Tactical Change: How have the Titans Revived Their Season?

It has been a rollercoaster season for the Gold Coast Titans in 2021. 

At 47.2% to make the Top 8 before Round 1, this looked like the end of a four-year finals drought. The rebuild began to take shape as Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and David Fifita arrived in town. However, a slow start brought with it the anticipation of yet another finals-free season as just five wins in their first 14 games translated into an 18.5% chance of extending their season beyond Round 25.

An overreliance on David Fifita in attack papered over the cracks as the Titans still managed to score 22.7 points per game. Out of ideas with the ball and searching for points, 'give it to David' became an all too common approach. It worked often enough for the destructive backrower to pick up nine tries in his first seven games of the year, but when the tries dried up, so too did the wins as the Gold Coast's 27.1 points conceded per game caught up with them. 

Fifita went without a try from Round 8 through to the end of his 35-minute stint against the Roosters in Round 14. The best teams score points through repeatable actions, and Fifita throwing away defenders is only repeatable for so long when little is happening around him. The Titans won just two of those eight games.

Bottoming out at 13th on the ladder following a 56-24 loss to the Sea Eagles in Round 15, the Titans have since won four of their last five to be 7th and are now an encouraging 63.5% to play finals football in 2021.

So, what has changed?

How they're using Fifita

Fifita's move to the bench is being slightly overstated at this point. While it has coincided with improved and consistent performances by the 21-year-old, he has run at an undersized Cody Ramsey, the worst defence in the NRL, and a hooker-turned-centre in Jake Granville across those three games.

A lot of the Gold Coast's improvements come down to more subtle changes with how Fifita is being used. His move over to the right edge is part of it but, again, the matchups have been favourable. The encouraging signs of this recent run of form being repeatable is in the times he doesn't touch the ball or the moments before.

Using Fifita as a decoy can open up opportunities for others outside him. The Titans are experimenting more and more with Fifita as a decoy and the signs are there for it all to come together sooner rather than later. This shift doesn't amount to anything, but it won't be long before AJ Brimson is beating edge defenders to score.

That shape is similar to what the Sharks run to get Will Kennedy into space on the edge. 

Briton Nikora runs the same line as Fifita does above. The difference is how tight the half and centre are when the ball is released to Kennedy out the back. Brad Parker is forced to turn in on Siosifa Talakai's lead line which provides Kennedy with the space to score or draw the winger.

Brimson shapes as the biggest beneficiary to the gravity Fifita holds on a defence if he is used correctly. We saw another prime example of the Titans setting up to maximise Fifita against the Cowboys in Round 21.

Tino Fa'asuamaleaui's carry drags three defenders into the tackle in the middle of the field. Note the subtle fake of Mitch Rein feigning to go left to send the peeling defender the wrong way. That puts Brimson one-on-one with Jason Taumalolo. Brimson heads straight at Scott Drinkwater to draw him in before putting Fifita through half a gap. That's all he needs to score in most scenarios. 

These plays are set up in the tackles leading up to the shift. Rather than flinging the ball from sideline to sideline and it eventually ending up in the hands of Fifita, the Titans attack is working to areas of the field or to favourable matchups. 

With a much tougher test this week against the Rabbitohs, there is a good chance we see the Titans pull out a couple of new Fifita-inspired tricks - if they have them.

Taylor turning it around

Ash Taylor's career is back on the rise and his best performances have also come in this recent winning run. 

He has formed a good partnership with Toby Sexton over the last three weeks. Sexton plays on the ball more than Jamaal Fogarty which has seen Taylor play more of a natural five-eighth role.

Taylor is a smart and crafty footballer. At his best, he trains the defence into playing one way before he hits them with something different whether it be a kick in behind, short ball to a lead runner, or a cutout pass to the edge. The quicker pace and 'eyes up' trend the game has taken over the last 18 months hasn't played into his skillset all that well, but he is beginning to have more of an impact.

The Cowboys right edge defence is the worst in the NRL. No team has allowed more tries through any area of the field than the 52 North Queensland have leaked down their right side. Taylor knew that going into their Round 21 clash and picked them to pieces.

His match-sealing try in the 69th minute started to play out a lot earlier in the match.

A) Taylor throws a cut out pass to Corey Thompson on the left wing. He sees Kyle Feldt threaten to jam in on Brian Kelly before scrambling to the outside as the ball flies past him. Note Tom Dearden turned out and sliding before Taylor throws the pass too.

B) Taylor dummies and takes the line on himself, wrong-footing Dearden and turning him inside out.

C) Adding an extra pass across the field and a decoy at the three-in defender this time, the Cowboys defence compresses. Taylor knows Feldt has eyes for Kelly and sends a ball across the face of his centre.

This is Taylor at his best. Whether or not his rise in form and Fifita switching sides is a coincidence or not, the freedom at which Taylor is able to poke holes in the defence is working at the moment. He's playing for his next contract and it has been confirmed that other clubs are interested in his services. The Titans shouldn't rule out extending Taylor for another year or two, though.

The yardage game

Rugby league is a simple game for the most part. If you can win the middle and generate more go-forward than the opposition, you'll give yourself more opportunities to attack from favourable positions. Possession and momentum are even more important this year following the introduction of the six-again rule. 

The Titans have hovered around the middle of the pack to average 1,719 running metres per game this season. However, they have bumped that up to 1,822 running metres per game over the last five weeks.

They have the pieces to be a strong team through the middle. 

Tino Fa'asuamaleaui's 140 metres and Moeaki Fotuaika's 145 metres per game provide the Titans with strong carries while Jaimin Jolliffe is one of the most efficient bench forwards in the NRL averaging 101 metres per game.

Jarrod Wallace's ball-playing is still very much in the development stage, but he certainly isn't afraid to throw a pass. He is releasing the ball when returning kickoffs, acting as a ball-player on wide shifts and also tipping the ball onto those stronger ball-carriers at the line. Sam Lisone is playing a similar role. Remarkably, the 9-11 Titans are 7-5 in matches Lisone plays this season. 

While Corey Thompson doesn't generate a lot of yardage in exit sets, he still finds 167 metres per game. Greg Marzhew has taken on the responsibility in yardage sets to average 185 metres per game while Patrick Herbert and Brian Kelly both do their part to generate over 200 metres per game between them. 

If the Titans can stay healthy while Wallace, Lisone and Tyrone Peachey refine their ball-playing in the middle, the Titans have another level to reach in their yardage game as a likely finals run approaches.

Crystal Ball

The Titans took a rocky road to the Top 8 but are finally in possession of a finals spot through 21 rounds. 

While Justin Holbrook is now getting the best out of his Titans side, he needs to do more as they look to navigate the fourth-hardest remaining schedule of all 16 teams. The Rabbitohs make for their toughest test in over a month in Round 22 and there is no tougher test than the Storm in Round 23. Should the Titans drop back-to-back games, they will be in must-win mode when facing the Knights and Warriors across the last two rounds of the season.

Five teams are currently battling it out for two finals spots. Despite the difficult draw, the Stats Insider Futures Model marks the Titans as the most likely side to sneak in (63.5%) ahead of the Knights (60.5%), Raiders (47.3%), Sharks (20.6%) and Dragons (3.7%). 

It may come down to their Round 25 clash against the Warriors at Cbus Super Stadium - a ground in which the Warriors have won more games than they've lost - but 2021 is where the finals drought should end for the Titans.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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