Saturday, June 6, 2020 marked a bleak milestone for the Gold Coast Titans.
It was the 364th day since the NRL club’s last win.
Granted, the enforced coronavirus shutdown exacerbated that statistic but 14 losses in a row is still a headline no sporting team wishes to be tied to.
They have played one finals game in the last decade. That’s the worst record of any team post-2010 — including the Knights who won three wooden spoons in a row during that period (the Titans themselves had two, in 2011 and 2019).
Just eight months on from that drastic nadir, things are looking brighter than ever for the competition’s perennial whipping boy.
They enter the 2021 NRL season as a chic finals contender on the back of a hot winning streak, a cadre of solid signings and an impressive leader at the helm.
The fingerprints of second-year coach Justin Holbrook can now be seen all over the club.
He broke that horror losing streak and finished last season with five wins on the trot. Their late-season form was second only to Penrith, who went on to play the grand final.
Here’s how the club pulled itself out of the quagmire and set itself on a path to redemption.
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THE FIFITA EFFECT
Gold Coast has used 158 players since entering the NRL in 2007.
And none may be more important to the club’s future success than their latest acquisition, David Fifita.
Everyone will remember the 2015 saga of Daly Cherry-Evans and the sport’s most brutal backflip.
The representative halfback had agreed to join the Titans before sensationally reneging on that deal to ink a fresh 10-year contract with Manly.
It was a body blow for a club struggling to gain a foothold in Australian sport’s version of the Bermuda triangle.
In 2016 they finished 8th and played one final but since then the Titans have run 15th, 14th, 16th, and last year ended in 9th spot – the ladder position that jokingly belongs to Wests Tigers.
To counter the Cherry-Evans bombshell Gold Coast poached rising halfback Ash Taylor from local rival Brisbane in 2016.
It was hoped he would be the club’s knight in shining armour. A lucrative contract extension – worth near enough to $1 million a season – a couple of years ago made him one of the richest players in the game.
But Taylor’s form on the field has failed to live up to the hype, and the pay cheque.
The Titans, and Holbrook, desperately needed to score a marquee signing but with a history of sub-par performances and no proof it was going to get better any time soon, they were struggling to land that big fish.
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So when David Fifita last year announced he would move down the M1 from Red Hill to Robina it sent shockwaves through the NRL, most dramatically in Brisbane.
Fifita, 21, is considered one of, if not the, best young forward in the game. He’s already an Origin and Test star and he was one of the best youngsters the Broncos had produced in recent years.
Titans head of culture Mal Meninga announced the Fifita signing in late July.
After that, the Titans won six of their remaining nine games.
“I’ll tell you the big turnaround for the Titans. They were struggling. I played with Justin Holbrook and I was looking at him in the (Titans coaching) box and I was thinking ‘poor bugger’,” Fox League guru Matty Johns tells foxsports.com.au.
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“He would be thinking ‘what have I got myself in to? I’ve got from winning a comp with St Helens’… and then the Titans had a sudden turnaround, and I think there was a couple of really important factors.
“I think for the players what Justin Holbrook was trying to do, the penny started to drop. And the other big one was the signing of Fifita.
“What it did, it sent a message to everyone that ‘we’re going places’. And suddenly the next week after he signed, I hadn’t seen some of those players play good for three or four years, and they saw light at the end of the tunnel and they wanted to be part of it.”
The Fifita signing proved Gold Coast is now capable of luring elite NRL talent to the glitter strip.
The recruitment team has finally climbed off the canvas after being knocked out by the Cherry-Evans backflip.
THE NRL’S NEW DESTINATION CLUB
There’s a select few teams in the NRL that players just want to go to.
Typically it’s driven by sustained success over a long period of time. A proven coach, stable management and a solid front office set the foundation.
Think the Storm, Roosters, and formerly the Broncos before last year’s disaster.
Gold Coast doesn’t have that sustained success… yet. But the signings of Fifita and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui show quality players are attracted to something at the Titans.
Gold Coast ambassador, and Broncos legend, Gorden Tallis can see the Titans becoming a destination club.
“I live in Queensland… if anyone’s been to the Gold Coast they think it’s a holiday destination but it’s a great place to live as well,” Tallis told foxsports.com.au.
“It’s 52 kilometres of beach. If they get a successful footy side… you can see it’s a nice place to live. It’s good weather all year round as well.
“I think the front office is really strong at the Titans. From all reports they’ve had a great pre-season, so let’s tick that box.
“Now they’ve still got to get the Ws (wins), they’ve still got to go out there and make sure they get a W up.”
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Matty Johns agrees the Titans have the potential to be a team that quality NRL players aspire to play for.
“They’ve got a number of things in their favour. What they’ve always had in their favour is the Gold Coast. It’s a place where people want to live,” Johns said.
“What’s been going against that is it had the reputation as a place where people went when they were basically on the downswing.
“Young guys like Tino, young guys like Fifita, and young guys like (AJ) Brimson who has re-signed, that want to play there sends a bit of a message to the rest of the league.
“There’s a couple of factors here. What has always been a challenge for the various Gold Coast sides is having a place where people want to live, but not letting those players get into that environment and get too comfortable. That’s the real challenge.
“Have all the beaches, have all those great places, being able to get players there but once they’re there, regardless of the surroundings, still have that fire in the belly.”
The club that was once made to look foolish by one of the game’s best halfbacks, is suddenly the hottest new property in town.
