ROUND 20: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. Gold Coast Titans (Suncorp Stadium, 6-34, 2/8/21)

We got a flashback to Monday night footy for the last two fixtures of Retro Round, as the Bulldogs hosted the Titans at Suncorp before the Sharks took on the Sea Eagles. Gold Coast were coming off a strong win over the Dragons, while Toby Sexton, the local junior, had made a solid debut against St. George, coming away with a try, a try assist, and 6/6 kicks, securing him a halfback berth again tonight. With the win here, the Titans could move past the Dragons into the eight – and possibly nail seventh, depending on how Cronulla fared against Manly.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Dogs had leaked a torrent of points against the Sharks last week, and had to do without Luke Thompson, who was serving the first stint of his three-week ban following his hit on Blayke Brailey. Kyle Flanagan was starting at halfback for the first time since Round 9, with Jake Averillo at five-eighth, and both players struggled to find innovative kicking options for most of the game – no floaters, no spirals, and very few grubbers; just end-over-end bombs that Corey Thompson, in particular, took with ease.

While the Titans were only 6-0 by the thirtieth minute, they eventually took advantage of Canterbury’s shortcomings, putting down a cascade of tries that saw them reach 34-0 by the final ten minutes, when Bailey Biondi-Odo put down a critical consolation try. Without those four points, Gold Coast would have held the opposition to nil for the first time since 2013, while the Bulldogs would have become the first team in NRL history to post five zero games in a single season. Even so, this was Gold Coast’s biggest ever victory over Canterbury.

Ash Taylor’s kickoff bounced dangerously on the right edge of the field, denying Adam Elliott on the first bounce, and giving Gold Coast time to summon a big pack to prevent him making any metres. Back from a fractured cheekbone, the Tathra local took another run on the fourth, to bring it right to the halfway line, before Flanagan booted it end-over-end for Thompson to take on the full. Like Canterbury, the visitors didn’t quite break the opposition half, as Taylor send through his first kick on the very brink of Bulldogs territory.

Meanwhile, Elliott went from almost reaching Gold Coast’s end on the first set, to reaching it on the second, although once again Thompson defused the attack with a good catch. Sexton took his first kick on this set, but Meaney was up to it, while Averillo broke the twenty – and then the ten – for Flanno to send through the first grubber of the night. Gold Coast survived, working it back from their own end, ending with a strong Tino Faasuamaleaui charge and a superb 40/20 from Taylor.

Just like that, the Titans had the first tryscoring opportunity of the game, as big Tino reprised his charge from close-range, before Jarrod Wallace followed in his wake, beneath the crossbar. From there, Gold Coast shifted left, where Jayden Okunbor got lucky with a Sexton grubber that careened away from the chasers and into his chest. Even then, he had to scramble to take it cleanly on the line, and avoid the dropout, so the Dogs treated the next set as damage control, down to a third identical kick from Flanno – straight to Thommo.

Their patience paid off, since AJ Brimson made the first error midway through the next set, losing the footy into a tough two-man tackle – Aaron Schoupp on top, Elliott on the bottom. Now it was the Bulldogs’ turn to get a full set in the opposition end, although they didn’t break the twenty, and barely broke the thirty, thanks to an early right sweep that finished with an awkward no-looker from Schoupp that Okunbor had to chase five metres back, in his second clutchy take in as many minutes.

Brimson bookended this last passage of play, and made up for his mistake, with the toughest take under the high ball so far, and with Corey Allan staggering back to his ten for Sexton’s next kick, Gold Coast had staunched the Canterbury flow – even if the blue and white got the first restart a tackle later, off a ruck error from Kevin Proctor. Jeremy Marshall-King followed with a nice run out of dummy half, but another Thompson take on the full calmed his men, who got a restart of their own on play one, off an error from Jack Hetherington.

In fact, this whole set was like an intensified version of the last Canterbury set, as Esan Marsters, like JMK, followed the restart with a tough dash up the middle, but made twice as many metres, before the Titans got a second restart to bookend the set, thanks to a second error from Hetherington – this time a ruck infringement. Finally, big Tino consolidated his two good runs from a few sets before, while channelling and exceeding JMK as well, by way of a short-range dash out of dummy half that saw him spin through Allan and Jackson to score.

