Cronulla produced the first Houdini act of Magic Round, somehow escaping with a 26-18 win over the Titans in the event’s opening match at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night.
The Titans looked to have the game under control at halftime, with an 18-10 lead a fitting reward for patches of quality football, as Ash Taylor staked his claim for the Queensland State of Origin No.7 jersey with another impressive performance pulling the strings for the Gold Coast.
But Cronulla, ravaged with injury and with momentum against them, somehow managed to get out of jail to consign the Titans to a third straight defeat.
The Sharks had a hand picking the lock though, with the usual suspects of errors and poor discipline bringing the Titans’ good work undone.
Penalties were again the smoking gun that blew a hole in the Titans’ chances, and it was a penalty goal to Kyle Flanagan that split the two teams in the 75th minute when he booted the Sharks to a 20-18 lead.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen then arrived with a healthy dose of salt for the Gold Coast’s wounds, scoring under the posts and kicking the conversion as well, to blow the final score out and put the Titans’ finals hopes on life support.
Incredibly, for the third week in a row, the Titans game started with an early error.
While the calamity between AJ Brimson and Jarrod Wallace that saw the kick-off go down seemed like a disaster at the time, Titans fans with an appreciation of omens would not have been too upset.
Two weeks ago, Tigers five-eighth Josh Reynolds dropped the ball on the kick-off. But the Titans lost.
Last weekend, Cowboys lock Jason Taumalolo came up with an error after 30 seconds. But the Titans lost.
So, if recent history was any guide, the Titans just had to weather the early storm and hang on to win.
But someone forgot to give Cronulla a copy of that script.
Those Storm clouds darkened considerably when Cronulla rode a glut of possession and field position to lead 4-0 after 11 minutes through a try to Josh Morris.
But before the Titans could think about conjuring a comeback, it looked like the first major trick of Magic Round was making front-rowers disappear, with Titans prop Shannon Boyd (concussion) and Sharks giant Andrew Fifita (hamstring) both done for the game by the 12th minute.
Even without big bopper Boyd, the Titans started to slowly shake off their errors and get into their rhythm.
Dale Copley did well to latch onto a wayward Taylor pass to score in the 19th minute, before Morris scored again for the Sharks to regain the lead at 10-6.
But the seeds of confidence sown last weekend against the Cowboys really started to grow when Brimson snaffled an intercept in the 26th minute while hiding in plain sight in Cronulla’s attacking line, winning the 40m sprint to the line to score and kick-start his team.
Debutant Jesse Arthars looked like he had a slice of magic all of his own, claiming a try with his very first touch of the ball in first grade only seconds after coming onto the field in the 28th minute.
Arthars had been presented with his first Titans jersey before the game by his father in an emotional moment for the Arthars family, and they would have been in raptures when he looked to have sneaked into the corner after stealing a wonderful long kick to the corner from Taylor.
The video referee ruled that Sharks winger Aaron Gray had taken the ball into touch, and denied the try. That seemed unlucky, but Arthars could consider himself lucky in one respect – he was lucky to avoid being crushed as his overjoyed Titans teammates piled on top of him in the in-goal area to celebrate what they thought was a fair try.
Incredibly, Arthars was denied again just six minutes later, with Gray proving good enough to roll the young Titans into touch with his first NRL try within touching distance.
But the Titans had one more trick up their sleeve before halftime, with another majestic kick from the boot of Taylor – this time a perfectly-weighted grubber into the in-goal – delivering a try to Tyrone Peachey on a platter.
That try and Michael Gordon’s conversion gave the Titans a well-earned 18-10 lead at the break and gave the thousands of fans that made the trek north hope that it was going to be the Gold Coast’s night.
SHARKS 26 (Josh Morris 2, Aaron Gray 2, Paul Gallen tries; Kyle Flanagan 2, Gallen goals) d TITANS 18 (Dale Copley, AJ Brimson, Tyrone Peachey tries; Michael Gordon 3 goals) at Suncorp Stadium. Crowd: 17,113