ROUND 25: Gold Coast Titans v. New Zealand Warriors (Cbus Super Stadium, 5/9/21, 44-0)

The Titans celebrated Anthony Don’s last regular season game with style, even if he only made an appearance on the sidelines. To take Cronulla’s place in next week’s finals match against the Roosters, they had to come up with an eleven-point win – and they did that four times over, coming away with 44 unanswered points that were as different from their Round 1 loss to the Warriors as the torrential conditions at Cbus were to that sweltering summery match.

On the other side of the Steeden, New Zealand had a season low to rival the Bulldogs later in the afternoon, failing to make the most of their typical combinations, and only completing 55% of their sets compared to the Titans’ 77%. They seemed especially stunned by Jayden Campbell’s brilliance at fullback, which escalates in leaps and bounds from game to game, but which seemed to accelerate especially emphatically here, in what will surely come to be regarded as one of the pivotal matches in his career – and in his work for Gold Coast as well.

Euan Aitken set the stage with an error beneath Chanel Harris-Tevita’s first bomb, and Jamal Fogarty broke through the line a moment later, feeding the footy across to Campbell, who was unlucky not to get a penalty when Peta Hiku grabbed him by the jersey before he took possession. Worse, Mitch Rein was pinged and put on report for dangerous contact at the end of the next set, when he was unable to pull back from Reece Walsh as he leaped to take the high ball, but the Titans got a reprieve when Matt Lodge took it to the line on tackle one.

He came to ground directly beneath the crossbar, where he reached out an arm to put the Steeden down but ended up losing it instead. Gold Coast got the first restart a few plays later, off a ruck error from Aitken, and Campbell now got some joy after Hiku’s hit had held him back on the previous set. Finding himself with the footy ten metres out, and with a quick play-the-ball from Rein, he grubbered off the left boot, scooted past Addin Fonua-Blake as he slipped in front of the left post, and then managed to get both hands to the ball on the line.

This was a good sign for the Titans – not just because one of their least experienced players had scored the first try, but because they’d regathered so seamlessly from the last set and still managed to parlay that opening Fogarty linebreak into a tryscoring sequence. Fogarty was always going to convert from right in front, and the Titans got stuck into their restart, as Tino Faasuamalueai took one of his biggest runs up the middle, before Corey Thompson smashed Marcelo Montoya back over the chalk to garner the first dropout of the afternoon.

For a moment, it looked like Gold Coast had scored their second try as easily as their first, as Tyrone Peachey drove it deep into the left corner on tackle two, dummying out to the wing only to lose it into a last-ditch effort from Walsh, who stormed in to knock the footy free right on the line. The Warriors had to make the most of this sudden turnaround, and their first scrum of the game, especially since they got their first restart, off a ruck infringement from Sam McIntyre, and then a report for Fogarty after he dumped Bayley Sironen on the ground.    

Yet Sean O’Sullivan’s kick ricocheted off the defence instead of making its way through the line, bringing the biggest accumulation of New Zealand field position so far to a pretty drab finish. Conversely, the Titans got a restart of their own a few plays later, only for Moeaki Fotuaika to put it down on tackle one in the face of a big tackle from Jazz Tevaga, before play paused for Aitken to get some medical attention after twisting his ankle into a hit on Fogarty.

This was a pretty sad sight given Aitken’s ankle issues earlier in the season, and his injury toll at the Dragons – enough to cancel out the momentum that Gold Coast had conceded with the Fotuaika cold drop, especially when Lodge compounded his lost ball on the line with a forward pass early in the tackle count. Lodge was clearly trying to improvise with a bit of ball play, so his error spoke to the limited flexibility of the New Zealand side, at least in this particular game, as the Titans drove it up the middle again, reaching the red by tackle three.

Patrick Herbert brought out the theatrics to nab a penalty for a very marginal early hit from Montoya, and Gold Coast regathered when Jarrod Wallace spilled it backwards, and yet the home team had their own taste of losing the footy on the line now, when big Tino followed Lodge by coughing it up as Walsh and O’Sullivan converged to contain him. Word returned from the sheds that Aitken had actually suffered a hamstring tear, and probably wouldn’t be back today, as Walsh got pinged for a knock-on while trying to clean up a late Tevaga offload.

Once again, then, the Titans were back in New Zealand territory. They’d been here so much that it felt incredible they were only a converted try ahead, although you sensed that margin would expand pretty quickly, as Peachey drove the Steeden over the ten on the left edge, restless to make good on his aborted try. The last thing the Warriors needed here was two penalties in their own red zone – a dangerous hit from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, and an offside from O’Sullivan just as Gold Coast sent it over the left sideline while trying to set up the sweep.

