ROUND 11: Gold Coast Titans v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Cbus Super Stadium, 22/5/22, 18-25)
Cronulla had something to prove when they made the trip up to Cbus to meet Gold Coast on Sunday afternoon. Not only had they been in a win-loss holding pattern since Round 5, but they’d suffered their most disappointing loss of the season to the Raiders in Magic Round, when they’d trailed 20-0 at the break. They hadn’t lost back to back yet though, while the Titans hadn’t won back to back, and were keen to make the most of Jayden Campbell’s return to the park, and lean into their best win of the year, a field goal over St. George at Suncorp.
In other words, the Titans were keen to draw on the rhythm of Magic Round, while the Sharkies had to disavow it, making for a remarkably entertaining arm wrestle that saw Cronulla utterly dominate the second quarter, but fail to really make much of it, as a Titans outfit with only 5% of position in the last ten minutes managed to head to the sheds 6-6. That same resilience saw Gold Coast almost bounce back, in the dying minutes, from an utterly sublime Cronulla third quarter that added yet another notch in Nicho Hynes’ halfback belt.
Adding to the drama was 27-year old Lachie Miller making his NRL debut at fullback, where he started the game, before the Sharkies extended their first set deep into Gold Coast territory thanks to an early crowding penalty for Esan Marsters. Toby Rudolf dragged it to the twenty on tackle two, and Nicho Hynes set up a right sweep for Connor Tracey to break the ten, before it all came apart on the other wing, where Graham tried to thread the needle through a very narrow gap, only to find the footy ricocheting back towards the other end.
Marsters now made up for his error by scooping up the footy and making ten metres before he was trapped by Miller, but even so the Titans were over halfway by tackle three, and were sweeping left a play after that. Keen to contine the momentum of this sudden turnaround, Toby Sexton chipped a quick one to the right edge, where Ronaldo Mulitalo was secure in a sea of light blue jerseys. The Sharks embarked upon their second set, without a restart this time, but got the augmented position on their third set, thanks to a Moeaki Fotuaika flop.
Hynes was already in organisation mode, feeding it to left and right, and playing a role in virtually every tackle, culminating with a double pump that Miller didn’t quite capitalise upon, resulting in the simplest changeover of the game so far. Matt Moylan, too, could have brought more vision to this final tackle, opting to run the footy when he would have done better to grubber it through for the extra set, although perhaps he was spooked from seeing the outcome of Graham’s attempt to do just that at the end of their first set of the afternoon.
Sexton booted his next one over the sideline, partly to give his men some breathing-space, but possibly also because both the Titans needed to reset after a spotty opening period. Sure enough, they got their first close-range position a few plays later, off a loose carry from Briton Nikora, who seemed to feel that AJ Brimson had got a hand to it, but made the right decision not to resort to a challenge. Cronulla steeled their defence at the twenty, making it hard for the Titans to make metres, and forcing them to dig deep for their first foray into the ten.
They went for a particularly risky play with a slippery Steeden, as Sexton drove it into the line, and shifted it across to Campbell, who in turn popped it on for Marsters to attempt a miracle flick assist for Jamayne Isaako that was always going to sail over the sideline. The Sharks had showed some real defensive grit here, and Mulitalo channelled it into a tough chase to prevent Campbell making a single metre on the next return, setting up an equally strong defensive set that saw Sexton forced to put boot to ball well within the Gold Coast forty.
A touch in the tackle from Erin Clark bumped Cronulla into Titans territory once again, and with so much field position to their name it was starting to seem surprising they hadn’t scored. Royce Hunt tried to correct that with a massive individual charge beside the right padding, and while Moylan summoned a desperate pack to just hold him up, Hunt got his own back in the same spot at the end of the set, where Beau Fermor tried to muscle the Steeden over the chalk, but found a Hunt-led pack equally determined to drive him back in goal.
This had to be the first consolidation point for the Sharkies, or else they were at risk of conceding the flow back to the hosts, so it was rousing to see the Titans step up – first with some well organised defence to shut down a promising right sweep, and then with an absolutely brilliant play from Isaako, who charged up from the dead ball line, and leaped a metre and a half through the air, to seize the Steeden directly in front of Mulitalo’s face, bobbling it once before securing it while managing to elude Siosifa Talakai for a beat too.