This was a really tough try, although Tino made it look easy, brushing off Allan and then bringing all his strength to bear on keeping the Steeden aloft with his right hand as Jackson tried to pull him to ground, before Elliott came in too late to get beneath the footy. Sexton was always going to convert from this angle, while the Titans looked good on both sides of the field during the restart, with Marsters searching for a repeat of his linebreak on the right, and Taylor containing Averillo’s toughest and fastest tackle so far on the left.

Jackson and Tino met again late at the end of the next set, where the Canterbury captain got some post-contact consolation metres, but it was quickly eclipsed by a Brimson break off Thompson’s kick return. He ran half the length of the field, building up so much speed that it actually worked against him, since there were no support runners in place to continue his momentum all the way to the line – or to collect his offload, the next best option, which Dylan Napa scooped up fast enough to impart some of Brimson’s energy back to the Dogs.

The Titans had just executed the fastest shift in momentum so far, only for Canterbury to reverse the rhythm even faster, so the next Gold Coast error – a Brian Kelly fumble early in the count – was critical enough for them to send upstairs. They failed the challenge, although we’ve seen far poorer play-the-balls in 2021, and the Dogs got a scrum at the ten, along with their first full set in the Gold Coast red zone. Schoupp drove it hard on the left, Corey Waddell did the same on the right, and Flanno started a sweep to give Schoupp another shot.

In the end, it all came down to Flanno’s chip to the right, where Kelly made up for his error, like Brimson before him, by leaping up to take it on the full. No play had better captured the limitation of the Canterbury halves’ kicking options – no floaters, no spirals, just end-over-end predictability. Nevertheless, they were back on  the Gold Coast line midway through their next set, thanks to a Moeaki Fotuaika error, although this time they didn’t even get a kick, since JMK left Flanagan with no option but to run it up the left on the last.

Allan started the next Canterbury set with the best take of the night so far, lunging forward, and then sliding along the grass, as if determined not to let Taylor come close to reprising his 40/20. Thompson didn’t have as much of a challenge at the end of the set, since Flanagan wasn’t changing the formula, while even Sexton’s end-over-end effort had a different kind of spin to the Canterbury halves, forcing Meaney to take a second shot before he secured it in the right corner. With David Fifita coming off the bench, Gold Coast were escalating again.

Fifita’s steadying presence was evident a set later, when he drew in a swarm of defenders on the right edge, clearing space for Fotuaika to make a beautiful run up the middle, which in turn laid the platform for a Sexton chip-and-chase up the left, where Allan followed Okunbor with a clutch save right on the line. Sam Lisone was the next big man to make an impact, trampling over Elliot early in the following Gold Coast set, garnering a desperate crowding penalty from Renouf Atoni, and setting up Fifita for an even better trample at the other end.

Fifita was a force of nature here, busting through Schoupp and then, in the space of one single stride, trampling and turning 360-degrees through a low tackle from Hopoate. Allan was last line of defence, and while Fifita barely seemed to notice him at the point of contact, he felt the inflection when he planted his elbow on the turf before reaching the Steeden onto the chalk. Even with the double movement, though, this felt like a consolidation sequence for the Titans, who got the ball back after Okunbor fumbled a Hoppa pass for the Dogs’ first error.

They returned it just as quickly, thanks to a forward pass from Taylor, and for a moment, at the half hour mark, the game hung in the balance. The Dogs lost Flanagan to an HIA – a belated call following his massive contact on Greg Marzew, the strongest Titan on the park, a couple of minutes before. Yet Bailey Biondi-Odo made an immediate impact off the bench, trapping Thompson behind the line with Canterbury’s first really challenging kick, and then forcing him over the dead ball line as he tried to bring it back into play on the other side of the park.

After so many bland kick options, a dropout was massive for the Dogs here, so it was agonising when Okunbor made his second straight error, in the same place at his first. He got a tough bounce, but it was still a bad look to fumble the first tackle, especially at this point in the game – so deflating, in fact, that the Titans felt destined to score here if they could muster a competent set. No surprise that Fifita got them rolling by building a platform, on the left, for Tino up the middle, much as he laid a platform for Fotuaika’s best charge ten minutes before.

Big Tino didn’t run as far, but he made more metres after contact, while Foutaika got his run in as well, off some superb second phase play from Lisone. Everything converged on the last, as Sexton booted it deep into the right corner, where Marsters also drew on his earlier run to pick it up on the bounce, roll 360-degrees through Meaney, and score the Titans’ second try. The whole sequence capped off and crystallised the best moments in the Gold Coast game, even if Sexton missed the sideline conversion to keep it to ten unanswered points.