There’s plenty of buzz around Gold Coast this year but Tallis is urging rugby league fans to temper the excitement.
After all, the bar for this club can’t be set too high with its history of failure.
Some pundits are saying a top-four finish is possible.
“That’s a bit premature I think. Ask me after 10 rounds,” Tallis said.
“I think finals footy is certainly not off the radar, and right now you have to go to the team and what they believe that they can do.
“I reckon they believe they can play finals footy, if everything ticks and there’s no injuries.
“Most sides would be pushing towards the eight, then the Roosters and Souths and those are pushing the top four, but I don’t know whether we’re quite there yet.”
There’s plenty of time for the Titans. They are, remember, the competition’s youngest team.
Parramatta took almost 30 years to play in its first grand final, and Penrith were also more than 20 years old when they reached their maiden premiership decider.
The tipping point to their immediate success could be the – albeit increasingly unlikely – signing of champion hooker Cameron Smith.
The Titans have all but ruled a line through Smith playing a cameo season with the club before retiring. Still, this is rugby league we’re dealing with, and a club saying one thing doesn’t necessarily make it true.
“Without Cameron Smith I see them sitting somewhere between six and nine (on the ladder). I can see them playing finals football, particularly if blokes like AJ Brimson stay on the field,” Matty Johns said.
“I think a par for the season is slip into the eight. In my opinion if Cameron Smith plays for that side I see them very possibly being a top-four team, and who knows what happens after that.
“He’s one of those rare players, like truly great people in sport, that aren’t just great for themselves but make everyone around them better.”
Smith probably won’t play for the Titans but even if he doesn’t, there’s obvious natural improvement in a number of players to look forward to.
AJ Brimson made his State of Origin debut in a winning Queensland side last year. He is 22 years old.
Moeaki Fotuaika is 21. So are Fifita and Fa’asuamaleaui. They are three of the best young forwards around.
Ash Taylor is still only 25. His halves partner Jamal Fogarty is 27 but only entering his second year of NRL football. South Sydney’s Cody Walker made a similar late start to his career… now he’s one of the best five-eighths in the game.
This Titans side might not play in the grand final this year. They might not finish inside the top four.
But there’s certainly light, and plenty of it, at the end of what’s been a long, long tunnel.
ROSTER CHANGES SINCE 2015 (DCE’S BACKFLIP YEAR)
Players out: Kevin Gordon, Matthew Robinson, Nate Myles, Matt Srama, Mark Ioane, Aidan Sezer, James Roberts, Dave Taylor, Matthew White, Beau Fallon, Ben Ridge, Brad Tighe, Chad Redman, Kalifa Faifai Loa, David Hala, Simione Leva Li
Players in: John Olive, Zeb Taia, Chris McQueen, David Shillington, Leivaha Pulu, Ashley Taylor, Nathan Friend, Tyrone Roberts, Nathan Davis, Cameron Cullen, Nathan Peats, Konrad Hurrell, Karl Lawton, Jarryd Hayne
Players out: David Mead, Luke Douglas, Lachlan Burr, Daniel Mortimer, Kierran Moseley, Josh Hoffman, Greg Bird, Nene MacDonald, Zeb Taia, David Shillington, Nathan Friend, Nathan Davis, Cameron Cullen
Players in: Kevin Proctor, Jarrod Wallace, Joe Greenwood, Dan Sarginson, Tyronne Roberts-Davis, Max King, Tyler Cornish, Daniel Vidot, Dale Copley, Chris Grevsmuhl, Morgan Boyle, Paterika Vaivai, Phillip Sami, Patrick Politoni, Jamal Fogarty, Ben Nakubuwai, Keegan Hipgrave
Players out: Eddy Pettybourne, Agnatius Paasi, Will Zillman, Nathaniel Peteru, John Olive, Chris McQueen, Leivaha Pulu, Karl Lawton, Jarryd Hayne, Joe Greenwood, Dan Sarginson, Tyler Cornish, Daniel Vidot, Chris Grevsmuhl, Paterika Vaivai, Patrick Politoni, Ben Nakubuwai
Players in: Jai Arrow, Leilani Latu, Bryce Cartwright, Will Matthews, Mitch Rein, Michael Gordon, Jack Stockwell, Brendan Elliott, Moeaki Fotuaika, AJ Brimson, Brenko Lee, Jai Whitbread
Players out: Ryan Simpkins, Kane Elgey, Kalifa Faifai Loa, Konrad Hurrell, Tyronne Roberts-David, Leilani Latu, Will Matthews, Brendan Elliott
Players in: Shannon Boyd, Tyrone Peachey, Brian Kelly, Ryley Jacks, Jesse Arthars, Sam Stone, Kallum Watkins, Tanah Boyd
Players out: Max King, Michael Gordon, Jack Stockwell, Brenko Lee, Ryley Jacks, Jesse Arthars
Players in: Sam Lisone, Jaimin Jolliffe, Erin Clark, Jonus Pearson, Young Tonumaipea, Corey Thompson, Beau Fermor, Treymain Spry
Players out: Dale Copley, Bryce Cartwright, Jai Arrow, Ryan James, Keegan Hipgrave, Shannon Boyd, Tyrone Roberts, Nathan Peats, Kallum Watkins
Players in: Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Herman Ese’ese, David Fifita, Patrick Herbert, Sam McIntyre
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