It was the kind of one-man play that immediately galvanises a team, and with an escorts from Hynes and a ruck error from Graham, the Titans were in full footy flow, deep in the groove of their Magic Round flourishing, providing the Sharks with a masterclass in both footwork and grunt, as Brimson danced from left to right, eluding Tracey first and foremost but unsettling the entire Cronulla line. Finally, he popped a short one back inside for Jarrod Wallace to simply step through a Graham legs tackle and smash through Miller for a try beside the left post.
Well might Wallace have risen to his feet with a resounding roar, so perfectly did this echo his Suncorp putdown, as well as the burly try that Hunt had attempted a couple of minutes before. Isaako bookended this whole brilliant sequence with an easy two, and the Titans got another shot with a Talakai ruck error a set later, only for Rudolf to step up with a tough enough tackle to force a Fotuaika cough-up, in what had the potential to be a rhythm-changer as the second quarter got rolling – until Hynes had a rare miss with a forward ball to Graham.
Hunt had been raring for a big play ever since his near-putdown and his dropout assist, and helped get the Sharkies on track again now by following Rudolf’s hit on Foutaika with a sharp shot on Wallace, who coughed up the footy as well. Three tackles later, he took three Titans to hold him up on the right, laying the platform for the first prodigious Cronulla sequence, as Nikora banged into a mammoth legs shot from Brimson, but ended up using the pressure as a pivot to spin around and flick the second phase back for some eyes up footy from Brailey.
Seeing that Corey Thompson was far off his wing, the young hooker held the Steeden up for a moment, dishevelling the Gold Coast backliner into a strange leap, as if he was trying to prepare for every possible pass, only to end up unable to accommodate any of them, least of all the beautiful wide ball that Brailey spiralled across for Tracey to slam down their first four in the corner. Hynes booted through a stunning sideline conversion, and the Sharkies were back in business, with Aiden Tolman trotting off the bench to give Hunt a well earned rest.
The next Cronulla hitback came a set later, when Tino spearheaded a three-man tackle to almost drag Talakai into touch, and Campbell came up with a Sione Katoa tap-on beneath a Cronulla chip to the wing. The hosts remained in their own end this time, but they hadn’t conceded a penalty, or given the Sharkies another chance, since Tracey’s try, so they might well resume their rhythm if they could continue to defend well now – and defend they did, rousing some of their most spirited plays to counter the visitors’ strongest set of the game.
Not only did Gold Coast shut down a dangerous left edge burst, but they synergised their spine brilliantly on the last, when Nikora found himself with the footy on the edge of the field, looked set to pass before Brimson got him by the waist, and then looked set to offload before Campbell stormed in for his toughest tackle so far – a good riposte to his extraordinary offload through Brimson in the buildup to Tracey’s putdown. With Hynes forced to kick his next one within the forty, and unable to put much of a spin on it, the Titans had a real chance now.
It may not have been a chance to score yet, since they were barely at their thirty by the kick, but it was a chance to continue shifting the narrative, while the Sharkies were now even more dominant than they had been in the first ten minutes, but without another try to show for it. Gold Coast needed a big blustery effort to keep it all up, and accordingly targeted the least experienced member of the Cronulla spine – Miller, who found himself bundled unceremoniously to touch by a Marsters-led pack hungry for another try before the break.
Cbus took on a new gloom then, on this dour winter evening, when Sami coughed up the footy – and it deepened when Clark got done for being offside within the ten a second later. Isaako made it a trio of errors at the end of the set, when he tried to reprise his earlier brilliance on the left wing, as well as Marsters’ opening play off Graham’s grubber, but knocked on instead. Add a Brimson offside, and it felt like Cronulla had to score their second try here, with the first full set on the line of the game, as Gold Coast reached peak pressure.
True to the spirit of this sodden arm-wrestle, however, and in a testament to the resilience of the Gold Coast defence, the Sharkies failed to captalise, while Clark delivered the simplest and cleanest defensive play of the first quarter, reading Brailey’s intentions brilliantly to put his hand on the footy as Graham was lunging for it, instead of knocking it dead, or attempting to bring it back in field. The modesty and efficiency of that play tided Gold Coast over to the break, while Brailey took out his frustration with an illegal strip ten seconds from the siren.
Gold Coast had only enjoyed 30% of possession and 5% of territory over the last ten minutes, so this defensive triumph was a real gee up when they returned from the sheds to a home crowd that had sunk even deeper into the drizzly murk. Sam Lisone marked the second stanza with a huge opening carry, galvanising Sam McIntyre into a mammoth run that tempted an illegal strip from Hynes, as the hosts ground in to work their way back from only a quarter of field position in the first forty, hitting the red zone with two tackles left to make an impact.
