The NRL’s first ever Magic Round gets underway at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium this Thursday when the Gold Coast meets Cronulla.
The Sharks haven’t won at this venue since they beat Brisbane there in 2014, but they’ve already dealt with the Titans once this season courtesy of Round 2’s 20-6 win in the shire.
Looking back further into matches between Cronulla and the Gold Coast unearths a somewhat surprising set of results. Of the last ten times these teams have played, Cronulla have won four, the Gold Coast five and there’s been one draw, an 18-18 deadlock in 2016.
It’s hard to pinpoint a reason why, but when these two get together they tend to put on a tight contest that’s in the balance at the death. The average winning margin from these last ten games is less than a converted try (just 5.5 points), and this average margin is blown out by a 20-point win to the Titans in 2017. Take that out and the average winning margin is a tiny 3.5 points.
There’s also very little difference between the two sides this year in the key statistics. They’re all but even in completion rates (Titans 74 per cent vs Sharks 73 per cent), penalties conceded per game (eight vs seven), errors per game (11 vs 12), average offloads (10 vs 12), average linebreaks (three vs four), kicking and running metres, tackles – you name it.
So it needs to be asked: if they’re so evenly matched on so much of the data, how is it that Cronulla have two more wins and a points differential 50 points better than the Titans? The answer is in the defence. The Titans sit sixth worst in the NRL with 33 missed tackles each week. Cronulla miss 27. For context, the league’s best is Manly, who miss only 24 tackles per game.
Cronulla fight and grind in defence and are conceding 19 points per game. The Titans let their opponent in for 24 points each week. Gold Coast also miss tackles in bad spots on the field, which allows their opposition to score and is a big contributor to their NRL-worst 191 points conceded.
There’s also a question of application. The Titans have been in competitive positions in games against Wests Tigers, South Sydney and North Queensland but have either lacked the killer punch or dropped away in defence after making a positive start.
So the Gold Coast look like they’re once again rolling through a season of underachievement and frustration. Coach Garth Brennan is under pressure for his club’s 2-6 record, the game-day management of his squad (particularly his use of young gun AJ Brimson) and the general underperformance of a team littered with quality players.
Brimson has been named at five-eighth alongside Ash Taylor, with Taylor’s regular halves partner and captain Tyrone Roberts ruled out after running out of time to recover from a concussion received against the Cowboys.
Twenty-year-old fullback Jesse Arthars is also in the squad for his first-grade debut.
Gold Coast have missed the on-field leadership of Ryan James and Nathan Peats, who are both out with long-term injuries, but with the talent on the roster there’s really no excuses for sitting 14th on the table.
The Titans haven’t won away from their home ground this year from five attempts and there’s a chance tonight to right that wrong.
Are the Sharks in form? It’s a tough question to answer. They’ve had to scrap, no doubt. Cronulla turned away Melbourne 20-18 last week in a result that shocked everyone, especially after the Storm took the lead early on. It was a magnificent effort by an undermanned, young side.
Cronulla’s try scorers last Friday were Braden Hamlin-Uele, Briton Nikora and Sione Katoa, who between them have played 29 first-grade games. It was a rousing win, but it came off an abject performance against the struggling Broncos at this same venue the previous week.
The Sharks have had bad injury fortunes with Paul Gallen, Aaron Woods, Shaun Johnson, Matt Moylan, Andrew Fifita, Josh Dugan and others either missing time or playing through injury. Coach John Morris should be commended for his ability to get his side to a 4-4 record and seventh spot on the table despite the impact on their elite players.
It’s an interesting match selection to kick off the regular season’s feature event, but when you think about it, having two teams with a recent history of tight finishes could be a good Thursday ‘settler’ for the rugby league avalanche to come.
There’s plenty riding on the outcome for both teams, but the Titans have the most to lose. If they can’t play to their potential against a wounded yet dangerous opponent, they’ll get beaten soundly, but their talent should be able to get the job done tonight.
Gold Coast by a field goal.
1. Michael Gordon, 2. Anthony Don, 3. Tyrone Peachey, 4. Brian Kelly, 5. Dale Copley, 6. Alexander Brimson, 7. Ash Taylor, 8. Jarrod Wallace, 9. Mitch Rein, 10. Shannon Boyd, 11. Kevin Proctor, 12. Bryce Cartwright, 13. Jai Arrow.
Interchange: 14. Jesse Arthars, 15. Moeaki Fotuaika, 16. Keegan Hipgrave, 17. Max King, 18. Jack Stockwell, 19. Jai Whitbread
1. Josh Dugan, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Bronson Xerri, 4. Josh Morris, 5. Aaron Gray, 6. Kyle Flanagan, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Jayden Brailey, 10. Matt Prior, 11. Briton Nikora, 12. Kurt Capewell, 13. Paul Gallen
Interchange: 14. Blayke Brailey, 15. Jayson Bukuya, 16. Jack Williams, 17. Braden Hamlin-uele, 18. Scott Sorensen, 19. Sione Katoa
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