ELIMINATION FINAL: Sydney Roosters v. Gold Coast Titans (QCB Stadium, 11/9/21, 25-24)

Of the four games of finals footy this weekend, Gold Coast’s loss to the Roosters was perhaps the most agonising to watch. The eighth ranked team had only beaten the fifth team once since the finals format was reconfigured in 2012, but the Titans came close here, repeatedly levelling the score whenever Sydney looked set to get away from them – right to the last five minutes of the match, when Sam Walker came on as a late interchange for a field goal finish.

It was fitting that JWH took the first run – both to celebrate his first appearance since Round 23 and as the lone survivor of the last and only finals meetings between these two teams, at Suncorp back in 2010. Preston Campbell had been the Gold Coast fullback then, and his son Jayden was in the same jersey here, so there was a sense that things might come full circle for the Titans if they managed to come away with the win tonight. Both sides had strong first sets, although Patrick Herbert got an edge with an offload to Kevin Proctor midway through.

Daniel Tupou responded by dragging Proctor and Jarrod Wallace a couple of metres on the next set, to mark his 200th game in the Tricolours, and Josh Morris started to elasticise up the right edge a tackle later, before Campbell survived Teddy to take Lachlan Lam’s kick on the full. Gold Coast got six again with a Drew Hutchison offside, and this already felt like it would be a close match, since both teams were bringing their A-game, from a big barge up the middle from Tino Faasuamaleaui to a gutsy Matt Ikuvalu catch with the chase up in his face.

The Roosters got a restart of their own shortly after, off a ruck error from Jamal Fogarty, and settled into their first right sweep from short range on the last, as Teddy flicked the footy back inside as he was forced over the sideline, only for Lam to knock on as he dove onto it. A potential consolidation moment had given way to an unusually messy Sydney City play, and while Corey Thompson was clearly galvanised as he drove the footy hard and fast up the middle, the Chooks got it back again pretty quickly, as Big Tino made the first handling error.

Rather than congealing the Roosters, however, this ushered in a messy period for both sides, as Sitili Tupouniua coughed it up, and Tino ever so slightly fumbled his next play-the-ball. Tupou made more post-contact metres out of the scrum, the Chooks shifted left, and Teddy came up with his best kick so far – a grubber out to the other wing, where Victor Radley chased it down, and looked set to score for all money, before Tyrone Peachey reached out an arm to impede him without the ball, begging the question of whether this was a penalty try.

In real time and in slow motion that’s how it looked, but the Bunker deemed that Jayden Campbell was close enough to have potentially held up Radley if Peachey hadn’t interfered – a harsh decision here, and an inconceivable decision given the way that Will Penisini’s penalty try settled the elimination final between Parra and Newcastle the following afternoon. As it was, Peachey was given a professional foul and ten minutes in the bin, while Adam Keighran slotted through the penalty kick to at least put the Roosters on the board with the first two.

JWH got the restart underway, and Teddy followed with his hardest run of the night, while Jared took it again on the third, and Tupouniua brought it back to Titans territory on the fourth. You sensed Sydney trying to channel the disappointment and frustration of this denied try into a new level of synergy, but for the moment Campbell was up to the task, collecting a deep kick from Hutchison and responding with a good return to get his men rolling once more.

Herbert built on that conviction, making the best metres after contact so far, as he busted through four or five tackles on the right edge and eventually offloaded to Proctor. Josh Morris was pinged for obstructing Brian Kelly on the last, and Teddy must have sensed his control of the game slipping here, since he chose to risk his Captain’s Challenge with only thirteen minutes down – and lost it, setting up Fogarty to level the score with a penalty kick in front.

Again, this had all the trappings of a very close game, despite the three spots between these two teams on the ladder, while the Roosters now had to face down 65 minutes without a challenge to call upon. Proctor channelled Herbert with good post-contact metres on the right edge, and while he didn’t get the offload away, he did tempt a second offside from Hutchison, while Wallace settled into the second-phase play by popping it out to Campbell a tackle later.

This felt like it might be a consolidation point for Gold Coast, so the arm wrestle resumed when Mitch Rein flicked the footy forward to Tino just as they arrived at the Roosters’ red zone. Both teams were on exactly 50% as they packed the scrum – and packed it again, as Sam Verrills copped a bouncing ball on the first shot. Josh Morris continued to elasticise on the right wing, somersaulting through a Kelly hit for another five metres, while JWH came up with the best offload so far, spinning into Rein and using the contact to ricochet it back out.

