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The Oldest Derby
25 June 2022 - Brisbane plays Gold Coast in round 17 of the NRLM season in the early Sunday game at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
There are derbies, where matches take on a higher intensity due to geographical proximity, and there are rivalries, where matches taken on a higher intensity due to fierce history. The Dolphins and Cowboys have a derby. Manly and Melbourne have a rivalry. Sydney’s Souths and Easts have both.
If you knew a little bit about south-east Queensland, you’d assume that the derby between Brisbane and the Gold Coast was one of the fiercest rivalries. Based on last year’s survey, that doesn’t seem to be the case. While Titans fans feel more strongly about the Broncos than any other team in the NRL, Broncos’ fans don’t put the Titans in their top three1. When I re-run that survey again later this year or early next, Redcliffe will almost certainly have inserted themselves ahead of the Gold Coast.
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That gap in intensity of the rivalry was the seventh widest of any in the NRL at the time of the survey, although the Titans feature six times in the top ten of lopsided fanbase relationships. Despite the Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast-Tweed Giants entering the NSWRL together in 1988, despite Sydney administrators agreeing to the Broncos’ request that they would be the only team in south-east Queensland2, the relationship hasn’t captured the imagination of the rugby league public (or at least, not to my memory), and certainly not in the way that the Cowboys and Broncos battles of the mid-to-late 2010s established themselves as prime time marquee matches.
Historically, Brisbane’s representative team faced off against Ipswich and Toowoomba in the Bulimba Cup, which ran from 1925 to 1972. South Coast entered a team in the BRL in 1952 and 1953, shortly after the league expanded to incorporate Wynnum Manly, before disappearing again. The Town of South Coast was renamed the Town of Gold Coast in 1958 for real estate reasons and became City of Gold Coast the next year.
Putting aside the history of Gold Coast-Group 18 and the success of clubs like Burleigh Bears and Tweed Heads Seagulls in Queensland Cup, where parts of the Gold Coast have succeeded over parts of Brisbane, the Gold Coast’s highest level clubs and representative teams have barely made a mark on the sport.
Gold Coast fielded a team in the 1978 Amco Cup, alongside the Big 8 of the BRL and five other country Queensland teams, before being eliminated in the second round by Southern Suburbs. The Vikings, as they became known, played in the Winfield State League, a predecessor to the Queensland Cup, from 1982 to 1988 and Gold Coast-Group 18 appeared from 1991 until the competition’s demise in 1995, with neither iteration making it through to the knock-out phase until the final edition, where they lost to the Rockhampton Rustlers in the final. The Vikings returned for a single season of Queensland Cup in 1998 as a feeder to the then Chargers, a 15-7 season turning into a week two exit.
In the NSWRL, the Giants became the Seagulls who became the Gladiators briefly and then the Chargers, before dissolving in the aftermath of Super League, with the whole sorry enterprise never finishing above 14th more than once3, collecting three wooden spoons and never having a winning season. In 2007, the Titans entered the NRL and have had marginally better results but scant success.
Gold Coast has traditionally had a more southern orientation in its district footy while Brisbane looked west, so the historical enmity is not there. The Coast’s representative teams generally did not play Brisbane and, when they did, fared poorly. Its entries into the Sydney competition and the NRL have struggled on and off the pitch, unable to mint more than a handful of hardcore fans. Taken all together, it’s no surprise that the derby has failed to find a material element of rivalry.
This is a long-winded way of saying that when the Broncos do host the Titans, it doesn’t fire up the base and generate crowds in quite the same way that hosting the Cowboys or the Storm or even the Warriors does4. Dumping this game in the early Sunday slot, leaving Nine free to broadcast South Sydney versus North Queensland, in the round immediately following the middle Origin game suggests that the administration and broadcasters feel the same way, Matt Nable promo5 or otherwise. Still, the match between the Brisbane team and the Gold Coast team is Queensland’s Oldest Derby, if not Rivalry, in the NSWRL-slash-ARL-slash-NRL and that is something.