So far, it had been a low-scoring affair, but this consolidation point started a (relative) torrent of Gold Coast points that would see them break 30 by the final siren. They got one more before the half-time siren, on the restart, when Atoni got his second crowding penalty, on the last tackle. After so much buildup to the Titans’ first two tries, this came easy – all it took was a clinical Taylor grubber from the twenty, and a deft run from Kelly to outpace Okunbor and score on the bounce. Sexton added the extras, and his men headed to the sheds 16-0.

Gold Coast returned to the park with a strong set, starting with a tough carry from Beau Fermor that paved the way for post-contact metres from Jaimin Jolliffe and Tino up the middle, Fifita on the right, and then Tino again, further back in field, where he almost broke through the line. Taylor parlayed all that work from the big men into a deft chip to the left corner, where Okumbor reached both hands above Lisone to take it on the full, and initially seemed to fumble the next play-the-ball, only for the Bulldogs to successfully challenge it.

This was a good motivator for the blue and white, who struggled to find position early in the set, thanks to a pack tackle that held up Hoppa on the brink of his own twenty, but elasticised later on, following a late offload from Patolo to JMK. Once again, though, Flanno couldn’t find a floater or spiral, falling back upon a regulation bomb that Brimson caught on the full. Still, the Dogs got two more chances, off two errors from the Gold Coast halves – a Sexton knock-on during the next set, and a poor Taylor pass, the set after, that Hoppa managed to steal.

With a restart off a Taylor ruck error, this was a mini-consolidation period for the Dogs, who settled into their first close-range attack since the break. Averillo ended with a grubber, Thommo shepherded it into touch, and the refs cycled through three calls – a seven tackle-set, then a dropout, when it appeared that Thompson had made the last contact of his own accord, and finally a penalty for Hoppa, who the replay showed holding back the Gold Coast custodian, and so forcing him to hit the Steeden chest-first on the dead ball line.

Just like that, Canterbury had blown another chance with a messy kicking option, since even a little less weight off the boot would have set up the dropout here. They needed a good take under the next Gold Coast kick, and Allan provided it, collecting the Steeden on the full in goal, and adding a strong return to get his men back in the Titans’ half by the end of the count, where they received another boost in field position when Jolliffe stuck a hand in the ruck. With virtually a full set in the Gold Coast red zone, they had to bring it all together right now.

None of the big men opted for charges at the line, with most of the action taking place around the ten, culminating with the worst pass of the night – a no-looker from Hoppa on the wing that Rein shifted to Thompson before the Dogs knew what hit them. This would have been a prodigious play for even a top four team, so it was never going to come off here, and played more like desperation than innovation. Again, Sexton’s bomb had an edge the Canterbury halves just couldn’t mimic – or contain, since it denied most of the Bulldogs’ backline now.

Meaney went for it on the right edge, while Marsters pulled back just as he was spilling it out to the sideline, where Schoupp became the next Dog to lose it, and Sexton the next Titan to elude it. From there, Marzhew took possession, spun 360-degrees, fended off Allan, tucked it under his left arm, broke through the line, and slid past Okunbor to score untouched, before Sexton added his best sideline kick to make it 22 unanswered points. Gold Coast were now sitting at seventh, with a -32 differential to Cronulla’s -40, and felt like a top eight team.

Fifita took a monster run on play two of the restart, adding to his post-contact tally without seeming to even register the Bulldogs he shrugged off, but this was mainly a steadying set. Meaney was able to take the bomb this time, and his men got a restart early in the count, off a Taylor error. Allan mirrored and corrected Hoppa’s disastrous flick pass with a more modest effort to Averillo out on the edge, and yet this was an even more standard set than the Titans’ restart, and didn’t even conclude with a kick as Schoupp opted to run it out on the left edge.

Gold Coast might have responded with an equally conservative set, but that just made Taylor’s spiral bomb a starker statement of intent – and a sharper flex against the more limited options of the Canterbury halves. As if recognising that the flow couldn’t depend on the kickers, Hetherington broke straight up the middle early in the next set, while Averillo parlayed his initiative into the Dogs’ first harbour bridge ball of the night – out to Allan, who was initially pinged for a knock-on before Sexton was called out for not being square.