Katoa defused the high ball well, giving his men their first attacking chance since the break, as the rain suddenly intensified over Cbus, and Talakai muscled his way over the red zone to wake up his men, and get them off their own line. Mulitalo built on it by breaking into space up the left edge, transforming what might have been one of the Sharkies’ most positionally limited sets of the night into their best set of the night, by flicking the footy back inside for Hynes to come full circle after his error by slamming over untouched for another four.
In spirit, this felt like a single end-to-end run, so seamless had the Sharkies been during this last sequence, thanks to a brilliant dummy half run from Miller, the dexterity of Talakai’s linebreak assist to Mulitalo on the wing, the dexterity with which Ronaldo reached out one hand to rein it in, and finally the precision of his fifteen-metre bullet ball inside to his fullback in the face of both Isaako and Isaac Liu. Hynes bent it through from the sideline, and the Sharks consolidated on the restart – until Nikora flicked it forward on the penultimate play.
You couldn’t really blame him, since the rain was torrential now, even if wet weather footy had recently become the standard conditions on the east coast of Australia. In any case the Titans didn’t do much with the position, grinding their way inside the ten until Miller collected the high ball as clinically as Katoa before him. Katoa, like Talakai, made good metres to get his men off their line, before Hynes went for a different kind of end-to-end play, booting it on the third, just outside his own thirty, and slotting it all the way to the Gold Coast ten.
The hosts were waning a bit now, unable to accumulate too much position, while Fermor failed to get the offload away midway up the park, so it was every bit as dramatic a turnaround as Hynes’ putdown – at least initially – when Campbell delivered the best Gold Coast kick of the night. The bounce was completely unpredictable, defying Miller as Marsters leaped up, and batted the Steeden into the crossbar, meaning it was no try by the time that Jaimin Jolliffe twisted over beneath it. Still, this was a terrific rhythm-shifter if the Titans could build on it.
Brailey reclaimed the momentum just as quickly, continuing Cronulla’s ceaseless drive up the middle with a dummy half break, and while he didn’t find anyone in support, he did lay a platform for Hynes to trap Campbell behind the line with a sneaky grubber in goal. They were inside the ten by tackle two of the dropout, and only needed one more play after that, as Hynes followed his try with an equally scintillating assist, and returned the wide ball favour back to Mulitalo with a soaring harbour bridge that brought his men to a ten point lead.
Another assured sideline kick made it a two converted try lead, and while Gold Coast would hit back, they would never quite get over the brilliance of these last ten minutes, which felt like one more pivotal moment in Hynes’ vision in the Cronulla halfback jersey. Katoa anchored the restart well, dummying to the left before eating up some critical metres, while Rudolf and Graham followed in his wake, and Brailey followed Hynes by booting it early in the tackle count, as Moylan led the chase to prevent Campbell bringing it beyond his own twenty.
By this stage, the Sharks looked like a totally different team from the first stanza – crisper, sharper and more direct – and they brought that new approach to an apotheosis by offering an even more dramatic end-to-end effort than the Mulitalo-Hynes combo, especially because this one came off a second threatening Campbell kick. This time it was a towering bomb, but Miller had learned the lesson of the oblique bounce now, collecting it in both hands, as Sexton swung out an arm in the only semblance of defence the Titans would manage to muster.
In fact, the sheer unpredictability of the bounce probably worked against Gold Coast, since none of them were ready for the 27-year old debutant to thread his way through the line and outpace the entire squad to slam the Steeden down untouched, bringing the Sharkies to quadruple their hosts once Hynes booted through another two. Miller’s roar of triumph was all but aunnswerable here, and while Cronulla would only land a single field goal between now and the end of the match, they had more than enough energy to contain a Titans hitback.
The sky blue got their next chance at the end of the following set, when Mulitalo caught Isaako in the air, but the slippery footy got the best of Fermor a few plays later, as the Sharks got rolling once again with a scrum just outside their thirty. Teig Wilton came dangerously close to breaking through a Sexton tackle on the fourth, but Campbell put his body on the line for the individual play that Gold Coast needed – sliding along the turf to take a Hynes grubber that seemed destined to produce a dropout, as the full weight of Nikora barraged into him.
