ROUND 19: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Gold Coast Titans (Cbus Super Stadium, 25/7/21, 10-32)

Both the Dragons and Titans were coming off significant losses, to Manly and Parra respectively, when they met at Cbus for a St. George home game on Sunday afternoon. Both teams were also at the brink of the eight, with the Red V fighting to maintain their position at seventh, and the sky blue staring their drive towards a finals berth. Ben Hunt had been amazing for Queensland in the Origin 3 match at this same venue, and channelled his heroism against the Blues with the first try here, but he wasn’t able to contain the Gold Coast halves.

That pairing featured a debutant – Toby Sexton, a local junior and Tweed Seagull, who had one of the best first games of the year, showing real skills with the boot and with organisation, culminating with an inspired try that sealed the deal in the later stages of the match. Seeing Ash Taylor (and the rest of the team) lift him to first-grade status couldn’t have been more different to witnessing the fragmented Dragons, who were still rotating through players to accommodate the cascade of suspensions in the wake of Paul Vaughan’s house party.

Blake Lawrie absorbed a big charge from Tino Faasuamaleaui on the second play, Sexton had his first pass in the NRL on tackle four – and took it again, on the last, to hand Taylor the first kick. St. George started their attacking game with the sun in their eyes, as Josh Kerr and Josh McGuire worked it hard and fast up the middle, before Hunt took his first kick, and Corey Thompson caught it on the full. Again, Sexton looked to create opportunities on the right, and booted his own first kick a play later, as the Gold Coast chase put pressure on Matt Dufty.

Kerr had another great charge up the middle on the next set, almost breaking a hand free from a Sexton-Proctor hit, while Hunt kicked it to the other wing this time, where Thompson was just as safe beneath it. Not only did Mitch Rein get away with a forward pass early in the next count, but the Titans got a restart off it, thanks to a Jayden Sullivan ruck infringement, bringing them into the St. George twenty for the first time. Taylor had the right instinct with a chip to the left wing, but put too much weight on it for Brian Kelly to get there in time.

With a seven tackle set, the Dragons had time to reach the red zone as well, as Andrew McCullough condensed their big drives up the middle with a dummy and break to the ten, where Brimson downed him with a desperate ankle tap and Rein and Wallace piled on to finish the job. Given that Kerr had spearheaded the middle of the park, it was right that he complete McCullough’s momentum by chasing down and grounding a well-placed Hunt grubber – albeit not without pushing Taylor away from the contest to deny himself the try.

With the penalty, Gold Coast were back in the red zone – and with both teams going twenty-for-twenty, you had to feel a try was in the offing. Once again, Taylor and Kelly failed to link up on the left, although this time the fault came more from Kelly, who put a boot on the dead ball line as he reached around Beale to knock the Steeden back into play. Kelly got some joy immediately with a hard hit on Jack Bird to rattle the footy free, while Wallace was still remonstrating with Grant Atkins about exactly what had happened between Kelly and Beale.

It was a good question, since the Titans had lost their challenge examining the play, which initially seemed to suggest a dropout rather than a twenty-metre restart, with Beale making last contact with the footy before it finally headed into touch. In any case, Sexton booted through his first penalty in the NRL at the end of the next set, when Tariq Sims was called offside. Other than Herbert, he was the only Gold Coast player to get a penalty kick this season.

So far, so good for the Titans – they hadn’t scored a try, but they had avoided the torrent of points that deflated them last week against Parra. They had their biggest and fastest set of six on the restart, culminating with a big run from Tino that set up Sexton for his first assist kick as well – a deft chip to the right edge, where Proctor reached out a hand, Cody Ramsey reached out both hands, but the footy defied them both, only for Herbert to scoop it up and pop it out for Wallace to curve around behind the crossbar and plant it down untouched.

Gold Coast exuded the same energy on this second restart, thanks to a mad charge from Herbert early in the count, and even if Taylor mistimed a pass to the left edge, forcing Thompson to clean it up on the bounce, he made it a ninety-metre set with his biggest bomb so far. Dufty had to stagger back to the ten to collect it, and even then nearly tumbled over the sideline, while Hunt went bomb-for-bomb on the next set, and Thompson made his best catch of the game, leaping up to take the footy at speed with Bird all up in his face.

