Sporting Declaration

SPORTING Declaration has watched numerous lacklustre rugby league games this season, many of which, unfortunately, have involved the Newcastle Knights.
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But without doubt one of the best contests I have seen was Sunday night’s clash betweenSouth Sydney and Gold Coast at Perth’s nib Stadium.

Just before kick-off, I checked my tips and was surprised to discover thatfor some inexplicable reason Ihad chosen the Titans.

This struck me as a misprint, but given it was my own doing, I accepted that I would have to live with it.

So it was with great delight that I watched the underdog Titans rack up a 24-6 lead, only to allow Souths back into the game with a flurry of tries.

A 76th-minute four-pointer by Josh Hoffman appeared to have sealed the deal, then the Bunnies equalised in the dying seconds of normal time.

My heart sank when Adam Reynolds kicked a field goal, prompting jubilant Souths celebrations, only for the video-review bunker to disallow it for a marker infringement.

Then rookie half Ashley Taylor landed a booming drop goal and the Titans had claimed ownership of two crucial competition points.

What struck me as the game went down to the wire was the desperation and intensity of both teams.

Souths had the big-name players and all the momentum. Yet the Titansheld their nerve and, in hindsight, thoroughly deserved the win.

It was a performance that exuded mental toughness and self-belief, and I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Gold Coast’s season thus far with Newcastle’s.

In many ways, the Titans started this campaign in a similar situation to the Knights.

They were widely tipped as wooden spoon contenders, and their record in recent years hardly inspired confidence.

In the previous two seasons, they finished 14th. In 2013 they were ninth, in 2012 11thand last in 2011.

Last season they managed nine wins, just one more than cellar dwellers Newcastle.

At the end of 2015, they parted company with their two senior forwards, Nate Myles and Dave Taylor, their main playmaker in Aidan Sezer and their primary strike weapon, James Roberts.

Throw in the departure ofKevin Gordon, Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa, Brad Tighe, Matt White, Ben Ridge andBeau Falloonand, all up, they lost close to 1000 games in NRL experience.

Not forgetting, of course, that their big hope for 2016 and beyond –Daly Cherry-Evans –reneged on his deal, and that the club was rocked last season by a drugs scandal and insolvencyissues that prompted the NRL to assume control.

Like Newcastle, the odds appeared stacked high against the Titans this year before a ball was kicked.

Yet if both clubs are in a rebuilding phase, it seems the Knights are still drafting up plans, while Gold Coast havealready rolled up their sleeves and started digging trenches.

The Titans’30-12 win against Newcastle in the season-opener was no cause for champagne, and when they were belted 38-0 by Melbourne a month ago, most would have assumed they were destined tofinish the yearas also-rans.

But since then they have strung together three successive wins –28-24 against Penrith, 26-6 against the Roosters and then last weekend against Souths –to climb to eighth on the ladder.

How long it continues is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard not to admire what Titans coach Neil Henry has alreadyachieved, given the resources at his disposal.

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Gold Coast Titans beat Newcastle convincingly in the round-round clash at CBus Super Stadium. Picture: Getty Images

Like Newcastle, Gold Coast are apparently operating on a shoestring budget, limiting their ability to recruit top-end talent.

They made a couple of qualitysignings in Chris McQueen and Nathan Peats, and have gambled on Konrad Hurrell from the Warriors.

The rest of their imports have been either journeymen, rookies or unwanted at their former clubs, like Nathan Friend,David Shillington, Nene Macdonald, Taylor and ex-Knights Tyrone Roberts and Zeb Taia.

Of their incumbentpersonnel, only Greg Bird could be described as an elite-level player, although the likes of Luke Douglas, Ryan James and William Zillman are proven performers, and Agnatius Paasi is fast establishing himself as one of the most explosive ball-carriers in the NRL.

It’s fair to say they’re a motley crew, so what’s their secret?

All I can assume is Henry has somehow instilled in his troops a sense of confidence and never-say-die resilience.

You don’t produceboiloverslike they did last Sunday without lashingsof team spirit and will to win.

When the pressure is on, good teams dig in and back themselves to fight back.

Henry also deserves credit for getting the best out of individuals, in particular Taia, whose form as a 31-year-old is a reminder of how crazythe Knights were to move him on at the end of 2012.

It will still be a long, hard road for the Titans toreach the play-offs.

But already they are well on their way to regaining credibility.

The Knights should be looking at them and striving to do likewise.

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