In fact, this was hardly a conventional offload at all, since JWH passed because of Rein’s contact, rather than despite it. As with the Titans at the other end of the park, this moment of promise on the brink of the twenty dissolved just as quickly, since the whistle blew belatedly to signal that Radley’s pass to Jared had been forward. Again, we had a scrum feed, and now the onus was on Gold Coast to capitalise on it, as Proctor came off the park to make way for David Fifita, and the Titans’ big men worked their hardest path up the middle so far.

Put that down to big Tino, who came up with two hard charges, as well as Campbell, who held his own with the forward pack with an offload late in the count. This was one of Gold Coast’s best sets so far, and it ushered in a tipping-point in the game, on the cusp of the second quarter – Peachey prepared to return to the park, play paused for Ikuvalu to get his leg strapped, and Radley was called out for a knock-on that the Chooks would have probably contested if they had a challenge left in their arsenal, as the sky turned dark over Townsville.

Beau Fermor was the next recipient of Wallace’s second-phase play, laying a platform for the Titans to experiment with sweeping it from side to side after driving it up the middle on their last set. Morris was under significant pressure with the high ball, but he took it clean, albeit copping some aerial contact from Kelly that set up Sydney for a much-needed burst of field position. Hutchison’s next kick was pretty unconvincing, and there wasn’t much of a chase, but the Chooks still got it back when Wallace made no effort to hide an obstruction on Teddy.

This was a big brainsnap from Wallace after a very controlled game in terms of ball handling – so overt that it fuelled a brief fracas in front of the posts, before the Chooks chose to tap and go, in search of the game’s first try. They had the first full set inside the opposition ten, and they experimented on both sides of the park, moving first to the left, where Herbert did well to contain a JWH offload, and then to the right, where Teddy recovered from the Wallace shot with an assured double pump to clear up space for Morris to assist Ikuvalu on the wing.

Even so, this was no sure thing for the no. 5, who had to contend with a huge wraparound tackle from Peachey that almost tumbled him over the sideline. That just made the four points feel even more hard-won, and they remained four when Keighran missed his first attempt from the sideline. Gold Coast started their hitback by summoning a big pack to smother JWH on play one of the restart, and did one better on tackle two, when Wallace came back big from his obstruction to rattle the footy free before Ikuvalu could get out of his own red zone.

The Titans now had their own full set within the opposition ten, and got a restart to boot, when Hutchison conceded his third error at the ruck. Yet Wallace was having a rocks and diamonds night, aborting the set he laid down with a cold drop off a Peachey pass. Both teams had enjoyed close-range sets in quick succession, but only the Chooks had capitalised, so if they could score again soon they’d secure some command over this closely contested game.

Instead, Wallace got back to diamonds, intercepting a short ball from Radley and making his way back to the Sydney ten, single-handedly restoring the field position he’d gained, and lost, the first time around. Rein’s service to Moeaki Fotuaika was poor on play two, costing Gold Coast twenty metres and some significant momentum, but even so Sam Lisone was almost at the ten on tackle four, when Radley tried to regain some rhythm with a David-on-Goliath tackle to bring him down, coming in low and hard, and injuring himself more in the contact.

He couldn’t return to his feet as the last tackle played out – a Fogarty grubber down the right that Teddy was forced to clean up in goal – but he remained on the field, wincing as he rotated his right shoulder back into action. This was easily the most courageous and competitive play of the night so far, and took some of the sting out of the subsequent dropout, although Radley stayed well away from the play when Lisone slammed into the defence for the opening carry.

Once again, the Titans lost metres just when they needed to gain them, as Fermor flicked back a poor Fogarty pass, although they got a big boost with Proctor back on the park after passing his HIA. They needed a tough one-man show to bring it together, and Fifita provided it – provided everything you’d want from him in a finals stint – as he combined the skill sets of frontrower and backliner with a superb run up the right edge. Taking the footy from Campbell, he bumped off Keighran, barely grazed Tupou and smashed over Teddy on the line.  

However, in a prelude to the Titans’ heartbreak in this same spot at the end of the second stanza, the try was denied due to an obstruction from Herbert – technical, to be sure, but unquestionable. This prompted an immediate comeback from the Chooks, as Radley and Teddy combined to bounce back from two pretty vulnerable plays over the last few minutes. First, Radley showed he was fully recovered with a hard dash up the park, and contended with Lisone again for good measure, busting through the tackle this time without any real contact.

The closest Lisone came was a grab with his right arm, but Radley fended him off with his left, while using his own right palm to offload out to his fullback. Teddy had been the last and biggest casualty of Fifita’s trample to the line, so it was cathartic to see him elude all the defenders here to slam down what amounted to a drought-breaker, since he’s only scored one try in the last sixteen games after putting down seven in the first five rounds of the year. Seeing Teddy score always motivates the Chooks, and put them ten ahead here with the kick.

