By Adam Hayward
Under-fire coach Justin Holbrook need only look to the opposite end of Queensland for the blueprint on how to turn around the fortunes of the struggling Gold Coast Titans.
The Titans were widely tipped to finish in the top eight this season, with some pundits suggesting they could challenge for a top four spot after Holbrook took the club from wooden spooners to finalists in his two years in charge.
Unfortunately, the club has made several roster management blunders which left their salary cap bent out of shape and lacking experience in key positions, which has partly contributed to the Titans freefall down the ladder.
There are a lot of similarities between the current Gold Coast Titans side and the North Queensland Cowboys of last season.
Defensively, the Cowboys were woeful. When something went against them, whether it was a 50/50 call, an unforced error or conceding a try off a kick, they lacked the mental and physical resilience to cope – and the game was lost.
They had a young, inexperienced squad and their $1 million marquee players were well below their best.
The Cowboys recruited young half Tom Dearden to steer them around the park, whose confidence was completely shot from his previous club, who mismanaged him and his development badly.
If you compare the 2022 Titans side with the 2021 Cowboys, they are essentially going through the same problems.
The Titans are a physically unfit and mentally weak football side, which lacks resilience and toughness in defence.Embed from Getty Images
Their defensive structure, spacing and communication is all over the place – particularly on both edges. Their contact in tackles is poor and the effort to scramble is not good enough.
The Titans line speed is so slow, they are continuously losing the battle for field position because they are allowing the opposition to comfortably power their way past the advantage line. Therefore, they are always playing off the back foot.
Much like Dearden when he was at the Broncos, 19-year-old halfback Toby Sexton had been thrown to the wolves and asked to do his best with respect to game managing a struggling NRL side.
The criticisms hurled in his direction have been unfair, and the club is at fault for not looking after him properly and mismanaging his development.
There is no doubt Sexton has the potential to become one of the NRL’s elite halfbacks, but at this early stage of his career, and to no fault of his own, he has been exposed.
Look at the way Roosters coach Trent Robinson handled his 19-year-old halfback, Sam Walker. He made a big splash in his first few games, but he was kept grounded and protected by his coach from the exposure that Sexton is currently facing.
At the backend of last season, Walker was rested, spent some at #14 and he was strategically nurtured into first grade.
Cowboys coach Todd Payten recruited an experienced, premiership winning number seven in Chad Townsend to take the reins, and to assist with Dearden’s development.Embed from Getty Images
In the space of 12-months, Dearden went from an NRL discard to an Origin debut.
This has led to the Titans recruiting their own experienced, premiership winning half in Kieran Foran for 2023, hoping he will have the same impact on Sexton as Townsend has had on Dearden and the Cowboys.
Another major concern for the Titans, is their coach continuously pointing to the lack of experience in their spine as the cause for his sides woes.
It is a part of the reason why they are currently running last, but the team’s lack of resilience and attitude towards defence cannot be blamed on the spine.
There is an old adage in rugby league – ‘defence wins premierships.’
Payten knows this, and that is why his Cowboys have gone from preseason favourites for the wooden spoon to premiership contenders.
The foundation of every Cowboys performance this season is built on defence – after they finished the 2021 season with the worst defensive record in the competition.
Payten knew he had to instil mental and physical toughness into his squad.
He implemented a brutal, no-nonsense training program which included tackling every day, getting his players up at 4am to run up Townsville’s Castle Hill without any warning, and forcing the players to do things on the training paddock they did not want to do.
In Payten’s words, he wanted to make his players “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” which has transferred onto the field with the Cowboys being mentally and physically capable to withstand anything the opposition throws at them.
This is precisely the blueprint Holbrook needs to adopt for his team.Embed from Getty Images
Titans hierarchy have already sacked defence coach Jim Dymock – a move that clearly shows they are unhappy with the team’s lack of defensive discipline.
The Titans season comes to an end on the 3rd of September after their round 25 clash against the Warriors in Auckland, which cannot come soon enough.
The focus then shifts to preseason training to prepare for their 2023 campaign.
If Holbrook wants to save his own coaching career and return the Titans back to the finals, he must take the Payten approach with a ruthless preseason focused on defence and instilling mental and physical toughness into his players.
As shown by the Cowboys, building a foundation based on defence, allows them to attack more freely. Not only are they conceding an average of just 14 points per game, but they are scoring an average of 26 points per game.
We all know the Titans can score points. They have been a flamboyant attacking side since Holbrook took over in 2020.
He is a premiership winning coach with St Helens in the Super League, and it looks like he has brought that Super League style of play to the Titans. But they will not achieve success in the NRL unless they are proficient on both sides of the ball.
The first question Holbrook needs to ask himself and his players on day one of preseason – is what kind of team do they want to be?
A team that is capable of flashes of brilliance, but folds like a deck of cards when things go wrong? Or a team that is willing to fight hard and show reliance under adversity?
Gold Coast Titans… follow the Cowboys blueprint, draw inspiration from their ability to turn things around and replicate it into your own success for the 2023 season and beyond.
Feature Image: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast (Adam Hayward)