This was too much field position for New Zealand, as Rein now effectively reprised Campbell’s opening try in his own image. Again, it was a heroic one-man effort beside the left post, except that this time Rein surged over out of dummy half, ducking low and barging past Josh Curran, who was taken by surprise, to plant the footy down. Again, Fogarty had an easy conversion angle, booting through the two to bring the Titans to a twelve-point lead – and a scoreline that felt more (but not totally) commensurate to their dominance in possession and position.

With this sequence, the Titans jumped over Cronulla to become eighth on the live ladder, while Rein had scored a terrific try in what might be his last game in the NRL if the Warriors managed to turn it all around. Glimpsing finals football, and consolidating that first try, seemed to galvanise Gold Coast on the restart, as they relaxed into their most expansive and elastic football so far, sweeping it out to the left edge, where Peachey was confident enough for the best save so far as well, regathering it deftly after what should have been a cough-up.

New Zealand did so little with their next set that it felt like the Titans were simply continuing the flow of this stellar restart when they got ball in hand again, especially with a restart off a ruck error from O’Sullivan, who made up for it at the end of the set by shepherding the Steeden into touch despite a mammoth chase that seemed destined to guarantee a dropout, albeit falling awkwardly on his wrist for his troubles. He stayed on the field, but the Warriors still had a big job on their hands with only 50% of completions, compared to the Titans’ 81&.

Their woes continued on the next set, when Rein and McIntyre slammed in on DWZ in a kind of mirror image of Walsh and O’Sullivan’s combined hit on Tino, twisting him so awkwardly (but legally) that he seemed too ginger to really lead for the next couple of tackles.  If that wasn’t bad enough, David Fifita chose this moment to step up, barging in low and hard just as Jamayne Taunoa-Brown was thinking about an offload – the hit of the game so far, even if Herbert coughed it up just as quickly to gift New Zealand a much-needed scrum at the forty.

Yet as quickly as Herbert had conceded it, the Warriors gave it back, thanks to an overlong Walsh pass that Montoya was only able to knock on as he tried to stop its rolling trajectory on the turf. Even the Titans’ errors were working in their favour now, as O’Sullivan knocked on while trying to contain a loose carry, bringing this last sequence full circle as Gold Coast packed the scrum in the middle of the park. Fifita and Tino were at the ten midway through the count, but the Warriors survived, holding up Beau Fermor before he could set up a kick.

This was a potential shift in momentum, especially when a potential DWZ fumble in the play-the-ball turned into a crowding penalty for McIntyre. After all, the Titans were only twelve ahead, so if New Zealand could nab a couple of tries here they could reset the game after the break. Yet the Titans shut down their first genuinely enterprising sweep – a series of elastic passes out to the left wing, where Hiku tried to build some space up the sideline only for Thompson to storm in and slam him into touch, in some of the most clinical defence so far.

Even though there were about ten minutes to go, Thompson’s hit – and the contrast between the hit and the sliding Warriors play – felt like a full stop on this first half, even when New Zealand made a successful challenge to prevent Gold Coast getting a repeat set on the line. The Titans responded with some of their toughest defence so far, drawing on Thompson’s one-man hit to keep the Warriors in their own end, forcing Walsh to bomb it right on halfway, while giving the visitors a lesson in how to make metres when they got footy in hand again.

This was easily Gold Coast’s best set so far, thanks to a pair of scintillating runs from the biggest and smallest men in their arsenal. Campbell bookended the first stanza with his second linebreak, but this time from much further upfield, breaking into space, dodging past a couple of defenders, and only coming down on the cusp of the twenty, thanks to a desperate tackle from Walsh. Even so, he played it quickly, and Peachey took it across the face of the defence for Fifita to plunge into the right wing like there wasn’t a single Warrior on the park.

Fifita had nabbed his sixteenth try of the season, tying the club record with David Mead and James Roberts for most Gold Coast tries in a single year, while becoming the third highest tryscoring forward in the NRL era, and the first to reach that echelon in a long time, after Steve Menzies got 20 in 1998 and Ben Kennedy got 17 in 2001. There were only five minutes to go, but it felt like the Titans might have another try in them, or that New Zealand might even tap into the Gold Coast flow, which galvanised the whole park into a new intensity now.