This was a devastating passage for Gold Coast, but they had to put it behind them and focus on the last five minutes before the break – heading into the sheds without a single try was a bad sign for a preliminary final. They got a useful turnaround when a loose carry from Peachey was reclassified as high contact for Sam Verrills, who was placed on report, and they likely wouldn’t have got to such a close finish if Fermor hadn’t smashed over a few minutes after.

Fermor didn’t actually score on this next set, despite a strong opening run from Tino, since Lisone lost it right on the line, but that just made the comeback all the more exciting when it occurred on the very brink of half time. Egan Butcher provided the opening, and once again both teams were exactly tied, this time at completion rates of 62%, when they packed the scrum. Three tackles later, Fifita reprised his drive to the right wing, laying the platform for an abrupt pivot to the other edge, where Fermor chased and put down a Peachey grubber.

Even if Fogarty missed the conversion, the Titans had scored a try, and reduced it to a converted try game, in the last thirty seconds before the sheds. They could have got on a roll if the first stanza hadn’t ended right here, so Fermor took the first tackle back, as if to parlay his try straight into the back forty, only for Tino to lose it a couple of plays later. Gold Coast wasted their challenge to contest it, and the Chooks got their first attacking set off a scrum.

Tino regained some ground by spearheading a big pack to hold up Isaac Liu on the second, and Lisone contained Butcher on the third, but that just elasticised the Roosters even more beautifully on the third. This was their most mercurial play of the night, as Hutchison danced and drifted across to the left, where he flicked it out for Teddy to reach up his right palm and tap it onto Tupou like he was playing in the US Open rather than finals footy, before the Giraffe mirrored him with a dextrous one-handed putdown to celebrate his 200th milestone.

Keighran booted through the two from the sideline, channelling the balletic arc of the try by hooking the footy as obliquely as possible, and for the first time the gap between fifth and eighth started to show on the scoreboard, since the Roosters had finally found their flow. You wouldn’t be surprised if they put down four more on the restart, but they lost some rhythm when Hutchison slipped over on the grass, which was already pretty pockmarked with Panthers-Bunnies still lined up after this match, forcing Lam to boot it from the Chooks’ end.

The Titans had a brief surge off this error, but Teddy was just as assured in defence, sliding to ground to collect the Steeden into his head, and then his chest, to contain a nightmare bounce from Fogarty. To hit back, Gold Coast had to show they could work just as gymnastically as Sydney City, and Tino got them rolling by swerving his whole body back to avoid a cut-out pass that could have easily ricocheted off his chest, before slamming over to score on the last.

After Teddy cleaned up his last grubber so clinically, Fogarty opted for a bomb here, effectively splitting the defence as Tupou and Keighran collided in the air, leaving the footy free for Rein to tap it back for Tino, who scooped it up, tucked it under his chest, and made his way behind the right post. Fogarty was always going to bookend it with a conversion from this angle, so the Titans were back to a six point deficit just when Sydney had found their flow.

Teddy had to save the day again midway through the next Roosters set, when he dove to ground to collect a loose pass from Hutchison, and copped some big contact from Herbert for his troubles, while Fermor absorbed Teddy’s brilliance at the back of Fogarty’s grubber by sliding to ground to collect a Keighran kick right on the line – a trysaver that was every bit as good as his try. By this stage, then, Tedesco was exuding a free-floating energy that could galvanise either side, so Teddy had to claim his genius as his own and deliver a big play now.

That’s just what he did on the right wing – almost – when he palmed off Peachey and flicked the footy out with his right hand for Ikuvalu to collect on the bounce and slam over the line. For another player, the bounce might have looked messy, but here it seemed intentional, as if Tedesco intuited the angle would find Ikuvalu in time. If it had been cleared, Teddy would have decisively claimed the game as his own, but the try was denied due to an obstruction from Tupouniua, while there was a chance the assist would have been called forward anyway.

This was an unlucky moment, all in all, although Fifita got just as unlucky a few plays later, when he planted both knees and the footy on the ground, but was unable to play it with Hutchison wrapped up in the tackle. Sydney got six again two tackles out of the scrum, which again marked a balancing-point in the game, since they were 61% completions to Gold Coast’s 62%. No sooner had they received a restart, off a ruck error from Jaimin Jolliffe, than JWH conceded an obstruction that was every bit as overt as Wallace’s earlier escorts on Tedesco.  

