Discover more from The Maroon Observer
REVIEW: 2023 Gold Coast Titans
Another year, another meaningless existence, experienced but not lived, buffeted by the breeze created by other teams
The thesis that best explains the Gold Coast Titans is that they are missing an identity. It is a beat that I have been on for some time now. Despite seemingly solid fundamentals and despite possibly being the only person outside of the offices of the Gold Coast Bulletin undertaking even a cursory analysis of the Titans, I have not been alone in observing a vacuum where distinction might otherwise exist at Oxenford.
A club’s identity is mostly a spurious concept and has much in common with the mythologic national character. Identity is a shorthand way of collating what’s happened in the past and using that as a means to explain what’s happening now and why. Like any history, what actually happens can be accidents - of geography or climate, of timing or coincidence, of battles won and lost - but is transubstantiated into a pathology that can be paired with human agency as a means of making some sense of an otherwise chaotic world.
Thanks for reading The Maroon Observer. Subscribe to receive new posts in your inbox.
The impact a club has on the surrounding competition is traditionally measured in victories of the men’s team against the historical yardstick of the other men’s teams, so naturally, the Gold Coast Titans have had about as much impact on the NRL as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has or President William Henry Harrison had on world affairs. The 2023 men’s Titans were yet another unremarkable vintage of an unremarkable team of which no one expected much of anything.
The season began in somewhat promising fashion with three wins over the Tigers, the Storm (!) and the Dragons in their first five appearances. A lopsided final score against the Broncos at home belied a team that competed against one of the competition’s best for an hour if only they could keep it all together for an additional 20 minutes.
Reality set in with a horrific collapse against the brand new Dolphins, leading 26-0 after 30 minutes and finishing 26-28 at full time. This has to be the point at which Holbrook’s time on the Gold Coast came to an end, even if no one was yet conscious of it. There were too many of this specific kind of defeat. The Dolphins were the third team to inflict a fourth humiliating disintegration during his tenure. The Titans had never previously crumpled in quite such a devastating fashion and this became the defining trademark of the Holbrook era.
A pair of victories over Manly and Parramatta stayed the execution but the collapse came in May. A thrashing from the Knights, a narrow loss to the terrible Bulldogs and another thrashing from the Rabbitohs over a space of four weeks, dropped the Titans to 5-7 and 13th place on the ladder. Despite beating the wooden spoon Tigers for a second time, it was clear that this season was going to be a bust. Even fielding a trio of Origin-calibre forwards, the Titans were too inconsistent, with a points difference of -33 after round 15, to have realistic pretensions to making the finals in a league where more teams miss out than make it. The button was pressed and Holbrook was ejected, having lost 20 more games than he won in 82 starts. Former Burleigh Bears coach, Jim Lenihan, filled the role for the rest of the year.
While I don’t believe the Titans stopped trying, they did start losing, a lot. A 6-7 record became just 9-15 by season’s end, finishing in the bottom four with the other detritus of the NRL. Derby games against the Broncos and Cowboys and a final round contest with the Bulldogs with no competitive stakes yielded victories, scattered through a back half of the season defined by losses big and small: initially, four to the Raiders, two to the Dolphins, one to the Eels and then 18 to the Roosters, 10 to the Warriors and then 30 to the Sharks, 26 to the Panthers and 21 to the Storm.
No one expected and the Titans delivered. Another year, another meaningless existence, experienced but not lived, buffeted by the breeze created by other teams showing more agency and control and will as regards to the direction of their affairs. Truly, a slacker franchise.
