The Eels came away with a convincing 8-26 win when they met the Titans at Cbus for the first round of lockdown footy – at least for Sydney viewers – but this wasn’t quite the drubbing that scoreline would suggest. Gold Coast held their own for long stretches of the game, and actually won the second half, rallying some courageous passages of play to prevent Parra getting what should have been a higher win margin – even with Mitch Moses out after Origin – although they never quite capitalised on David Fifita being fresh after missing Origin either.
Dylan Brown passed to Reagan Campbell-Gillard for the first carry, and Isaiah Papali’i took the second, before Marata Niukore brought it to the forty metre line for Brown to get a proper run and then soar a floating bomb that Phillip Sami cleaned up on the full. Jamal Fogarty got the first Gold Coast kick away on the run, the Eels got the first restart on set two off a Kelly error, and Ryan Matterson got a daring offload away on the last, but the Titans managed to clean up the play, and got six again a moment later, while Jakob Arthur headed off for an HIA.
Gold Coast now accelerated quickly up the right edge, starting with a cut-out ball from Taylor out to Patrick Herbert. This laid the platform for AJ Brimson to speed up the sideline and flick it out to Sami, who kicked at speed just before he careened into touch, as Clint Gutherson tried to clean him up. Papali’i looked certain to ground the footy, or even bring it back into the field of play, but he’d counted without Corey Thompson, who came from a mile away to arrive at the Steeden first, only to bounce it at the last moment rather than getting the four.
Even so, this was an assertive moment for Gold Coast, so the Eels had something to prove when they got the ball in hand. Instead, they had to contend with some of the most damaging Titans defence so far, with Gutho copping the full brunt when he was floored by a combined hit from Fogarty and Tino Faasuamaleuai. Thompson certainly wasn’t demoralised by the bounce, taking the kick confidently as Gold Coast got another restart with an offside from Reed Mahoney, who took out his frustration with a heroic David-and-Goliath hit on big Tino.
This helped quash the Titans’ momentum, preventing them from quite sinking back into the groove of their original set – although it was a close thing right down to the end, when Ash Taylor threaded the grubber for Herbert, who flipped over a perfect assist only for Sami to lose it on the line, before Kelly compounded this disintegration by holding back Haze Dunster. The Eels had come so close to conceding a try that they effectively absorbed the energy of the Gold Coast attack now, recovering with a strong set and then scoring on their next carry.
Taylor was forced to kick within his own forty, so Dunster had space to spread it wide to Gutho on the first play, giving this set a newfound elasticity from the very outset. Matterson’s next offload paid dividends – a flick out the back to Dylan Brown, who glimpsed a space, accelerated through the line, danced over a Kelly ankle tap, and finally got outside of AJ Brimson, who brought him to ground in the right corner. Brown managed the fall perfectly, retaining control of the footy and avoiding the sideline to put down the first four for Parra.
Gutho nailed his first kick from the sideline, and RCG plunged into the defence for a punishing hit to commence the restart, while Niukore followed with an even stronger charge on the third, dragging two defenders a couple of metres and setting up Parra for what felt like an inevitable linebreak before this set was done. It was a small victory, then, that the Titans survived without compromising their defensive line, or conceding more tackles – and Taylor compounded this acceleration with a deft pass to assist more Kelly metres up the left edge.
The Titans also prevented the Eels from building any significant momentum in the wake of their opening try, despite a pair of strong bombs from Will Smith, and as the second quarter arrived the match had returned to the same set-for-set rhythm as the opening minutes. Matto got a third offload away to Brown around this time, but the Titans were wise to it now, and cleaned up the play, while Arthur ended the set with a wobbly kick that Brimson took easily.
Moeika Fotuaika’s run midway through the next set had conviction written all over it, as did Gutho’s collect, as the game quickly accelerated again with an enormous run and linebreak from Maika Sivo up the middle of the park. The Eels had taken control, and got further field position when Herbert and Kevin Proctor were put on report for lifting Papali’i way above the horizontal, while Proctor was put in the bin and Gold Coast set in to defend for their very life.
Brown almost sent Oregon Kaufusi over the line a play later, and Mahoney parlayed this sudden burst of speed and strength into a rapid play-the-ball for Matterson, who responded with one of the toughest tryscoring attempts of the year. Gathering the footy under his arm, Matto didn’t consider passing, or running, but just charged directly into Kelly and Taylor, twisting and spinning through them as Tino came in on top. If the attack was gutsy, the defence was even better, as all three Titans managed to get their hands under the Steeden.