Even if the geographical stakes are somewhat muted and the Titans finally fired their coach during the week and both teams have been more focussed on being either a waypoint or a forever home for Ben Hunt, the line-ups should be intriguing enough for prime time. There’s old man Reynolds versus old man Foran. A pack that has Haas, Carrigan and Flegler on one side and a pack that has Fa'asuamaleaui (well, one of them), Fifita and Fotuaika on the other. Two back fives that have a combined 20-plus Origin caps, seven international caps, three All-stars and one appearance for NSW Country. All of it being steered by some of the most pedestrian dummy halves to ever take the pitch in a first class club match.
The ingredients are there for something special, both in the short and long run.
Whether it was the clear blue skies, the winter afternoon sun or the success of the Maroons during the week, 42,000 and change, including plenty of kids, found their way to Lang Park for the Broncos and the Titans, a huge crowd for this fixture. The maroon and gold outnumbered the blue and gold by an order of magnitude, perhaps reflecting the relative prospects of each club this year.
In the previous meeting, an enthusiastic Titans got into a physical battle with the Broncos. The Broncos stayed within reach for 60 minutes and then powered away during the remaining 20 for a clear victory. Indeed, of the 34 previous meetings of these two teams, only eight have been decided by six points or less and of those, three have been in the last decade and only one in the last five years6. Like me, you probably would not have expected this meeting to join the list.
The Titans pitched a prosaic and staid performance. Contrary to their reputation for chaos - as advanced in this very publication - Gold Coast are capable of delivering this from time to time. Excluding their victory over the Storm, most of the Titans’ wins this year have come in similar fashion. We will only find out in time if Burleigh Bears legend Jim Lenihan will be able to coax 50%-odd possession, 80%-odd completion rate and 1800-odd metres out of the Titans every week.
Gold Coast experimented with AJ Brimson inserting himself on both sides of the field in sweeping actions early in the game but he was too easily found out by the Broncos defence. Brimson was slippery but lacked real danger. Tanah Boyd played a fine game, putting the ball where it needed to be more often than not, while Kieran Foran’s contribution was a little more random in his 59 minutes. Moeaki Fotuaika, backing up from Origin, played 70 minutes and cleared an astonishing 210 metres.
As is their wont, Gold Coast’s left edge attack was potent. Two of the Titans’ tries came from lining up David Fifita on the defensive channel around Adam Reynolds and letting the physics of a very large, powerful, agile man do the rest. The third came when Alofiana Khan-Pereira simply accelerated around an indifferent and immobile Selwyn Cobbo in a way that really shouldn’t happen in a first grade match. While the latter is difficult to replicate, it’s hard to imagine that many other halfbacks in the league are better placed to deal with Fifita than Reynolds was and that it’s insane that the Titans’ game plan is to do anything other than get Fifita the ball, squared up on a little man and seeing what happens.
The Broncos frustratingly struggled to execute their usual style of play and beat themselves, rather than beating the Titans’ defence. Payne Haas, Pat Carrigan and Tom Flegler played to their usual standard and the Broncos’ lack of progress while the bench rotation was on the field was plain to see. Whereas the trio were able to demolish the Knights’ middle in their second stint to win that game, the Titans provided a stiffer test.
Reece Walsh, returning to the Suncorp pitch since his famous send-off on Wednesday night, apparently believes himself to be infallible. His reaction to the late game charge of obstruction when Cobbo looked at risk of doing something useful told a story of a player who could not believe he is at fault. His teammates became obviously frustrated at Walsh’s inability to just calm down for five seconds and focus on the task at hand, and perhaps consider a pass. Until the white smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signalling the ascension of Pope Reece I, he will have to reckon with his fallibility and his humanity.
