

The next sequence was bookended by Manu, who proved he doesn’t need a specific number on his back to stand up for the Tricolours. Midway through the next set, he popped out a loose offload that Ben Marschke, who had came on in Walker’s absence, knocked back, before JWH scooped it up. You could say this was a messy play from Manu, but he seemed to intuit that the Roosters needed to elasticise at this precise moment, and that he could count on his team to clean up the second phase play and parlay it into a further expansion and escalation.

Sure enough, they accelerated from here, tempting Sam McIntyre into an illegal strip just before the kick, and consolidating immediately with the additional field position. Daniel Suluka-Fifita laid the platform with huge post-contacts on tackle one, and Manu gathered all this momentum into the best single run of the night on tackle two – a mad charge from the twenty, where a left foot pivot was enough to dispose of Campbell and McIntyre before he danced through a last-ditch ankle tap from Clark to slam the Steeden down.

Gold Coast got a big letoff when Ikuvalu fumbled the play-the-ball on the restart, but Taylor continued to remain quiet, perhaps because he was still permitted to stay on the field in the wake of that head knock, which had seemed to have ricocheted him every bit as hard as big Tino after the break. Fogarty couldn’t do it all alone either, botching the Titans’ next stint on the Sydney line with a cut-out ball that may have let Taylor off the hook by sailing straight across his chest, but didn’t have any real target on the outside either, eventually hitting touch.

Fogarty more than made up for it a set later though, when the Titans proved that they could score off a pair of big runs as well. Kelly made the first, dancing off the left boot and pivoting his way up the short side, where Ikuvalu stripped the Steeden a microsecond before Suluka-Fifita pulled back from the play. Seizing the moment, Fogarty opted for a quick tap, taking the Roosters’ line entirely by surprise, and dodging his way around the trainer who’d come on to attend to Keighran, to break into space and score the most exhilarating try of the afternoon.

Only a play this rapid, surprising and unconventional could have brought Gold Coast back into the match on the cusp of the final quarter – and they got another boost when Fogarty booted through his next kick, a big bomb that brought Marschke in for a bizarre aerial tackle that saw him turn 180 degrees towards his own try line and elbow Jamal in the head. Big Tino had returned to the park a few minutes before, the Roosters were a man down, and the Titans were still high on Fogarty’s run, so everything was in place for another four points now.

More bluntly, if they didn’t score here, they didn’t stand any chance of a comeback, since this was the best flow they’d found all night, and the most raucous support they’d received from the stands. They started on the right, experimented with a half-hearted sweep, and then shifted it back infield, where Peachey followed Fogarty by just taking it straight up the middle, breaking through Crichton, crunching Manu into the crossbar and pinning the footy against his body to stop it coming free as he secured one of the game’s more precarious groundings.

After what initially looked set to be a Roosters whitewash, this was fast turning into one of the more eccentric outings of Round 14, as Fogarty’s kick from right in front brought the Titans to only a 16-34 deficit as the last quarter arrived. Clark steeled his men with a tough run midway through the restart, Fogarty built on it with a roving run up the right edge, deep into Roosters’ territory, Manu reached out to take the grubber on the ground but knocked on instead, and Fifita celebrated passing his HIA with a massive twist-and-spin two plays later.

Just like that, the Titans had reached another incredible convergence point, playing like they were fresh on the field, and resetting the game so thoroughly that it felt like the cusp of the very best finish of the 2021 season. They were also playing with exactly the clinical craftsmanship Sydney had showcased during the first act, as Peachey now set up Fogarty for the short ball that not only sent Kelly through Suaalii and Keighran, but gave him enough space to curve around and get Fogarty the easy conversion that made it a mere 22-30 game.

The Titans were at finals level, or Origin level, on the restart, playing with the propulsion of a team with nothing left to lose. In fact, this may have been the most daring set of their entire season so far, as Marzhew started with a huge run, and offloaded later than any big man so far, rolling it along the ground for Campbell to flick it on to Sami for a barnstorming charge to the halfway line. From there, Fogarty found metres up the right, and shifted it back in for Marzhew to offload for a bone-rattling Tino run to take them to the ten.

