ROUND 8: Gold Coast Titans v. Penrith Panthers (Cbus Super Stadium, 29/4/22, 4-18)
Penrith became the first NRL team to go 8/0 in two successive seasons on Friday night, although that milestone didn’t come as easily as last week’s sublime back forty against the Raiders might have suggested. They’ve only been beaten six times since 2020, but the Titans came close during the first quarter, keeping the scoreline to 0-0, and actually putting down the first four-pointer, before shutting down a brief Penrith comeback after the break to prevent this ever turning into a fully-fledged landslide.
In the end, though, they felt like a team that had eight announced changes (and more later in the week) since last round’s loss to the Cowboys, including David Fifita now coming off the bench and AJ Brimson making the shift from five-eighth back to fullback. It’s not so much that the changes didn’t work, but that they exposed the sheer mutability of the Gold Coast outfit against a Penrith machine that have now fielded the same thirteen in five straight clashes.
It was a real victory, then, that Gold Coast broke through 25 Penrith tackles in the first stanza alone – the amount the mountain men normally concede in an entire game – and that they kept them to 4-0 at half time. Penrith might have got on the board on their next completed set, directly after they returned from the sheds, but this was still a momentous scoreline for the visitors, who’ll be looking to carry this same rhythm into next week’s clash against the Roosters in Mackay.
Dylan Edwards shifted the kickoff across for Matt Eisenhuth to take the opening carry, James Fisher-Harris followed in his wake and Viliame Kikau surged up the middle of the park, before Dylan Edwards bookended the set with the final run. Nathan Cleary took the kick, and the Panthers got the ball back three tackles later, off a Brian Kelly drop, with a scrum forty metres out from the own line. In a flashback to Eels-Tigers, however, the Titans contested the scrum and got their opening set after all.
A staunch Penrith wall meant they never made the red zone, but Toby Sexton was still in good position for a chip to the left wing, where Beau Fermor outleapt Edwards, who only just prevented him from tumbling over the chalk for the first four points. It was a good time for the Panthers to receive the first penalty of the night, off a slow peel from Moeaki Foutaika, and they hit the Gold Coast twenty with a left sweep midway through, before Cleary elasticised on the right edge by passing and then receiving an offload from Liam Martin.
Corey Thompson was up to the collect, in only his third NRL game of the season, while Brimson won the first Gold Coast penalty on tackle four, getting to his feet fast enough to catch Fish offside. Tino Faasuamaleaui bounced off Kikau and into Eisenhuth and Yeo, but his momentum was enough for the visitors to hit the red zone for the first time, as Sexton bombed to the right this time. The Panthers allowed it to bounce, and while Taylan May came up with it, Brimson and Thommo combined to drag him over the sideline.
This would have been a turning-point for the Titans if Tino hadn’t been called offside within the ten, while Penrith got the first restart a few plays later, off a ruck infringement from Fermor, giving them the first sustained close-range attack as well. Cleary opted for a deft grubber midway through, toeing it out to the left where Patrick Herbert had no option but to pop it down with Kikau circling around him. With the first dropout behind them as well, Penrith felt like they were fully flexing now, on the cusp of another massive performance.
Fish was five metres out by tackle three, before Edwards took a forward-like run to land a metre from the chalk, and Cleary shifted it left, where Kevin Proctor and Toby Sexton shut down Isack Tago. For the second time, however, Cleary got a dropout off a grubber, this time out to the right, while Martin had given the set its energy with a splendid run up the right to get it all started. The Panthers had their most elastic, enterprising play midway through this next dropout, spreading it from wing to wing, but to no avail, as the Titans stayed strong.
For the third time, it was going to come down to a Cleary kick, but instead he dropped the Steeden as he was shaping for it, allowing Greg Marzhew to scoop it up and make thirty metres down the left sideline, where only a stellar chase from Api Koroisau brought him down. Not only had Gold Coast survived this huge accumulation of field position, but they’d absorbed all its momentum as their own, settling into their fastest attacking set so far, only for Will Smith to boot it too shallow on the left, allowing Edwards to take it before the line.