Nevertheless, the Titans made it a trio of fast sets, and Taylor added another soaring bomb – straight down the field this time, forcing Dufty to take it staring into the glare. Yet Dufty rose to the occasion, turning away from Thompson’s chase, and back towards his own goal line, at the very last minute, as if eluding the sun. From there, he bumped off Kelly, accelerating so rapidly, and pivoting so mercurially, that he didn’t have another tackle to deal with until he slammed into a second break-buster from Brimson, this time at the forty.

The Dragons needed one more consolidation point to score here – and they got it on the left edge, where Jordan Pereira almost broke through the line and offloaded late for Tariq Sims, who in turn tempted a marginal high shot from Tino. Two tackles later, Hunt took a short ball from Jack De Belin, fresh off the bench, and smashed over beside the left post to impart some of his Origin momentum to the St. George attack. From this angle, Bird was always going to boot through the two, reducing it to a two-point game on the cusp of the second quarter.

Two sets later, we got a third frustrated Taylor-Kelly linkup on the left – and this one was even more eccentric. It started with Taylor’s best chip yet, which Mathew Feagai scooped up five metres out, where Kelly and Thompson slammed in for the hit, and pulled back just as quickly when Fermor came in for the strip, only for big Beau to flick it forward, meaning Thommo’s deft putdown in the corner couldn’t be counted for four. Good thing, then, that Greg Marzhew absorbed the toughest Dragons chase on the next set, as David Fifita left the bench.

A big Beale tackle on Kelly galvanised the Red V into a reprise of their early charges up the middle, as Pereira, De Belin and Jamayne Taunoa-Brown carved up the ruck, only for their biggest man, Tariq Sims, to cop a hiding from Herbert, who slammed him to ground as he reined in a Hunt hospital pass. In reponse, Sims targeted the biggest Titan on the park, a set later, but Fifita was up for the challenge, swerving away from the contact, and almost securing some second phase play before coming to ground under additional pressure from Hunt.

This brief St. George surge came to an even more decisive end a few plays later, where Beale tried to repeat his rhythm-shifter on the left edge, but ended up knocking on rather than intercepting a short ball from Taylor. With a scrum feed in Dragons territory, the Titans were back in the ten midway through the set, where they got yet another aborted Taylor-Kelly combo – this time a Taylor pass out to the left wing, where Beale got the last word after all by reprising his earlier contact on Kelly with a tough shot that knocked the footy free.

With an enterprising set, or even a competent set, the Dragons might have reached back to Beale’s last victory over Kelly, and continued the momentum they generated then, but instead Herbert reversed the rhythm for a second time. Coming in hard and low, he forced Pereira to ground, while Fifita slammed in on top to knock the footy free, and then accelerated into one of the best runs of his career – the prop equivalent of Turbo’s scintillating dash across nine North Queensland defenders in his last match of the regular season.

This was everything Fifita was meant to be for Gold Coast, and proof positive that he’s the best prop in the competition – everything a prop is meant to be, which is to say utterly unstoppable. First, he dummied, skipped and disposed of Hunt with a left hand fend; then he took on Ramsey, only pivoting for the most subliminal moment before half-lifting the young centre into the air. Finally, he tumbled into the left corner, careening through the wreckage of Hunt and Ramsey as Pereira tried in vain to make up for the loose ball that started it all.

By the end, this didn’t look like a regular tackle so much as a man-machine slamming through mere mortals. Fifita was as gymnastic as he was athletic, dexterous as the best wingers in the comp, as he reached the Steeden behind his head at just the right moment. As the footy made contact with the grass, all that brute strength dissolved into a mercurial grounding, and the best charge of the night seemed to vanish into thin air. Jumping to his feet, Fifita didn’t show an ounce of fatigue at the carnage he’d caused.

This was more than a great try, more than a conversation-stopper at the end of the first act, and more than Fifita’s best run this year – it was a vision of Gold Coast as a potential top four team, an outfit that might one day rise to the level of the Roosters, Panthers or Storm if they could just lean into the sublime flow Fifita had showcased here; as momentous, in its way, as any play from Turbo, Teddy or Cleary. It was the kind of play that silences the entire park, so Thommo and Feagai’s breaks barely registered before the halftime siren rang out.

Taylor opted for a shallow restart to get the back forty rolling, forcing Dufty to sprint forward and reach out his full wingspan to take it clean. Gold Coast were now looking into the sun, theoretically, although the late afternoon shade had already conquered half of Cbus. Dufty had to repeat his run under Sexton’s debut kick, but this time the footy was too low for him to take on the full. His knock-on paved the way for the first Titans surge – a scrum at the thirty, and then virtually a full set in the twenty, as the “visitors” drove it deep into the left corner.