Sure enough, the Titans consolidated one more time before the sheds, as Fermor surged into space up the right edge, mirroring and even outdoing Campbell’s brilliant break, since Walsh was only able to hold him up at the ten now. Gold Coast got six again, and would almost certainly have scored if Peachey had heard the call, but instead he tried to keep the speed up with a well-placed grubber that DWZ was forced to clean up in goal. This was a different kind of win, but Walsh wasn’t done, going short with the dropout for Rocco Berry to clean it up.

Gold Coast got one more chance with a DWZ error, but the Warriors survived, albeit with their worst forty minutes of football all year. They had to come back big after the break, and that was presumably what propelled them into a Captain’s Challenge fifty seconds in. It was a bad call, clearly showing Fonua-Blake stripping the footy – so bad, in fact, that it dented their momentum, and looked more like a desperation move once the footage showed how black and white it was. Again, Gold Coast were back in the Warriors’ red zone with tackles to burn.

Campbell and Fifita linked up again at the end of the set, in a kind of remixed version of their try at the end of the first stanza. The young fullback started by channelling the run that Peachey built off his previous linebreak, dancing across the defence to the right edge, where Herbert took the footy over the line, and was held up by so many Warriors that there was nobody in place to contain Fifita when he plunged over out of dummy half on the next play.

Fifita now had the most tries in a Gold Coast season, and had matched Ben Kennedy for second most tries by a forward in the modern era, while drawing on Rein’s close-range effort in the first stanza to turn this into the key consolidation try of the night. Fogarty added the extras to make it 22 unanswered points, and while Walsh followed O’Sullivan with heroic patience in goal, and prevented a dropout in the process, the Titans would double this scoreline by the time the game was done, while New Zealand would also double zero for zero.

That said, Curran managed to take it to the line on the next set, but the Gold Coast defence was too much for him, even with an offload back to O’Sullivan, who was contained just as clinically. The Titans’ big men carved up the middle now, restless for a break in the line, accelerating and accelerating until Wallace knocked on while trying to set up the kick. The Warriors responded with a rare left-edge play, before shifting it back inside for some metres after contact from Kane Evans that cleared up space for DWZ to take it over on the right wing.

In the most agonising moment of the game for New Zealand so far, Curran’s assist turned into a forward pass – at least as the touch judge saw it, since this appeared to be backwards out of the hands from an aerial perspective. Yet Fonua-Blake now got some joy after his opening error and wasted challenge, coming in low and hard to rattle the footy free from Rein, and so cementing what amounted to a brief mini-surge of possession and position for the Warriors.

They were at the ten by tackle four, sweeping it awkwardly out to the left, with a bouncing ball along the way, before Phillip Sami took the chip back on the right without any real contest. As quickly as it had begun, New Zealand’s brief glimpse of momentum was over, as McIntyre and Erin Clark added fresh blood off the bench, and Evans was put on report for a blatant elbow into Fermor’s face. Like most genuine foul play, this was a sign of vulnerability, a concession of defeat, and sure enough it propelled Gold Coast back into their tryscoring flow.

In fact, this was a broader consolidation moment for the Titans, as Peachey finally made good on that opening left side attack – not by scoring himself, but by setting up the try with a deep drive into the corner, combined with a well-timed pass for Campbell to assist Brian Kelly for a four-pointer that was every bit as effortless as Fifita’s crossover on the other side. Evans’ attitude had shifted the match back into a Gold Coast training run, bringing them to a 28-point lead and a 17-point finals buffer as Fogarty booted through a confident sideline conversion.

As if in sympathy with this dour end to the Warriors’ season, the rain now started to drum down heavily – a stark contest to the sweltering conditions that saw them run rings around Gold Coast back in Round 1. Herbert and Thompson didn’t take long to parlay the slippery surface to their advantage, dragging Walsh back ten metres for what initially looked like a wet weather dropout, only for New Zealand to get a letoff when the tackle was deemed complete.

Evans started the journey back from his foul play with strong metres after contact, but the Warriors never quite made it to the red zone, while Thompson took O’Sullivan’s kick on the full in goal to get his men seven tackles to play with. Big Tino came back on the park a moment later, taking the second play with a hard charge into New Zealand’s forty, before Peachey showed O’Sullivan how to nail the left edge kick, with a beautifully weighted grubber that DWZ had to dive on in goal, as the Titans made good on the aborted dropout of the last set.

