Never have the Aquis Titans begun a game with such flair, and it almost paid off against Melbourne Storm yesterday.
They went into the round 16 game against Sydney Roosters with a similar attitude. The coaching staff felt conventional football may not be enough against a Storm side who control the ruck with bodies in the tackle and wrestle on the ground as well as any team.
The Storm and Roosters are easily the best defensive sides in the NRL; the Roosters had conceded just 42 tries before this round and Melbourne 53.
The Storm were taken by surprise with the amount of offloads and wide shifts from the Titans in the opening 10 minutes. And the confidence was growing amongst the Titans, even though Melbourne got over the line five tries in the first half but all but one of those chances were pulled back for forward passes, knock on or a hand into touch.
The Storm are the best team at the ruck, with their wrestle and slowing of the play the ball. By taking them by surprise with quick shifts and second phase, the Titans got to their edges and often had two Storm men in the tackle rather than three, and were able to get quick play the balls and forward momentum.
At 8-0 after 18 minutes the Titans had their tails up and the Storm’s defence had been rattled. It was appropriate Daniel Mortimer, Aidan Sezer and Kane Elgey had combined for the try because they were in the thick of the early momentum.
It was 8-6 at half-time, after Storm’s architect Cooper Cronk had eased himself into the match, gone infield from a right side raid and put Matt Duffie over. But the worst thing for the Titans, and the best thing for the Storm, was the half-time break.
The Titans had offloaded 13 times in the first 40 minutes, well above the season average of 10 a match. They went wide early, particularly to Greg Bird, James Roberts and David Mead on the right.
It was always a matter of whether the Titans could maintain the attacking focus and defend well enough to give Cronk and his outside men limited chances to get return fire. In the end, they couldn’t.
Only briefly was the momentum not in the Storm’s favour from half-time. Melbourne found an extra gear and the Titans could not. In fact, errors and frustration crept in.
However, the score of 22-14 with 13 minutes to go was a more worthy assessment until the Titans fell away to concede three tries in the last 10 minutes of the match as concentration and effort lapsed.
Just three minutes into the second half Storm fullback Cameron Munster, a more than capable fill-in for the injured Bill Slater, had gone to the left and combined with Kurt Mann to put winger Marika Koroibete over two tackles after David Mead had fumbled a Cronk bomb under pressure.
Then Munster scored himself 11 minutes later from a neat Blake Green inside pass, and Duffie scored his second from a Cronk bomb that Duffie leapt spectacularly above Kalifa Faifai Loa to snatch.
The disappointing aspect of the game was that their defence leaked three tries in the last nine minutes, all down the Titans’ right edge. The second half saw seven Storm line breaks and 18 Titans’ missed tackles.
Nene Macdonald was strong in attack but is still learning about decision making in defence. Sezer was again a stand-out with his direction and composure. Elgey showed how his natural instincts can worry teams and he will improve with every experience. Mortimer was strong in his 28-minute first half stint, James Roberts probed for opportunities with limited success, while Greg Bird worried the Storm on the right edge.
The consistency defensively, and the tendency to give piggy-back penalties at crucial times, counted against the Titans.
Neil Henry summed it up with: "It's a work in progress for some of our young players to be consistent defensively." Greg Bird added: "In the second half, it just wasn't there ... the defensive effort definitely dropped off. Whether fatigue, experience, I don't know."
Yet the unorthodox early approach was encouraging to see in the NRL, a gamble that almost paid dividends – and should be applauded in the era of statistical emphasis and rugby league chess playing.
POSSESSION: Titans 52%, Storm 48%
COMPLETIONS: Titans 74% (25/34), Storm 74% (29/39)
METRES: Storm 1464m, Titans 1393m.
TACKLES MADE: Titans 299 (29 missed), Storm 323 (14).
PENALTIES: Storm 7-5.
TOP TACKLERS: Douglas 33, Mortimer 33, Paasi 28, Burr 26, Bird 26, White 25.
METRES GAINED: Faifai Loa 135 (15 carries), Paasi 111 (13), Macdonald 110 (12), Douglas 103 (12).
MINUTES PLAYED (forwards): Bird 80, James 75, Paasi 54, Douglas 50, White 43, Burr 43, Mortimer 42, Moseley 38, Taylor 33, Hala 22.