Kieran Foran is too old and too broken to play full 80 minute games anymore. AJ Brimson can’t find a spot on the team to make his own, not good enough at five-eighth to displace Foran’s tired ass and not fast enough at fullback to keep the jersey from an electric Jayden Campbell, a player we’d be much more excited about if Reece Walsh didn’t exist, and somehow not suited to centre either. Tanah Boyd has not progressed in any material sense since being given the starting role and looks to have no particular prospects to elevate his game. Alofiana Khan-Pereira exceeded my expectations on his promotion from Queensland Cup but appears to have one, albeit highly effective, play, which is to stand at the right place at the right time to receive a pass from David Fifita and run really fast towards the corner. Phil Sami, Brian Kelly and some other guy filled out the rest of the three-quarter line and had fine seasons, playing the anonymous role of big yardage guys, but not in such an obvious way that it attracted the attention of any but the sickest of sickos.
Some other guy also filled in at hooker, a jersey that was subject to the panic transfer of Kruise Leeming once Sam Verrils went down but ended up sitting on the shoulders of Chris Randall more often than not. David Fifita became the player everyone - read: hacks and morons - wanted him to become and no one cared, other than to toss him a token Dally M Team of the Year appearance. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui slogged his guts out time and again, nearly clearing 170 metres a game and more than anyone else on the team. Despite being almost as good, Moeaki Fotuaika received a fraction of the attention and plaudits. Joe Stimson put up sub-replacement level production and Isaac Liu was another body in the pack.
The post-timely dispatch of Holbrook to a national roadshow where he could show his wares (pretending he would be able to lever Fa'asuamaleaui and Fifita off the Gold Coast to whichever club would have him, instead of those players just getting fat extensions out of the Titans), created an opportunity to engage the services of Des Hasler for 2024. For all the past inertial commitment to inaction, this is possibly the most interesting thing the Titans have ever done.
His most recent departure from Manly is still baffling, the product of incestuous bickering and internicene politicking that heralded the ascension of the thoroughly discredited talent of Anthony Seibold. Hasler’s most recent successes, comprising his return in 2019 to lead a good but not great Sea Eagles side and capitalising on the peak of Vlandoball in 2021 to take Manly to two semi-finals losses against Souths, are thinner than would be ideal but even this is still a more storied resume than any previous Titans coach, and we haven’t cosnidered his actual historical success. It will be fascinating to see what he can do with this roster.
The Titans got as much out of their back five as the average NRL team, more out of their starting pack but far less out of their playmakers, which all makes sense if you have watched the Titans at all and give it thirty seconds of thought. Even Holbrook got the left side attack working, so the order of operations for Hasler will be to get something similar working on the right side, which will be challenging with the available talent (e.g. Boyd) but could provide some opportunity for Campbell to pick up the offensive pace and sweep in for points. Then attention should turn to patching a defence that gave up more than 27 points per game in 2023, the fourth worst mark in the league, and a mark that needs that to be less than 18 if they are going to seriously consider being serious, let alone contention. This would eclipse any previous Titans team, which is not surprising considering their aims are notionally higher than anything previously acheived by men in the sky blue and yellow.
It’s also important to understand that it’s this roster. Boyd got to ‘25, Fotuaika to ‘27 and Fa'asuamaleaui astonishingly out to ‘33, but just about any other Titan you could conceivably name gets a job until ‘26. That’s a three year window Hasler has to glue this collection of Origin forwards and promising fullbacks and not much else into a premiership-winning team. If he fails, there’s going to be the mother of all rebuilds at the Titans. Like the Gold Coast property market, it’s boom or it’s bust. Failure will see them raze it to the ground and start again.
Before Hasler, Fa'asuamaleaui, et al get a chance to fill in their two silhouettes on the signing wall, Karyn Murphy quietly took the franchise one huge step forward to actually doing something on the game’s biggest stage.
Perhaps out of habit, few factored the Titans into their 2023 NRLW calculations. I wasn’t prepared to go all-in because I wasn’t all that confident that the Titans, for all the reasons enumerated above, could stick the landing. Nonetheless, I found it surprising that the Broncos were considered the superior Queensland side, despite the obvious talent that the Titans were bringing to the table.