The game reached a new level of intensity over the next set, on the cusp of the final quarter, starting with Lodge getting put on report for swinging an arm straight into the face of Wallace, who was taken off the park for an HIA as Fotuaika trotted on for the free interchange. Lodge wasn’t fazed, coming in for even bigger contact on Fifita, who had the last word by bundling up Montoya as he cleaned up the grubber in goal for a second straight Gold Coast dropout.

Nevertheless, the Warriors held on – by luck as much as by skill – as DWZ leaped up to take the kick and knocked it back, leaving big Tino in place for what should have been a clean collect, or at the very least a tap-back. Instead, he knocked on, and New Zealand were let off the hook again, gaining more field position a set later when Peachey became the next player to succumb to the slippery conditions with an error in the play-the-ball. Gold Coast had 1459 run metres, and New Zealand only had 688, so they were playing for pride with fifteen to go.

Berry got them rolling with a big run deep into the right corner, but it ended up like Hiku on the other side of the field, on the first half, since he was moving too fast to prevent Brian Kelly from using his own momentum to propel him into touch. Walsh took issue with the subsequent contact, players piled on from all sides, and Tevaga got himself sent to the bin for throwing a punch, as the Warriors ground in to try and score a single try with twelve players.

Of course, this sequence showed just how desperate and vulnerable the Warriors were at this late stage in the game, so it was always going to galvanise Gold Coast into another dominant position. Sure enough, they stormed up the middle, and got extra field position when Lodge hit Peachey late, as the previous fracas broke out again with renewed vigour, giving us a flashback to old-school rugby league – a field of players waiting for a chance to throw a punch.

No referee has barked quite so loudly as Ash Klein, who sent both Lodge, Evans and Wallace to the bin, making it twelve on ten for the last fifteen minutes of what was fast becoming the most volatile match of the year, Origin included. Losing Wallace was a big blow for Gold Coast, not simply because it cost them the spectacle of thirteen on ten, and not just because the Titans lost one of their key forwards, but because it confirmed that they were starting to catch some of the Warriors’ volatility, rather than keeping their eyes on staying ahead of Cronulla.

By this stage the rain was absolutely torrential, and the crowd was so revved up that it already felt like finals footy, roaring out when Lodge gave them the finger on the way to the sheds, and redoubling the cry when Herbert scored on the wing at the end of the next set. After so much bluster from both sides, this was exactly the clinical play that Gold Coast needed to reset the game – a clean left sweep that ended with a deft assist from Campbell and a strong run from Herbert, who dummied for the wing and then muscled his way past Walsh to score.

Fogarty missed the sideline conversion, but even so the Titans had secured their lead over Cronulla with this try – even if the Warriors scored a few more here they couldn’t break an eleven-point deficit. There was something definitive about the spectacle of Herbert sliding across the sodden turf then, especially since it recalled the torrential conditions of Titans-Sharks back in 2017. Cronulla had been the main adversaries today too, but by now Gold Coast were ahead of them as well, finding their flow at the very tail end of this mixed season.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Campbell now embodied that flow in the most spectacular way after Chanel Harris-Tevita lost the footy at the Titans’ end of the field. Peachey scooped it up, and got it across to Kelly, who shifted it on to his fullback, ten metres out from their own line. Campbell paused for so long that it seemed that the Warriors must wrap up the play, or that he didn’t quite know what he was going to do with the possession.

Instead, Campbell was simply securing the sightline, tracing out the trajectory he needed to travel, making the try feel like a foregone conclusion from the moment he started to run. He got on the outside of Curran and curved away from DWZ, who faded back almost immediately, leaving nothing but wide open space all the way to the try line, where Campbell leaped and slide further than any Titan this year, with Thompson sliding down in tandem to echo and congratulate him – lifted, like all his teammates and fans, by this flow and footwork.

Fogarty got the extras this time around, and the Titans were on 38 unanswered points. They had one more try in the bank and it was another terrific long-range effort, this time off the back of some deft right edge play by and around Herbert. All the players had returned from the bin by this point, making it thirteen on thirteen as Fifita sent out a one-handed offload to Herbert, who offload himself to Thompson, and then took it again from Jaimin Jolliffe, finally booting it back in field for Fotuaika to chase down and put down with DWZ right on his heels.

The speed, strength and simplicity of this try was the perfect capstone to a game that should propel Gold Coast long beyond this finals series – a vision of the club congealing and elasticising, even if they did have the advantage of the worst Warriors performance of the year. For the moment, though, they need to set their sights on next week, and channel these last fifteen minutes, as well as Campbell’s burgeoning vision, for their date with the Roosters.

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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