Fifita now condensed all the aggro of this set by plunging into a massive Roosters pack in the left corner, in the toughest, hardest, most committed run of the night, making you feel like the final Titans play must be their most spectacular yet. As it turned out, though, Josh Morris took Fogarty’s bomb on the full, and tempted a mid-air tackle from Tino, while the Roosters accelerated almost as rapidly in the back half of their next set, which ended with a Lam kick that Suaalii and Sami both lost on the line, leaving Campbell as last Titan standing.

In one scintillating play, the tiniest fullback in the game restored Gold Coast’s flow, eluding the chase to dash under the crossbar and make his way back into the field of play, where Ikuvalu stripped and knocked on the footy in the same desperate instant. JWH summoned a massive pack to keep Stone inside the ten, but Fifita made good post-contacts up the left, prompting some of the best clinging defence from Keighran in turn, while Kelly encapsulated all this restless Titans energy in a single gaze, sizing up the field frantically in one rapid scan.

Once again, the Roosters just survived, a minute out from Marshke’s return from the bin, but they wouldn’t get a chance to defend the next try with thirteen men, since in another rapid turnaround Fogarty coughed up the footy on play one, Jaimin Jolliffe scooped it up for twenty metres, and Taylor finally reached first gear. Receiving the Steeden at the thirty, he glanced back to find Tino running up in support, showed the dummy, and risked the converging contact of Keighran and Ben Thomas before flicking it across to his no. 13 to break through.

This was possibly the riskiest play of the night, since Taylor’s intentions were clear from the moment he locked eyes with Tino, meaning he had to rely purely on speed, timing and gamesmanship to pull off the play – a low risk for the Roosters, it seemed, given his performance so far this evening, although that just made it all the more exciting when he pulled it off. Fogarty booted through the two, and the Titans were at 28-30, two behind, with 75-23 tackles in the opposition half, and 46-4 tackles in the opposition twenty.

Everything crystallised a few sets later, as Gold Coast delivered their most exciting set of the season, starting with a pair of tough runs from Herbert on the right and Tino up the middle, before Peachey almost broke through the line, spilling more than offloading the footy back to Fifita, who nevertheless continued this superb momentum, bumping off Rooster after Rooster on his way to the thirty, where the Titans finally fed it across for Fogarty to chip deep into the right corner.

This was the synergy Cooper Cronk spoke about with that legendary field goal, as the bounce sat up beautifully for Proctor to split Tupou and Manu, and the Titans hit a four point lead after trailing 4-18 at the break. The Roosters desperately needed an error on the restart, and they got it off a barnstorming tackle from Suaalii, and a terrific follow-up on the ground from Ikuvalu, to force the footy from Fifita’s grasp. Ever clinical, they also scored at the end of the scrum set, off a wide ball from Manu that put Ikuvalu over in the corner for a 34-34 game.

After having let Proctor smash past him a minute before, this was a rousing moment for Manu at fullback, although the game remained level when Walker, who’d only just returned to the fray, missed the two on his first boot of the night. Even so, the Roosters were galvanised by the sheer spectacle of Ikuvalu’s putdown, more ballet than footy, as he withstood a crunching Sami tackle that almost bobbled the ball from his grasp before pivoting off his left boot and somersaulting over the sideline in the same instant he popped the Steeden on the turf.

The last four minutes of the match were as exciting as any Origin decider or Grand Final, as Lam missed a two-point field goal before Walker made up for his botched conversion by booting through his first ever field goal, seventy seconds out from the break. If Gold Coast had won here it would have been a victory for the ages, but this was still a pretty impressive result for Sydney City given the way things played out in the last quarter, good enough to propel them into next week’s game with Penrith, while the Titans have enough petrol in the tank to fuel the rest of their season if they continue to tap onto this sublime footy flow.

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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