Yet this was the kind of one-man effort that ripples out after the tryscoring attempt itself, galvanising the Eels into a simple try on the other side of the park –a short ball from Mahoney to Shaun Lane, who spiralled through a low tackle from Fogarty for another four points. Gutho missed the conversion, but this was still a dominant display from the Eels, who shone even more on the restart, condensing this last passage into a marathon team try down the middle, starting with a Mahoney-Brown-Matterson pass, and ending with a Gutho-Mahoney assist.
Nathan Brown was the hinge for the first part of this sublime sequence of play, collecting the footy from Mahoney, flicking it out to Matto, and then receiving it again for a no-look pass out to Gutherson. From there, Gutho bumped off Brimson, and could conceivably have gone it alone, but in a spectacular set piece stopped and turned a full 180-degrees five metres out, taking the brunt of the Gold Coast defence as he sent it directly backwards to Mahoney, who received it, and slammed through a last-ditch from Thompson, before Gutho converted again.
This was stunning stuff from Mahoney, who’d effectively assisted himself, via half of his squad, ushering the Eels into a splendid state of flow that saw them go three in a row on their next restart. They went straight up the middle for the first four tackles, before Gutho shifted the play right, and executed an utterly freakish kick, careening the footy at such an unusual angle, so close to the tackle with David Fifita, and in such a sudden and split-second manner, that for a moment it looked as if the Steeden came off the Gold Coast no. 12’s boot instead.
The ball bounced crazily and then rolled towards the sideline, looking set for all money to go into touch. Yet in a play that was every bit as freakish as the kick, Haze Dunster swerved in at just the right moment – the only moment to collect the ball before it went over the sideline – and took it over the sideline for the most spectacular try of the game. Not only had Gold Coast failed to defend their line with a man in the bin – they hadn’t even enjoyed any field position, so it was no surprise that Proctor looked ropeable as Gutho set up the conversion.
He sailed it away from the uprights, but the Eels still had twenty unanswered posts as the half hour mark came and went. Proctor returned to the park, and the Titans finally got a set, and yet they didn’t have a real shot until four minutes out from the break, when Beau Fermor came up with a much-needed individual play – a low hit that rattled the footy free from Gutho. The Titans got a penalty out of the scrum, when Matto broke too early, and then the first dropout of the evening when Sivo had to clean up an Erin Clark grubber behind the line.
Sam Lisone got them rolling with a mammoth first carry up the middle, and Tino followed on the left, bringing it right to the line again on the third, after a Fotuaika offload got Gold Coast an extra couple of passes here. It was agonising, then, when Tino lost the Steeden while trying to play with Matto directly beneath him, and while the subsequent Captain’s Challenge showed Matterson bumping Tino away as he rose, there was deemed to be no interference.
The Titans needed a big statement to start the second half, especially since they’d lost Sami to a suspected syndesmosis seven minutes out from the sheds. On the other side of the Steeden, the Eels were utterly dominating run metres – 1051 to 631 – and had only conceded two incomplete sets over the first forty. Gold Coast spread it wide midway through their second set, and Parra allowed the kick to bounce, but Dylan Brown still saved Gutho by cleaning it up clinically a moment later, only for Papali’i to fumble his very next play-the-ball.
The hosts had to capitalise immediately on this early burst of field position, so it was pretty agonising when a mistimed Clark pass found Fogarty on the boot instead of the chest. Mahoney added insult to injury by charging down Fogarty’s next kick, while yet another Brown-Matterson offload ensured that the Eels were within the Gold Coast red zone by tackle two. Matto lost the footy on the line a play later, but the call went Parra’s way, as Fermor was pinged for a hand in the ruck, and Gold Coast got stuck in for some tough goal line defence.
They got a let-off when Arthur lobbed an average kick on the fourth tackle – straight to Kelly, who had ample time to bring it back into the field of play. It wasn’t long, though, before Matterson was back on the Gold Coast line – and this time he crashed over, receiving a Dunster offload and curving around to ground it beside the posts. Gutho was always going to convert from this angle, and he deserved it after setting up the try with terrific footwork up the left wing. Matto deserved it too, since this was one of his best games of the year so far.
