Titans v Knights: Five key points
Titans halves take control over senior pair, Agnatius Paasi states his case for a permanent starting spot, the NRL debutants who had a ball and Korbin Sims responds to benching in best possible fashion.
Paasi's claim for permanent starting spot
It's been a meteoric rise to become one of the crowd favourites on the Gold Coast and now Agnatius Paasi has set his sights on being a permanent member of the Titans' starting team. With reigning Titans player of the year Luke Douglas back from suspension to face the Storm next Sunday night, Paasi could be squeezed out of the 13 and onto the bench even after scoring a try and running for 182 metres against the Knights on Sunday. Gold Coast's back row of Greg Bird, Chris McQueen and Zeb Taia were each outstanding in the 30-12 win, leaving Paasi to battle with Douglas and David Shillington for one of the two starting prop positions. A far cry from his skilful display at the Auckland Nines, captain Nathan Friend described Paasi's ferocious charges into the Knights defence as "awesome" as they served as the catalyst to the Titans' dominating field position. Equally at home playing on an edge, Paasi revelled in the chance to lead the way through the middle of the field.
"I just had to come out and start strong in the starting pack and get a good strong start for the boys that are coming off the bench," said Paasi, who started in the final seven games of 2016 for the Titans.
"I felt extremely fit out there and I was just trying to get as much metres as I can off the kick-off or running off the boys and just bringing the energy for the boys. I got to tick off that first goal of mine of starting and hopefully I continue to start and hopefully impress the coaches by creating that platform for the boys that are coming off the bench."
Knights pair not half as good
A look through the two teams prior to kick-off highlighted that in terms of playmaking credentials, the Knights had a decided advantage. Between them Jarrod Mullen and Trent Hodkinson boasted 313 NRL games and seven Origin matches as opposed to the 98 top grade appearances for Titans halves Tyrone Roberts and Ashley Taylor. But of the two untried combinations it was the younger pairing that look the more composed, Roberts dictating play early for his new club with his kicking game and 20-year-old Taylor chiming in with two try assists from kicks. The Titans forwards gave their halves an excellent platform from which to work but Newcastle coach Nathan Brown conceded that his side's attack was not as patient as you would expect from such seasoned playmakers.
"They had some OK touches and some good touches and there are areas of the game where they'll probably want to do a bit better but as a group I thought we were a bit rushed at times," Brown said. "We got ourselves into positions where we could probably do a little better but I'd like to think that as the team improves they'll improve."
Sims challenged to deliver Origin-type performances
Knights coach Nathan Brown has challenged prop forward Korbin Sims to live up to his Origin billing by bringing the intensity he displayed off the bench against the Titans into every game that he plays in 2016. Demoted to the bench for a sub-standard display in the trial against the Raiders, Sims had an immediate impact when he came onto the field in the 22nd minute, his first involvement a strip on Titan Ashley Taylor that three tackles later led to his side's first try. Denying that it was a tactic with the reduced interchanges this season to hold Sims back, Brown said he was pleased at the response he elicited from the Queensland Origin hopeful.
"Korbin didn't have the best of days against Canberra but I thought today he did really, really well," said Brown. "Korbin is 24 now and getting to the stage of his career where that should be his basic game. Obviously he's in that Origin mix and if you're going to be an Origin player that's your basic game for an Origin player. Korbin's consistency and the way he plays is going to be important for us as a club but also for him as an individual."
Seven debutants have a ball
For the seven players who made their NRL debuts on Sunday evening it will stand as a game they will never forget, albeit a slightly happier memory for Titans pair Nathan Davis and Leivaha Pulu. Including the seven NRL debutants there were a total of 15 players making their club debuts across both teams and each had moments to remember. John Olive scored a try with his second touch as a Titan, Nathan Davis put in a deft kick to earn his side an important repeat set as well as a long run midway through the second half, Knights fullback Jaelen Feeney earned a pass mark under the high ball in awful conditions while Pat Mata'utia and Daniel Saifiti marked the start of their NRL careers with tries. A Gold Coast junior, Feeney said that making his debut in front of friends and family was everything he hoped it would be.
"I'm ecstatic. Obviously it didn't go the way we planned but just to be out there in front of my friends and family back home, hopefully I did my teammates proud first of all and I hope I did my family proud," Feeney told NRL.com.
"Now it's under my belt it's a big weight off my shoulders and I'll be doing my best to stay in the team. I was really close to playing last year, I was 18th man a few times, but it's turned out to be a dream come true to debut here in front of my friends and family. The look on all their faces and the look on my old man's face, just seeing him after the game made me realise that we'd done it. It's been a long journey but it was good to get it."
Bird does it all in roaming role
His experience and sheer competitiveness could have been the difference in the Titans winning the three extra games they needed to play finals football in 2015 and Greg Bird seems intent on making up for lost time. The NSW and Kangaroos forward did it all against the Knights on Sunday, laying on two tries, running for 158 metres and setting a defensive tone in the middle third that his teammates joined. Back wearing the No.13 jersey, the 32-year-old brought back memories of the ball-playing locks of the 1970s and '80s and said he is comfortable playing a multi-faceted role.
"I've played lock a fair bit in my career and the lock's role continuously changes, not every team or player plays the same role," Bird told NRL.com.
"Some teams have it as an extra front-rower, some teams have it as an extra edge back-rower, some teams have it as an extra five-eighth.
"I like to do a bit of everything. I'll drift out to the edge, I'll stay in the middle and I'll do a bit of ball-playing; I like to diversify my game up a little bit."
Titans coach Neil Henry and captain Nathan Friend both rolled their eyes at the prospect of Bird regaling of them with his two passes that led directly to tries but acknowledged his importance after playing only 12 games last season due to suspension.
"That's what he brings. We missed him terribly last year for 10 games and he knows that," Henry said. He is a handful with the ball and he does work hard defensively. He brings that to the table each week and his leadership is valuable out there with 'Friendy' as well. He's a five-eighth trapped in a 13's shirt at times but he also rolls up his sleeves and gets the hard stuff done."