While every NRL match has seemed to feel the summer weather over the last round, it’s only been Cbus that has copped a summer storm, with the field drenched so densely as the Titans took on the Knights that it was difficult for the meagre crowd of Gold Coast supporters to follow the action with any consistency. In those kinds of conditions, playing with a home advantage adds a lot, and the Titans seemed galvanised by recent speculations about the Gold Coast Bears to put in their fourth straight win at Robina, a statement of purpose for a team that has all but imploded over the last twelve months. With Kurt Gidley retiring, Daly Cherry-Evans backflipping, James Roberts defecting and Kane Elgey injured, this was a team that was almost entirely composed of new faces. In fact, with nine new players for Gold Coast (including two deubtants) and seven new players for the Knights (including five debutants), the showdown at Robina was a bit like watching a Nines match, or a trial match, or some other showcase for young guns and up-and-comers.
Of course, there was at least one player on the field who made his veteran status felt. Having had a shocker of a year in 2015, Greg Bird burst into the Knights with the frustration of a fiercely defensive Gold Coast icon forced to sit out the majority of the Titans’ most tumultuous year to date, as well as a Blues legend forced to sit out all three games as the Maroons clinically and decisively undid New South Wales’ victory in 2014. If Billy Slater’s return to the Storm had an Origin-like intensity in the wake of his absence from Game III last year, Bird plunged onto the field with the pent-up frustration of three Origins, making a good case for himself as Blues forward this year in the process. Assisted by Chris McQueen and Zeb Taia, he reminded us that the Titans have a pretty stalwart collection of big men if Neil Henry can just figure out a way to make use of them.
For all that he rocks as a forward, however, what was most striking about Bird’s performance on Saturday was his versatility. Moving all over the field, he seemed to have a hand in virtually every position, but especially at five-eighth, setting up tries for Agnatius Passi and Anthony Don with a dexterity that reminded you that Bird and Wallace really have been the best Blues halves combo in a long time. More than any other team, the Titans need an icon, a figure who is both tough and flexible enough to provide them with the resilience and rallying-point needed to face the coming year, and it was crystal clear at Cbus that Bird is that player, a captain in everything but name, and perhaps the only player in the NRL who could stare down a Wooden Spoon without flinching. Taking his cues from Bird, David Mead did a great stand-in job as fullback, while Agnatius Passi continued his Nines streak with four tackle breaks and a deft try, although where he will go after Luke Douglas returns from suspension next week is anybody’s guess.
If there was a surprise moment in last Sunday’s match, it was the halves’ performance, which is perhaps actually not all that surprising given how much Round 1 has already forced us to revise our preconceptions of the premium halfbacks and five-eighths in the competition. While Trent Hodkinson and Jarrod Mullen might have a hell of a lot more experience between them, they were totally upstaged by Ash Taylor and Tyrone Roberts, with Roberts, in particular, outdoing Hodkinson at every moment. If Bird brought the Origin vibe, then the first official debut of Hodkinson and Mullen seemed to confirm my worst fears that here are two players who might not get called up for the Blues again, despite their very significant talents. If anything, it was Korbin Sims who gave the Knights their Origin flair – from the moment he launched onto the field in the 22nd minute, it was clear that his performance in the trial against Canberra was an anomaly, and I’d be surprised to see him on the bench or the rest of the season.
Along with Hodkinson and Mullen, the rest of Newcastle were fairly quiet. Not knowing the Knights’ young guns as well as the Titans’ young guns, they seemed a bit more anonymous and junior to me, but that may also because the Gold Coasts’ younger players really shone from appearing at their home venue. From that perspective, the most charismatic and striking young gun in the Newcastle line was probably Jaelen Feeley, who came up through the Gold Coast Juniors and was clearly stoked at making his first-grade debut in his local catchment area. For all the weather issues, that kind of Gold Coast spirit carried the match, and prevented it being the sledgefest that the standoff between two potential Wooden Spooners can sometimes offer so early in the season.