The Eels had another restart, and yet the match subtly swung back in Gold Coast’s favour for a moment, as Kaufusi knocked on midway through the set, and Fifita came back after being sidelined at the thirtieth minute. No sooner had the stars briefly aligned for the Titans, than they copped another big blow, with Fogarty joining Sami for the night after leaving the field with what appeared to be a fractured wrist. Kelly rallied the troops with a big run when play resumed, only for Thompson to end a right sweep by slipping over the side a few tackles later.
Parra got a dropout of their own at the end of their next set, thanks to a deft Opacic grubber after a series of tap-backs under the high ball that very nearly produced a try then and there. Yet Thompson got his own back now, coming in low on Sivo, on the other sideline, to force the footy free. Proctor might have lost the ball just as quickly, when it rolled backwards, but at least this gave the Titans some energy and motivation as they set in to defend another short-range attack – and it showed when they held up Kaufusi on the line, and Matto in goal.
Play paused as Tyrone Peachey got attention for a nick over his eye, and Gold Coast got enough breathing-space to shut down another left sweep – or at least to prevent the Eels from recovering the footy when Waqa Blake dropped it cold on the sideline. Taylor’s kick was the highest and most spiralling bomb of the night, a statement of intent even if Gutho caught it on the full, and as the final quarter approached it felt as if Gold Coast might well regain some pride here, with Brimson desperately preventing another Dunster try a moment later.
Matterson took out his team’s frustration with a swinging arm on Brimson, who came off the park for Jaimin Jolliffe as the Titans tried to make significant inroads beyond the Parramatta ten. In the end, they didn’t have to, since Taylor sent a beautiful wide ball out to Kelly, who caught it just inside the ten-metre line, accelerated past a low tackle from Dunster, and slammed down the first Gold Coast try to celebrate his century game. Herbert was well wide with the kick, but the Titans were unfazed, putting in great metres to begin their first restart.
The play broke down a bit on the fourth tackle, partly because Fifita didn’t get a touch on this critical set, while the Eels regathered early in their next set with a restart off a Jolliffe ruck error. For a moment, it looked like they were going to contain and eclipse this Gold Coast surge with another spectacular speed play, as Gutho bumped off a couple of defenders, accelerated, looked for a break, only to channel all that energy ninety degrees, with an enormous harbour bridge ball to the left wing that wasn’t quite timed right for Sivo to take it.
Gold Coast got six more of their own on this next set, and with 42% of possession at this stage still had a chance of a respectable comeback, if not an out-and-out win – and this time Fifita was squarely in the spotlight, for a try that was almost as freaky, in its own way, as Gutho’s linkup with Dunster during the first half. It came off a Peachey kick, played at by Dylan Brown, who reached out his left boot, and got his hand to it as well, but failed to properly clean it up.
Bryce Cartwright was next in line, but counted without Fifita, who came in fast, hard and low to seize the Steeden in both hands and fly it over the line as Carty tumbled away behind him. Once again, though, the Titans felt the absence of Fogarty, who’d been diagnosed with a compound fracture, as Herbert booted another conversion attempt away from the posts, keeping it a twenty-two point game as the last ten minutes drew near. Herbert didn’t get any joy on the restart either, losing it after an RCG penalty got Gold Coast further field position.
Herbert made it an error trifecta with a ludicrously forward pass out to Thompson next time the Titans had ball in hand, while Taylor left the field a moment later, leaving Gold Coast without either of their top-tier halves. Both teams jostled a bit in the following scrum, and the contest continued at the back of Dylan Brown’s next kick, which Kelly and Opacic both chased down for what turned out to be a knock back from Kelly and knock-on from Opacic.
Finally, Fifita got into first gear on the next set, shifting to the right side of the field, and making seven or eight metres after contact, while dragging along Blake, who was pretty unhappy about it when he returned to his feet. Gutho and Fotuaika reprised the Kelly-Opacic contest, but in front of the posts now, while Sivo gave Gold Coast their last big chance with a dangerous tackle a set later, only for Tino to make an error just as quickly, before Fifita had a try denied on the last play – encapsulating and condensing his frustrated presence this game.
While Gold Coast had only scored three tries, they’d convincingly won the second half, and done a decent job of defending a team six above them on the NRL ladder. A few more tries would have been even more motivating, but this wasn’t quite the whitewash the scoreline might have suggested, since Parramatta should have put down more here, especially given their splendid string of tries in the first half. The Titans be looking to build energy for a convincing win over St. George at the end of Round 19, while Parra will be keen for a big one over Canberra when they get Moses back next week.