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The Titans have set the cat among the Finals pigeons with a 22-13 boilover victory that kept their hopes alive, mathematically at least, while bringing the Cowboys back to the pack of top eight contenders.
The Cowboys were on a six game streak, while the Gold Coast hadn’t won in four, but an early second half blitz was enough to give interim coach Jim Lenihan a second victory in charge.
Now, the ladder has North Queensland level with Souths and Canberra on 11 wins, ahead of Parramatta and Cronulla on ten and ahead of Manly and Newcastle on nine, plus a draw. Four from those seven will make it.
The Titans would have to win out from here – highly unlikely given their famous inconsistency – but they were by far the better side today.
Their wide attack was excellent, making a strong Cowboys defence look pedestrian. They were assisted by a sin bin for Val Holmes, who having gone almost 200 games without a sin bin, was sat down for the second time in two rounds.
This week’s shot was a lot worse than the one that levelled Mitchell Moses, with the centre catching Jayden Campbell direct in the face with a heavy hit. It would be surprising if he was not suspended.
Reece Robson, too, is a doubt for the rest of the year after leaving early with what appeared to be a broken jaw.
The Titans enigma
On the commentary, Andrew Voss described the Titans as “frustratingly good”, and it was easy to see why. They aren’t awful, but they also utterly, completely are.
Among all teams in the NRL, they have the biggest gap between their best and worst, often within the same game, making them dangerous for anyone with something to play for, but also liable to fall over and make your afternoon incredibly easy.
This is a side that has won defeated the Broncos and the Storm, as well as Parramatta and now the Cowboys, but also lost to the Dolphins, Bulldogs and the Dragons. Last week, they were 30-0 down to the Roosters, who have no attack.
We got a clear reminder of what the Titans do within the first ten minutes.
They scored a great try, shredding the Cowboys’ edge defence from deep. Then they drop the ball after points and concede.
They send the kick off out on the full and concede again. If ever there was an encapsulation of why they lose so much, that was it.
Yet, this time, they refused to go away. When they’re hot they can put on points fast and did that straight after half time with two tries in five minutes that turned the game around.
There’s so much speed in the backline that even the Cowboys, who are among the very best defensively, couldn’t cope.
On the other side of the footy, they did just about enough. The Gold Coast have made a habit of scoring plenty and losing anyway, but showed an unexpected amount of resilience to keep North Queensland at bay.
Kieran Foran showed all his experience to manage the game out at the Cowboys’ end of the field while AJ Brimson and Jayden Campbell also showed composure to force repeat sets at the end.
The Cowboys attack fails them
North Queensland’s mid-season revival has been based almost entirely on their defence, which has been able to shut down almost all comers in the last six weeks.
Today, though, it was the old problems in attack that came to the fore. They were far too conservative with ball in hand and failed to generate any pressure, accumulating a full ten fewer sets in possession than the Titans.
The Gold Coast are among the least resilient defensive units around, but weren’t asked enough questions over a long enough period to see them crack.
Just one line break – and none after half time – told its own story. This year, the Cowboys have benefited from exceptional moments from Tom Dearden and Scott Drinkwater, but both were shut down completely today.
Only in the latter stages did they put enough air under the football to challenge a notoriously shaky Titans edge defence.
This is what failed the Cowboys at the pointy end last year. In the Preliminary Final, the spine wasn’t quite at the level of Parramatta, who always had the better ability to score points.
This was like watching a repeat. When Dearden and Drinkwater don’t fire, the lack of other options stands out.
Chad Townsend, while a good organiser and kicker, is just a level below in creativity, with few ball-playing options in the forward pack with Jeremiah Nanai injured and Robson departing this game early.