As it happened, this turned out to be the mere pivot for a rapid shift back to the other side, where Fifita took another crack at the line, this time at even closer range, prompting a heroic effort from Bird, who got beneath him under the crossbar, and wore the full brunt of his weight for a good five seconds. He spent that whole time holding the Steeden above the ground too, so the Bunker had to replay it to see how the lost ball played out – and they got it wrong here, saying that Bird stripped it on the way down, whereas Fifita had really lost it.

This was the second Bunker mix-up of the afternoon, but neither team had time to process it as the Titans got the ball back, and Tino took a big opening charge to bring them into the thirty. Two plays later, Fifita repeated his damaging run through Ramsey on the right edge, and without Hunt and Pereira joining in support, this was the biggest David-on-Goliath hit of Round 19 – less a fend than a swat, as Fifita disposed off the young centre and flicked it out for Marzhew to dance over a last-ditch swing from Sullivan and land Steeden-first in goal.

Sexton’s superb sideline conversion cemented this as the spiritual sequel to Fifita’s sublime try, making it the key consolidation point of the game for Gold Coast – proof they could deliver on both sides of the break. They accelerated so rapidly on the restart that another try seemed imminent, only for Kelly to overtake himself, and shape for an offload when he should have taken the tackle from Hunt, losing the Steeden in the process. This, in turn, was a critical hitback chance for the Dragons, who spread right early, where Dufty arrived at the twenty.

Like the Titans before them, they used a sweep to pivot back to the left, where Pereira took a heroic charge into a wall of sky blue defenders, forcing Fifita into an inadvertent high shot. De Belin took the footy midway up the field, right at the cusp between shade and light, steadying his men before Taunoa-Brown and McCullough continued his momentum with a pair of charges up the middle too. Big Tino came in on McCullough, who lost the ball like Fifita before him, except that this time the Bunker got the call right, and deemed it a knock-on.

For the second time in the game, Gold Coast had seven tackles to play with, using the first three to work it hard and fast up the middle before Tyrone Peachey sent Wallace into open space, but couldn’t complete the play when his no. 16 flicked the footy back, reaching out a hand to rein it in but lobbing it forward instead. St. George now had their second let-off in as many minutes, as McCullough made up for his lost try with ten metres after contact, and Hunt booted through the best floater of the afternoon, forcing Brimson right onto his back to take it.

Even then, AJ wasn’t up to the task, partly because the ball, like De Belin’s last run, came at the very cusp of the shade, forcing the young fullback to reach out a hand to block the sun as he wavered between light and dark, costing himself enough balance to cough it up on the ground as Bird surged up in the chase. With Rein taken off for an HIA, the momentum had suddenly swung back in the Dragons’ direction – or could swing back, if the Red V managed to make the most of this scrum.

Peachey shuffled into dummy half, Fotuaika rejoined the fray, and conceded six again one tackle off the scrum, as the Titans steeled themselves for their biggest goal-line defence since the break. In the end, they got off pretty lightly, as Bird tried to mirror Fifita’s flick on the right wing, but misshaped the pass, leading to a Beale knock-on and an early turnover, only for Gold Coast to fall back from the chase at the back of Sexton’s next kick, allowing Dufty to simple wait for it to drift into touch, giving his men seven tackles to recoup their loss.

This was the last chance for the Red V at this moment in the game, since with one more bland or botched set, they would have exhausted the advantages of Gold Coast’s messiest part of the afternoon. Jolliffe knew it, coming in with a tough tactical tackle on play three to force a Sullivan cough-up – and the Dragons knew it too, risking and losing their challenge in a desperate effort to continue this last residue of their newfound flow. On the other side of the Steeden, the Titans got stuck in immediately to rebuild their position and score their next try.

The very last trace of St. George’s hitback came on tackle one, when play paused for Kelly, who copped a massive but legal hit from Lawrie that would eventually take him off the park. This could have been a rhythm-killer, but Herbert restored it with a deep drive into the right corner, where he turned around to face De Belin, Sullivan, Tyrell Fuimaono and his own try line, and popped the best offload of the game, volleyball-style, over the defensive fray to Brimson – a stroke of individual brilliance that galvanised the Titans on this right wing.