Not only did he get the footy back, but Hynes was out of marker a beat later, allowing the Titans to finally apply some pressure as Sexton went grubber for grubber with Nicho, and Miller stepped up again in defence, batting it into touch a millisecond before Brimson put it down. Once again, though, the hosts capitulated just as they were tightening the screws, conceding yet another scrum off a Liu error. Add to that a successful Cronulla challenge to show Talakai’s handling was true, and they were close to regaining their third quarter flow.
Again, Hynes kicked early, this time with a chip midway up the park, and again it did the job, forcing the Titans to work it back from their own twenty. Yet a crusher from Rudolf on Marsters undid this recent resurgence of Sharks energy, and while Tino was unable to get away the offload a play later, Liu and Wallace consolidated with tough charges into the ten, where Campbell searched restlessly for an option on the right side. If Sexton could create pressure with the kick it might come together, but instead Katoa took it clean on the chalk.
For the first time since the break, however, Cronulla genuinely struggled to work it out of their own end, so when Hynes booted another one from his forty it felt more expedient than strategic, a way of ensuring that, even if they didn’t make it into Gold Coast territory, the failure would be on their terms. Meanwhile, the hosts were still searching for the visionary play they needed to capitalise on this ebb from the visitors, but Campbell didn’t get a chance to fire on the edge again after a three-man Talakai-led pack bumped Liu over the sideline.
Still, a Rudolf cough-up early in the count provided them with one last chance, and with only twelve minutes on the clock, the Titans had to consolidate now if they were going to have any shot at a comeback. To their credit, that’s just what they did, as Wallace drove it deep into line and popped out an offload for Tanah Boyd to almost break through beside the post – just the elasticity that Gold Coast needed, setting up Campbell for another crack out on the right wing, and then a grubber in the same spot that Wilton cleaned up for a fifty metre charge.
This may have been a great play from the Cronulla 16, but Wallace’s second phase had breathed a new life into the home team, and when Wilton knocked it on after coming to ground, the sky blue were primed to score. Sexton double pumped and almost broke through the line, the Titans focused their energy on the left, and in a fairytale finish Wallace made good on his offload, and came full circle from his opening try, by scooping up a precarious Sexton grubber than only just cleared the line, juggled it, and somehow reined it back in.
This was extraordinary enough ball handling in such sodden conditions, but Wallace capped it off by slicing over for his first double since Round 19 last year, bringing his men to twelve once Isaako popped through the kick from right in front. With eight minutes on the clock, they had to play entrepreneurial rugby league now, so they swept across the park on play one of the restart, before Sexton set up Marsters to charge down the short side into the third on tackle three, as Tino barged his way into Trindall to lay the platform for a sharp Brimson bomb.
A sea of Sharks and Titans descended on it in goal, where Katoa mounted a mammoth effort to bring it back in field, and Sami succumbed to a knee issue that left the Titans with twelve against thirteen as they fronted up against a Cronulla outfit raring to touch the footy again. More direct running, more rapid play-the-balls, and another deft Hynes grubber meant that the visitors were back on the front foot in terms of position immediately, forcing Sexton to extemporise a hasty midfield chip that Trindall collected like it was a weekday training run.
Hynes ended with a high one to the right edge, where Brimson collected it after three waves of Sharkies missed it, bringing the game to peak volatility, as Mulitalo overreacted to AJ popping a boot in his shoulder when he downed him with a heroic ankle tap, and Wallace overreacted even more dramatically to that. It took a good minute to dissociate the fracas, before a Katoa second effort bumped Gold Coast back into enemy territory, in what might well be their last chance to commence a comeback before the final siren rang over Cbus.
They had two plays remaining when a Hynes touch got them six again, bringing us to a grandstand finish when Boyd promptly fed the footy out for Campbell to deliver one of his best passes of the game to Marsters, who dummied for Isaako, fooled Mulitalo, and smashed over for four himself, while big Jamayne got his moment in the spotlight with a curving kick that reduced the deficit to six with three on the clock. Imagine the home crowd’s agony, then, when Wallace set his sights on the defence, and lost the footy forward on the very first play.
It was like a horrible hallucination of the bobble he had regathered so spectacularly for that second try, and from here the Titans were all done, as a Sexton error paved the way for Hynes to crown one more scintillating statement in the Cronulla jersey with a field goal, committing so thoroughly to the end that he found himself sent to the bin for a desperate professional foul right on the siren. The Sharkies will be pumped for next week’s stint against the Roosters, then, while Gold Coast have some soul-searching to do before heading back to Suncorp.
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