Hetherington’s run, in particular, galvanised Napa into the tough charge at the line that the Bulldogs had lacked last time they were in Gold Coast’s twenty, only for Allan to concede the error after all, thanks to a brutal ankle tap from Kelly. You could tell Jackson and Doorey were channelling the charges they would have made, if they’d retained possession, when they manhandled Thommo two tackles later, but their energy got the better of them here, as they converged again for an equally tough hit on Rein, and Doorey ruptured the ruck in the process.

In contrast to all this Canterbury prevarication, the next Gold Coast try was their most clinical yet – a scorching spine synergy that couldn’t have been more different from the fumbling Bulldogs backline that had conceded Marzhew’s crossover. After coming in hard on Thommo, and pairing with Doorey for the Rein ruck mistake, Jackson exhausted himself with a third tackle on Tyrone Peachey – an ankle tap that simply steeled the ex-Panther into a quick play-the-ball for Taylor, who scooped it up and fed it out to Brimson in one scintillating motion.

Brimson now made good on his earlier linebreak, taking the footy clean, as Elliott reached out a paw for it, and busting up the middle, but with a support runner this time around – Taylor himself, who bookended the sequence by receiving the Steeden again, twenty metres upfield, and slicing past JMK to score untouched beside the posts. With so much flow behind the Titans, Sexton’s conversion felt inevitable, as did the cascade of position on the restart – even if Peachey, like Jackson and Doorey, got too eager, and came in too early to secure the kick.

The Gold Coast spine fired again on the next set, as Rein scooped up the footy at speed, made the biggest and best dummy of the game, and shifted it across to Brimson, who reprised the best parts of his two previous breaks, albeit for a break assist rather than a break himself. Busting through a Hetherington tackle, he fended off Biondo-Odo with his left arm and used his right to flick it back to Wallace, who sliced through the defence, and set up Brimson to return the favour with a short one back to Rein, who might have scored off a good take here.

Instead, the speed of this last sequence overtook him, and he fumbled it, although the Dogs couldn’t manage their acceleration much better. Waddell was the only player on the park who managed to decisively stop Tino one-on-one, with an ankle tap at speed that forced him to put all his body on the line, but Hetherington escalated the defence too quickly on the next tackle, coming in for a late hit that saw him put on report right when a Jolliffe fumble should have turned the ball back to Canterbury, who ended up conceding another try a second later.

This was the last and best Gold Coast try of the night – a perfect fusion of speed, strength and sheer football vision, making it a sobering reminder of how little innovation the Bulldogs had brought to the board. Peachey got things rolling with a beautiful wide ball to Wallace, who made a bust at the line on the left, mirroring Rein’s huge dummy, before executing the latest and lowest offload of the game out to Kelly, who only had to dance around Okunbor to pop it down on the wing. Sexton added another great sideline kick, and the Titans were 34-0.

They hadn’t held a team to nil since 2013, and were on track for their biggest ever win over the Bulldogs, so the blue and white had to come up with a consolation try over the last ten minutes, if only to continue their motivation and momentum into the off-season, since a historic loss here could build some serious long-term deflation. They got lucky on the restart, failing to prevent Marsters from sending Fifita into space up the right wing, only for Taylor to pop out a forward pass just when Gold Coast were making their final assault on the line.

Even better, the Dogs had both their best long-range and short-range plays off the subsequent scrum, starting with a right sweep that pivoted through Jackson for Averillo to break into space, and Waddell to make one of the toughest fends of his career – a big right-hander, at high speed, on Fermor, who almost fell to ground under the sheer strength of the contact. Peachey tumbled more than slammed in as last line of defence, three metres out from the line, and the Dogs swept back to the other side, where Hetherington took control.

All night, Hetherington had seemed to personify the over-acceleration that had touched both sides, but especially the Bulldogs. You sensed he’d be the man to escalate too far, so it was great to see him simply take the tackle here, and get the Dogs the restart that produced their sole try, laying the platform for Patolo to charge beneath the crossbars, where a swarm of Titans converged to hold him up. Biondi-Odo had ended the first stanza with an enterprising play, and he did the same here, diving over out of dummy half for the final try of the night.

Flanno added the extras from right in front, and the Bulldogs put real pressure on the Titans over the last seven minutes, as Wallace was pinged for an obstruction, Thommo made a rare error, and Taylor booted two dropouts in the final four. Still, you could tell these two teams were many rungs apart on the ladder, since Gold Coast didn’t succumb, and maintained some of their flow right to the end. They’re in a good space to take on the Cowboys next week, while the Dogs will be looking for a much higher point tally when they host the Tigers.   

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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