Sexton took the next run at the chalk, and while Lawrie slammed in for a stunning sequel to his hit on Kelly, it didn’t prevent the debutant from playing the footy quickly for Brimson to charge at the line, before Fotuaika nearly broke through De Belin and Josh McGuire, and Peachey crystallised this already condensed attack with a superb grubber that Sullivan only just got to ground with Fifita on his back. Sensing danger, Hunt went short with the dropout, but the Dragons didn’t get it back, and Gold Coast were back in the ten midway through.

Focus now shifted to the left edge, where Proctor did well to rein in a tricky pass on tackle four, and Peachey burrowed into the posts a play later. St. George survived, and McGuire got them twenty metres early in the count, but Hunt’s grubber for himself didn’t come off, leaving room for the other halfback on the park to clean it up, and make his way back to the Dragons’ thirty. Despite McGuire’s run, it felt like no time had elapsed since Gold Coast were on the attack, as they consolidated their last set into Wallace’s first career double.

This was probably the easiest try of his career too, thanks to a deft pair of leadup plays – a short ball from Peachey, and an offload from Jolliffe through Lawrie and Clune. There was something summative about this second phase play – Lawrie had been the main tackler in the buildup to the dropout, while Clune had been the pivotal player at the end of the last Dragons set, when he’d toed Hunt’s botched kick straight to Sexton when it was clear his halfback wasn’t going to reach it. By disposing of both players, Jolliffe put a full stop on the game.

Peachey may have made an error on the restart, and taken out his frustration with a hand in the ruck, but it was immediately eclipsed by the most egregious error of the game, which came at the end of the Dragons’ next left sweep. The first few passes were fine, but the last, from Dufty, crowded a crossfield run from Pereira, who was never going to pick it up from this angle – the eleventh mistake of the match from the Red V and the summative error, much as Jolliffe’s twist through Lawrie and Clune had been the summative assist.

St. George did marginally better with their next sweep, out to the right, where Beale found himself with space and time to shape for second phase, although that just provided Thompson, Taylor and Fermor with a chance to storm in and prevent the offload. Between the time Beale had to pass, and the methodical calm of the defence, the Titans reached a new level of assurance here, building through a restart on their next set, off a ruck error from Sullivan, to put their halfback across the line for a fairytale flourish in his first ever game.

That said, this was as much Sexton’s vision in building on the unintentional assist from Wallace, who fended off Hunt, came to ground beneath McGuire, and glimpsed a third try of his own, before losing the footy forward at the last breath. Not a single Dragon got to it before Sexton chased it down, took it on the third or fourth bounce – an impressive achievement in itself, given how low it was on the turf – and slammed over the line with Dufty on his back. His family went crazy in the crowd as he lined up, and booted through, his own conversion.

This was an inspiring moment for a local junior, and the club that raised him, and lifted the entire Gold Coast outfit, who now seemed to be looking ahead to next week’s match against the Bulldogs – the team that Sexton was slated to sign with before the Titans took him up. St George also had to start thinking about next week’s game against the Rabbitohs, since they couldn’t hope to take on the brilliance of South Sydney without scoring at least one more four-pointer in the final ten minutes.

Admittedly, they were still seventh on the live ladder, sandwiched between Manly and Canberra, but it was Gold Coast who were playing like a top eight team, foreshadowing their run to finals footy over the next six weeks. Taylor was a metre off a 40/20 for his next kick, McGuire was placed on report for a high tackle, adding to the Dragons’ rotation woes, and a Pereira error undid a last-ditch red and white surge – a break from Feagai, a ruck error from Wallace, and an offside from Herbert that saved St. George from a forward ball in the twenty.

With that brief burst coming apart, it felt like the Red V might not score another try here – especially since the Titans showcased the best parts of their game out of the scrum, using the first few tackles to work it hard and fast up the middle, where Wallace almost broke between Sullivan and Fuimaono, before Herbert did break up the right, making twenty metres before shifting it back inside for Brimson. Yet just as Feagai’s break had started the St. George mini-surge, his ankle-tap trysaver on AJ set up his men for their second and last try of the game.

This was a nice try to restore some of their self-belief next week, since Pereira, whose error had ended their last stint on the Gold Coast line, now got some joy by breaking into space up the life, shimmying a subliminal pivot to defuse Brimson, and showcasing stellar footwork to stay just on the brink of touch before popping the footy down. Even better, it was the last note of the game – a small gesture of resilience as they prepare to take on the Bunnies, albeit not enough to stop the Titans rocking up to the Dogs with their heads held high. 

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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