Add to that an Isaac Liu flop on tackle one, and the Panthers had a chance to channel back that last bout of position if they completed well here, so it was agonising for the away crowd when Fish followed Cleary by dropping the footy as he was shaping for his next play. With a scrum just outside the Penrith thirty, the Titans had another shot at reclaiming the momentum that had suddenly become so mercurial, and yet Sexton now became the next player to make an error, with a fumbled play-the-ball under legal pressure from Kikau.
It had been a frenetic five minutes of football, so the mountain men had to make this next scrum count, moving through a more cautious opening drive before Martin injected another plosive run up that right edge. Erin Clark shut down an Eisenhuth offload, but Cleary’s kick did the job, as a couple of pat-backs set up Luai to assist his halfback for another boot to the right edge, where Stephen Crichton got toe to ball and then sent it back inside for Cleary to make it a hat trick with a long hard trajectory that he was unable to quite ground behind the posts.
Penrith had congealed their last campout on the Gold Coast line into four last tackle options, none of which had come good, even if they did testify to the ingenuity of Cleary’s kicking game. With a slow peel from Koroisau early in the count, then, the rhythm of the match had shifted subliminally back in the Titans’ favour. Brimson surged up the right midway through, where he was met by a heroic Tago trysaver, and Sexton abruptly defused all this energy with another unforced error, knocking on as he tried to dive on the footy five metres out.
Another set, another scrum feed, as the Panthers now packed it from the ten, and got a bump up field with a Foutaika crusher on Martin followed by an illegal strip from big Tino. The Titans did well to shut down Cleary on tackle three, but couldn’t contain the next right edge play, which started with Cleary lobbing a harbour bridge ball across to Charlie Staines, who smashed into Marzhew, but still managed to offload back for Edwards to squeeze through the gap and smash the Steeden down for what looked like a certain Penrith try.
Instead, the four was called back very late for a Cleary obstruction, keeping it 0-0 into the second quarter – a good sign for the Titans, since Penrith have been kept to nil at the end of the first quarter in all six of their losses since 2020. The rhythm had once again shifted in Gold Coast’s direction so it was frustrating to see Foutaika add to the fourth-tackle errors for yet another Panthers scrum, as the visitors roused a three-man pack to hold up Kikau midway through, and then applied the same pressure to force a May knock-on a play later.
Herbert made twenty up the right as Fifita finally came off the bench to take his first touch of the game in the same part of the park, while Tino continued that drive out on the left, and the Titans got six again to crack the Penrith red zone. Two plays later, Sexton almost made up for his two errors with a mad dash through Yeo right on the line, before Fermor almost rolled over on the right. It all came apart after that, however, as Will Smith burned a tackle, and Sexton booted through a grubber that Edwards was always going to take on the chest.
Gold Coast got lucky with an overlong Cleary kick, as Fermor continued that left edge momentum by winning a Crichton ruck infringement off a fifteen-metre charge, only for Herbert to put it down two tackles later, out on the right, into a plosive low shot from Luai. We were entering another contagiously messy period, as Edwards looked up to the refs for a Proctor penalty as he was playing the ball – and forgot to play it, before the Panthers scrambled to hold up Fifita two tackles out of the subsequent scrum.
They did well to prevent him having much of an impact on this particular play, although he drove his men inside the twenty on the fourth, getting Sexton in place for a crossfield chip that Crichton took clean to work off his own goal line. This was one of the more challenging sets for Penrith, territory-wise, forcing Cleary to boot it just inside his own forty, turning Marzhew around but finally falling just short of a 40/20, as the Titans ground up field again, and Herman Ese’ese trotted onto the park for his first footy since Magic Round last year.
It was turning into a war of attrition, and that in itself was a victory for Gold Coast, especially given Penrith’s enormous second forty against Canberra last week. For a second time, Cleary came close to a 40/20, but Brimson brought it back from the sideline this time, while Thommo sent his next one high from the halfway line, securing the Titans’ biggest bomb so far, and even better, getting an Edwards knock-on out of it. The Panthers promptly sent it upstairs, but didn’t get any joy, so the visitors had well and truly won this last battle of the boot.