Sooner or later, one player had to wrest control out of this recent arm wrestle – and Kelly was the man, while Peachey was the man to assist him. Scooping up a bouncing ball from Wallace, Peachey hovered around the fifteen metre mark, finally feeding it on to Kelly for one of the toughest runs so far – straight through Radley and Crichton and over the line to put himself five behind Fifita for most Titans tries for 2021. He set up Fogarty for an easy conversion, and just like that Gold Coast had levelled the score at 18-18 as the last quarter rapidly approached.

Fogarty wasn’t so good at the end of the restart, conceding seven tackles back to Sydney City, while Hutchison’s kick did the job, producing a maelstrom on the left edge that ended with a pair of offloads from Keighran and Crichton, and a second grubber from Liu that Campbell was forced to bump into touch, before booting it over the halfway line for the dropout. JWH and Wallace collided heavily on the first, Liu lost his mouthguard on the second, and Morris crossed on the third, as Tedesco finally owned his genius and claimed this fixture as his own.

This final sequence was like a revised and improved version of the near-assist for Ikuvalu earlier on, as Tedesco realised that Phillip Sami was caught out at marker, and pivoted off the left boot at the ten, offloading out of a Kelly ankle tap for Morris to pivot off the right boot and over the line. Watching these two veterans in combination was like witnessing two sides of the same footy brain – an unspoken synergy that no combo on the Gold Coast side could hope to muster, even if the deficit was only a converted try once Keighran added the extras.

Yet this would turn out to be the last try that the Chooks scored, as the Titans now mustered a defensive comeback, and put down six more of their own, to bring the game to a field goal finish. Hutchison’s next kick had a Lachlan Lewis-like calm about it, and Campbell responded with a stunning torpedo that Teddy took just as elegantly, bending down on the ground to cradle it on the full, before coming up with two big passes on the subsequent set – a near-break assist for Radley to reverse their tryscoring combo and an offload on the turf for Lam.

Yet Radley and Teddy’s next linkup gave the Titans the chance they needed, as Victor sent out a difficult pass that his fatigued fullback marginally knocked on. Gold Coast’s big men moved methodically out of the scrum, reaching the ten metre line by the last play, where Fogarty chipped to the left edge for what initially seemed like a conversation-stopper – big Tino losing it to a heroic take from Morris right on the line – only for Ikuvalu to cough it up on play one.

Wallace seized the moment, scooping up the Steeden and slamming over the line, for the biggest gift try of the year – a gut-wrenching moment for Ikuvalu, who’d effectively assisted the opposition with this unforced error. Fogarty added the extras from right in front, and we were back at a deadlock with a little under ten minutes on the clock. If the Titans managed to win tonight, it’d be agonising enough for the Roosters, but to win off this error would have sat almost as heavily on Ikuvalu’s shoulders as Ben Hunt’s ball drop in the 2015 Grand Final.  

Sydney got through the restart, and brought on Sam Walker for Lam – the interchange that would win them the game. Thompson looked frustrated when Fifita flicked a poor ball out to his wing instead of making metres up the middle, and he’d explode before the night was over, but for now the Titans had to contend with Walker’s first stint in the spotlight – a brilliant harbour bridge ball out to Tupou, and then his first field goal attempt on only his second carry.

The next few minutes were the most volatile of the night, as the Roosters recovered from the Walker chargedown by getting Verrills in place for his first dummy half charge of the night, and Peachey missed his one and only field goal attempt after a Liu error got his men off the hook. Hutchison drove the footy into the left corner for a three-on-two at the end of the next Sydney set, Kelly coughed it up a few plays later, and the Chooks burst up the middle out of the scrum, before Walker finally added the one-pointer, despite JWH appearing to be offside.

With his third field goal of the year, Walker had cleared Mitch Moses, Val Holmes, Nathan Cleary and DCE to arrive at the top of the one-point ladder – and if this was a tough moment for the Titans, their night ended in agony when they finally got the footy back. Forty seconds out from the end, Fermor reprised his mad dash before the halftime siren with a break up the left edge of the park – a remarkable effort in and of itself, since the Roosters had ensured that Gold Coast had to run the entire length of the field if they were going to have a shot at a try.

Sydney cleaned up Fermor before he could score then and there, but the Titans shifted just as quickly to the other wing, where Herbert took it at the ten, and followed Fifita with another unnecessary pass out to Thompson, who was absolutely ropeable – so angry he had to walk away from the play, embodying a Gold Coast outfit who had come agonisingly close to a really historic elimination win here. On the other side of the Steeden, Sydney were probably pretty spooked too, so they’ll need to regather for a Manly side with something to prove next week.

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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