This article was first written and published for NRL.com.
When thinking about the opening five rounds of the Telstra Premiership, the word that immediately springs to mind is “surprise”.
Whether it’s the fact the Warriors and Dragons remain unbeaten, that the Eels are yet to win a game or that Benji Marshall and Chris Lawrence seem to be helping the Tigers turn back the clock to start the season with wins over Melbourne (twice) Parramatta and the Roosters, this season has been anything but predictable.
One of my favourite surprises has been the Gold Coast sitting in sixth spot on the ladder with three wins. The Titans are the highest ranked team from Queensland with the Broncos 12th with two wins and the Cowboys languishing at 14th after losing four games on the trot.
There has been plenty of change at the Titans over the last six months. Jarryd Hayne left to rejoin the Eels. The club is no longer owned by the NRL and is instead owned by a consortium including Darryl Kelly and former chairwoman, Rebecca Frizelle. The Titans also have a new coach with Garth Brennan replacing Neil Henry.
I first took notice of Brennan during the pre-season where he made comments to the effect that he wanted his team to play exciting, attacking rugby league. With a squad boasting talent like Ryan James, Ash Taylor, Konrad Hurrell and Jarrod Wallace, I knew the Titans could play this sort of footy.
But what I didn’t expect was for Brennan to be as courageous as he has been in shifting his players around and admitting when things weren’t working to try something different.
What we see too often in the NRL is coaches “picking and sticking” and then having trouble acknowledging when something simply isn’t working whether it be a particular play or a player in a specific position.
Despite beating the Raiders 30-28 first up, they slumped to consecutive losses to the Warriors and the Dragons, which was particularly pronounced, a 54-8 drubbing.
At that point, I was confident in my decision not to tip them in my eight.
But Brennan has made some big changes.
Despite using players he knew from his time in the lower grades at the Panthers like Leilani Latu, Mitch Rein and Bryce Cartwright, when the side wasn’t producing results, Brennan worked on his plan B.
Cartwright is no longer playing in the middle or the halves. Brennan is now using him on the edge and playing him off the interchange bench.
In round one we saw Ryan James playing on the edge, despite James having been most effective during his career in the middle because he is a strong carrier of the football. It came as no surprise once James returned to the middle with Wallace and Jai Arrow, the Titans began to dominate teams up the guts.
These three enforcers run the ball hard and hit even harder. Based on their recent form, it would not surprise me if the Titans win the battle in the engine room more often than not this season. It is especially promising for their fans, because the trio are more than capable of playing 60 minutes plus each round.
Special mention to Arrow who has been exceptional. His fine form is a fitting reward for a player who was let go by the Broncos. Arrow has brought plenty of energy to the Titans and could be an Origin bolter.
Taylor is an exceptional young talent who is able to create attacking opportunities out of nothing. He doesn’t need great players around him, but when players like Elgey and Phillip Sami are also confident, this adds an element to the Titans attack.
Gold Coast’s highly impressive 26-14 win over Brisbane two weeks ago at Suncorp Stadium was very much a case of the little brother showing big brother who was boss.
Breaking it down simply, the Titans forwards monstered the Brisbane pack.
At its core, rugby league is a very simple game. It is the role of the forwards to make metres and help get the team out of their defensive zone into their attacking zone. Once the forwards have laid the platform, this gives the backline an increased ability to play attacking football, put pressure on the defence and hopefully put the team in a position where they can score points.
This year in particular this formula is working and teams winning the battle up front like the Warriors and Dragons are dominating the competition. Teams that play structured footy like Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys are struggling.
Over the coming rounds I hope the Titans, Warriors and Tigers continue to surprise us.
It’s about time we had some fresh blood in the top eight.