While many of those talents did appear for last year’s wooden spoon winning team, and the same coach was returning, the nature of these early days of the NRLW is that a club can easily jettison those they don’t consider useful and find ready made replacements to take their place. The Titans went up the M1 and came back with Jaime Chapman and Emily Bass. They dispensed with the failed Lauren Brown to 7 experiment - although, more on that later - and signed a real half in Taliah Fuimaono. Gold Coast went through the under 19 Maroons and signed some of the most promising prospects, a move that paid dividends. Crucially, they kept their all-star forwards and added NSW rep and David Fifita’s amour, Shaylee Bent.
It all worked. The Titans returned to the second tier of contenders, as they were in their debut season under John Strange and had lapsed from in 2022. A close but controlled win over the Cowboys was followed by a Lauren Brown field goal to beat the Broncos and a win on conversions by same to beat the Sharks by two. The Titans were outclassed by the Knights and Roosters in consecutive weeks before finishing the run home strongly with another field goal win over the Dragons, a comfortable two score win over the Tigers, and then finding another gear to crush the Eels and Raiders.
A 7-2 record was good enough for third place, albeit with a fifth best points difference in the competition. An early injury to Fuimaono stifled the Titans’ attack. While the forwards and outside backs had no issues making yards, a reliance on the teenager wunderkinds of Chantay Kiria-Ratu and Sienna Lofipo wasn’t productive and despite enormous improvement over the length of the campaign, especially from Kiria-Ratu, it would have been unreasonable to have expected much more out of them.
A later change to slip Lauren Brown back to halfback and move Britanny Breayley-Nati into a starting talonneur, a role she was and is more than capable of filling, after back-to-back defeats gave the side the impetus needed to ride into the finals. Brown to 7 in 2022 was an act of necessity, as the Titans seemingly forgot to sign a half of any sort, and this had fairly predictable results. But in 2023, Brown came into her own as a halfback. Brown will perhaps occupy a Huntian role in the Queensland menagerie of playmaking options - good enough to play at the highest level in either 7 or 9 or 14 - but more importantly, is one of the finest two or three kickers in the game.
The forwards were always going to be the stars of the show. The starting pack featured Georgia Hale, Shaylee Bent, Jessika Elliston and Shannon Mato - all Origin or Kiwi Fern level representative players. Georgia Hale, in particular, ran and tackled and did it in voluminous and prodigious quantities. All that effusive praise doesn’t leave a lot of room for Gold Coast local, Zara Canfield; star in the making, potential serial pest and firm favourite, Rilee Jorgensen; and the ultimate veteran performances of Steph Hancock.
The Roosters were favourites in their preliminary final clash at Allianz Stadium in front of a handful of fans but while the Titans attack was a work in progress, their defence was as legitimate as any team in the competition. A solid gameplan, a huge effort of output from the front and back and a clean level of execution was enough to keep Sydney scoreless at home in a final. While a dozen points is generally not enough to win games, the Roosters never looked particularly close to scoring even a fraction of that. It was the first women’s Titans finals win, proof that they were a real club, that Karyn Murphy knew what she was doing and that this all-rep lineup could deliver in the big moments.
Irrespective of the outcome of the grand final, all of that remains true. Insofar as it is an offensive scheme, throwing the ball to a big athletic centre and hoping she can bust a bunch of tackles is a pretty good one when that centre is Jaime Chapman. Chapman opened the scoring and kept the Titans in the final when it looked like the Knights might get on top of them. Surely 18 points would be enough to get them home.
It’s one thing to run out of gas to contain a Tamika Upton double, surely the finest player in the game, late in proceedings but for a team that had defined itself in its defence, for entire edges to forget how to arrange themselves to repel three very conventional attacking raids of the Knights earlier in the game, built on not much more than a simple drawing and passing until they found no Titans standing in front of them, was - in what was a recurring theme for this weekend of south-east Queensland sport - profoundly disappointing. I hate the idea that the “occasion gets to” players, because it’s such a lazy cliche and devoid of any actual analysis, but if it quacks, it’s probably a duck.