After so many mid-set mistakes, the Titans needed to secure a repeat set and apply some pressure here. They were inside the twenty on the second play, and the ten a play later, where Sexton was slammed to ground by Kikau, before Sam Lisone, still relatively fresh off the bench, made big contact with Scott Sorensen. In the end, it was pretty anticlimactic, as the halves never got it to Fifita, and May cleaned up the kick without too much trouble, only for Tago to become the next man to fumble the play-the-ball with three and a half minutes to go.
Kelly charged it over the red line on tackle one, Marzhew over the ten on tackle two, Clark knocked it sideways, Lisone dragged the action into the middle of the park, and Ese’ese offloaded back to Clark on the left, but to no avail. It all came down to the kick, and the Titans got it back, shifting it from hand to hand until Fifita came up with the critical drive across the park, along with the offload that set up Smith for a second boot back to the right, where Marzhew scooped it and up and slammed over for the first try of the night.
This was a great kick from Smith, but in spirit the assist also belonged to Fifita’s barnstorming run. On the cusp of our first scoreless halftime of the season, and only the fifth since the start of 2020, the Titans had done the unthinkable and come away with four unanswered points when Sexton missed the conversion, putting pressure on Penrith to deliver a second stanza to rival last week’s game at the foot of the mountains. With 6/11 errors, the Panthers also had to tidy up their organisation and discipline when they returned from the sheds.
On the other side of the Steeden, the only team to concede more than a hundred points this season had kept the premiers to nil at the break – a bitter pill for Penrith to swallow, so it wasn’t surprising that Cleary opted for a two-point field goal for pride on the siren, but sailed it to the left of the posts. Gold Coast had the first set back, and Brimson took the kickoff, before Lisone took the first hit-up and Smith sent it all the way to the right corner, forcing the Panthers to really wrestle for position on their first carry since the sheds.
May did well to make twenty metres up the left, and shifted it back for Tago to continue his momentum, which he did by bumping off a big Herbert tackle, only to lose it into the follow-up Gold Coast effort. He got some joy soon enough, however, scoring on the very next set, which came early off a Kelly penalty. After the Titans had fielded so many Cleary grubbers in the opening stanza, his first boot back turned into an assist – pinpoint up the left edge, where Kikau would have scored if he hadn’t tripped over Herbert, leaving it open for Tago.
The break had come and gone, but in football time the Panthers had scored on their next complete set after Marzhew’s crossover. Cleary hoisted it high at the end of the restart, and Brimson caught it while falling onto his back. Gold Coast did well to hold their own on the next set, even if Fifita didn’t get the offload away on the right, but Penrith took it up another level with a superb Edwards kick return, setting up Staines to almost reach halfway on the first carry. As it turned out, that was all they needed to extend their lead.
They did it in the most spectacular way – by consolidating and congealing around Cleary as their guiding light. Koroisau got the play going with good dummy half service to his halfback, who popped a short one out to Kikau, who was the top offloader at Penrith in 2022 with sixteen to his name (and the third highest in the comp) but only got his first chance at second phase tonight now. He made the most of it, flicking the footy back for Cleary to complete this superb sequence by smashing through Fermor and Lisone, then converting his own try.
All of a sudden, the Titans had gone from a 4-0 lead to starting down another suffocating back forty from Penrith, as Kikau wasted no time in getting a second offload away on the restart. Gold Coast survived, although a shallow Smith boot ended up paying unexpected dividends when Martin was pinged for kick pressure. With a full set on the Penrith line, the visitors had to hit back here, but the mountain men were amped from back-to-back tries, and held their line staunchly, making it doubly surprising when Sorensen knocked on Sexton’s grubber.
For the second time, the Titans had a full set on the line, and then a third, with a Crichton offside, while Sexton’s boot did the job in two consecutive sets, this time with a deft grubber to the right that Crichton had no option but to lob into touch. By this stage, Gold Coast had a bout of position to rival Penrith’s opening assault on their line, and nabbed even more when Lisone made a half-break, and played the ball fast enough to force an illegal Fish strip, before Clark took a crack from dummy half, and Ese’ese didn’t quite have time to follow in his wake.