This would normally be an opportunity for me to accuse Kevin Walters of not being up to the task of managing this team but his emotional response at half and full time makes it clear that he does not want a repeat of last year. Hopefully this will include a sit down with Walsh to explain how many team mates he has (it’s 12 on the field and another four on the bench) and how many tackles are in each set (it’s six). If Walters can temper Walsh’s natural enthusiasm just slightly, Walsh will become instantly much more effective.
The ease with which Khan-Pereira burned Cobbo clearly embarrassed and then motivated the Broncos winger. Cobbo began to run harder and kept a tighter marking on his opposite number, but it was a lackadaisical performance before that. One expects that he will spend some time in Queensland Cup, trying to decide if he really wants to be a professional or if this is just what he does on the weekend. Jesse Arthars has done enough to earn that spot over Cobbo for now.
Herbie Farnworth took plenty of hard carries and lacked the obvious defensive deficiencies of his last outing but the Englishman played his usual selfish hand with the ball, refusing to pass and lacking the nous to be in position to support.
There’s plenty of blame to go around but most of it lays at the feet of three or four of the back five (Corey Oates played a belter, as usual), a pedestrian effort from the bench to backup their Origin stars and the entirely expected middle of the road performance of Smoothy and Walters who both valhe looking productive while achieving little of value.
The third team, that of the officials, seemed to have a field day. As is becoming common for any day at the football, trying to parse the decision-making of the on-field referees, who are only too happy to dodge responsibility7, and The Bunker, who must operate according to a mystical version of the rugby league rulebook, is practically impossible. I’m not convinced Phil Sami’s fingers brushed the ball and I’m not convinced that the ball actually touched the ground while Ezra Mam was scoring his try. That potential 12 point swing didn’t matter in the end, especially when David Fifita milked an obstruction penalty. Good for him and the Titans but it does not reflect well, yet again, on the NRL’s referees.
Gold Coast fans got increasingly vocal as they realised they weren't going to be let down by their team in the second half. A Titans chant rang out from the away members section with about ten to go, briefly drowning out the increasingly despondent hum of the home crowd.
I was pissed off with how the Broncos played and I hate losing to the Titans because the Titans are so often so bad. A kid, a Broncos fan, a few seats down slammed the seat down in frustration on full time. On the way out I heard a small voice say, “I hate the Titans.”8
There may be a rivalry in the near future for the Oldest Derby.
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Which comprises the Cowboys, Storm and Roosters.
Tweed Heads is in New South Wales and therefore, was not in south-east Queensland, despite being part of the Gold Coast metropolitan area, which is in south-east Queensland. And people wonder why the Broncos rebelled.
In 1997, their sole finals appearance.
The last Titans game at Suncorp to exceed 35,000 was in 2016. Excluding covid years, the last time the Storm drew less than 35,000 at Suncorp was 2011. The Cowboys have at Suncorp have drawn less than 40,000 only three times, in 2020, 2021 and 2022. From 2007 to 2019, the Titans have averaged a slightly higher crowd at Suncorp for regular season visits against the Broncos than the Warriors, 35,147-34,443, but taking just the last five visits in that series tilts it back to the Warriors, 32,274-30,885. You’d have to think Titans games would draw pretty similar to Sydney clubs if it weren’t for the fact that the fanbase lives an hour down the road.
Which could only refer to Gold Coast's rugby league history in the NSWRL and NRL.
The Cowboys and Broncos have met 59 times and 21 have been decided by six points or less including, fatefully, one grand final. A bigger crowd turned up to Suncorp to watch the Cowboys get pantsed by 34 in 2008 than have ever turned up for a Titans game. The club record is 50,109 for a curtain raiser in a 2009 double header. The next best is the Titans’ second trip to Suncorp to face the Broncos in 2007, a game decided by one point that absolutely did not herald a new era of competitive south-east Queensland football.
Brendan Piakura’s non-try was an obvious knock-on from the other end of the field where I was sitting, so I’m not sure why it took the referees so long to work it out.
A different, older voice said, “Don’t worry. We’ll have Benny Hunt next week.”