The Titans need to offer Brittany Breayley-Nati another two years and picking up their options on the venerable Karina Brown and the dourly aggressive Niall Williams-Guthrie and begging Shannon Mato to take up her option because they really can do it in 2024. With a season together, with another year of development on the youngsters, with Taliah Fuimaono back, having proven they can already compete with the best, having lost one with a view to winning one - another horrifying cliche that may prove apt - all the ingredients are there for premiership success.
If Murphy, Hale and co do indeed get there before Hasler, Fa'asuamaleaui, et al - and the women will have a better shot at a double before the men crack their first - one wonders if the Titans will take a more feminine lean. The yardstick by which NRL clubs are measured is most certainly masculine but the gap between the creation of the Titans men’s side and the Titans women’s side is the least of any club, and unlike the other NRLW licencees, the men’s side has yet to win a premiership. In the club’s vacuum of distinction, of culture, of identity, could the women set the tone and fill the void? It’s the Sizzling 20s, the Matildas had the most watched television broadcast in Australian history and anything is possible.
With the Haslerian coup on the men’s side fomented and fermenting and a women’s side perched on the precipice, our Luxemburgish William Harrisons are finally ready to make their own mark on the world. Let’s hope they don’t Titans this up.
NRLM Player of the Year - David Fifita. He’s good, he’s always been good and I hope Hasler makes him five-eighth next year. Honourable mentions to the spacetime-curving speed of Alofiana Khan-Pereira and the emergence of Jayden Campbell.
NRLW Player of the Year - Georgia Hale. I still can’t get over a full 70 minutes on the pitch with 57 tackles and 141 metres in the preliminary final. Honourable mentions to the exceptionally damaging ball running of Evania Pelite and the goal kicking of Lauren Brown.
Men’s Win of the Year - While you might be inclined to think I’d pick a Queensland derby, cast your mind back to round 3 when the Titans defeated the Storm, 38-34. This win harks back to a similar result in 2017, the only time the full strength 2017 Storm were beaten outright, and so has a nice nostalgic ring to it. This fixture came before we really knew what the 2023 Storm would be, i.e. kind of mid but still ass-y enough to make a preliminary final, so seemed to be an optimistic omen of what the Titans could be.
Women’s Win of the Year - The first women’s finals win and the first time the Titans have made a NRL grand final, it’s the preliminary final when the Titans defeated the Roosters, 12-0. While I’ve raved my plaudits about this game several times already, it will never cease to be funny that the Roosters tried to buy the competition, again, and were eliminated by, of all clubs, the goddamn Gold Coast Titans.
In 2023, the Gold Coast Titans had feeder arrangements with the Burleigh Bears and the Tweed Heads Seagulls. This doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the Hostplus Cup team, however, we will consider the full structure of both clubs as part of the Titans’ farm system.
In 2024, Burleigh will leave the Titans to join the Broncos, a resurrection of a relationship from 2008-09. The Titans, who had been agitating for a single feeder carrying the Titans brand, will have to make do with the Seagulls.
Tweed Heads Seagulls
Queensland Cup: 9th, 11-9, +136 [season review]
QRLW: 8th, 0-7, -126
Colts: 1st, 12-2, +283, eliminated in week 3 by Townsville
WU19s: 10th, 3-3, -36
Mal Meninga Cup: 6th, 4-2, +4
Queensland Cup: 1st, 15-4-1, +171, runners-up to Easts in the grand final [season review]
QRLW: 2nd, 6-1, +84, won the premiership defeating Wynnum Manly
Colts: 4th, 10-4, +172, eliminated in week 2 by Redcliffe
WU19s: 3rd, 5-1, +86
Mal Meninga Cup: 12th, 2-4, -16
Thanks for reading The Maroon Observer. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe below to receive all the latest about Queensland rugby league.
If you really enjoyed this, please forward the email on to someone who might also enjoy it.