When the Panthers got the ball back, they were physically tired, but psychologically invigorated by withstanding all this defence on their line, and quickly accelerated back into first gear with a Koroisau-Staines offload up the middle that laid the platform for a big Cleary boot to restore the balance of field position. Now Gold Coast were trapped down their own end, where only a pair of offloads from Kelly and Fotuaika allowed them to break the forty, but with Fermor’s second phase called forward further up the park, the Panthers got it back.
The error got the Panthers into the red zone on tackle two, and yet the set fragmented with some Edwards indecision beside the right post, which Luai tried to recoup with an assertive grubber that was much too hard off the boot. Penrith might have recovered the lead with that brief surge after the break, but we were well and truly back to the arm wrestle of the first forty once a hand in the ruck from Soni Luke piggybacked Gold Coast down to Penrith’s end, where Fifita put it down, and May consummated his previous run up the right edge.
No sooner had this happened Smith put in one of the best chases of his career, getting a hold of May’s jersey and bringing him down five metres out with the most clinical low shot of the game. May’s run had come off a Tago pickup, so it was frustrating to see Tago close it out with an uninspired play – barging through Brimson and Smith at close range, before reaching the Steeden behind his head, with very little control or direction, and inevitably losing it into Tanah Boyd’s thigh as another four Penrith points went begging.
Soon after, Gold Coast got a full set in the ten with a Luai offside, as Tago made his way back from that disastrous putdown with a big one-on-one on Fifita, and Cleary took Sexton’s kick under pressure, in what turned out to be a fairly average set from the visitors. Nevertheless, they got a chance to reprise this close-range assault when Edwards knocked on the next high ball, in his third error of the evening. True to the spirit of this game, with its rapid bursts of position, they got a restart on the first play, due to another illegal strip, this time from Luke.
True to this game, too, Fotuaika fumbled it while getting off the ground on tackle two, as the Titans sent it upstairs for a challenge they were never going to win. This next set was Penrith’s chance to ice the victory, but good post-contacts from Yeo and a towering kick from Cleary weren’t enough to do the job, as Sexton got tumbled to ground to take the high ball, and held on for dear life as the chase careened over him, before Marzhew took a warrior-like hit that got him a poke in the eye and ricocheted his mouthguard out onto the grass.
Bad news now came down from the sheds – Fifita, who had left shortly after his big hit on Tago, had sustained an injury, and wouldn’t be returning. With eleven minutes on the clock, Justin Holbrook had used up his bench, while the Titans had never recovered from a 2-6 start to make finals, so all eyes were on big Tino to carve up the metres needed to narrow the 12-4 deficit. Yeo continued to lead up the middle, building this time on a good dummy half dash from Luke, and Thommo second-guessed himself under Cleary’s next bomb to the left.
It was almost fatal, and the Panthers got some bad luck here, since while they recovered the footy, they were pinged for a knock-on, despite the fact that Thompson (it seemed) hadn’t pulled back quite enough to prevent the Steeden ricocheting off his boot. As the Titans got the ball back, the most volatile period in some time now ensued, as Fermor was taken out by Luke after the kick, Smith got to a second kick, and then slammed into May to force a knock-on into the collect, only for Smith to eventually leak the penalty for backchat.
This was the lowest point of the game for Gold Coast, so it was fortunate that Penrith didn’t cross over then and there, although they got more position when Tago kicked on the left, Thommo ground it in goal, and Herbert was pinged for a shoulder charge on Tago, even though he’d clearly made a good faith-effort to wrap the arms. He came from the field a moment later for an HIA, despite gesticulating that he only had a broken nose, as Clark left the bench for the final four minutes, and Penrith ground in again from close range.
Jaemon Salmon made it over the line three tackles later, and hung poised in mid-air for a couple of seconds, opening up space so subliminally that all Cleary had to do to was pop a deft grubber back to the other wing, where Luai chased it down before getting to his feet for a James Bond impersonation. It was a surprisingly cathartic end to a match that Penrith should have nailed, at least on paper, so they’ll be looking for a big one over Parra next week, while the Titans will need to channel this resilience when they take on the Roosters at the SCG.
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