Another round, another disastrous performance from the Gold Coast Titans.
The fact Justin Holbrook has held on to his spot this long is solely due to his team playing in the relative obscurity of the Gold Coast with limited expectations. Had he been coaching a Sydney team, he’d be subject to more scrutiny than Michael McGuire was considering the astonishing way they’ve been losing, and the effort or lack thereof involved.
There weren’t many people predicting big things from the Titans this season, given how green their spine players were and a lack of depth. After limping into the finals on for and against last season with a final round win against New Zealand, the best case scenario for the Titans was to tread water and retain eighth spot. A more likely scenario was a finish in the 9-11range just outside of the finals.
Even the most dire predictions didn’t have the Titans near last spot on the ladder, winless away from home and holding the unwanted record of the only team to lose multiple 20 point leads in the same season. There’s a number of areas you can point the finger at for their disastrous performances, but the composition of their playing list, lack execution in games, players being played out of position, and shocking defensive decisions are obvious choices.
This had me thinking, is there anything the Titans actually do well (besides giving up the aforementioned 20 point leads or botching short kick offs)? Surely for Holbrook to have held on this long there would have to be some positives?
So, let’s investigate what (if anything) the Titans do well compared to other sides in the NRL. As always, the data here is from Fox Sports Stats.
A side note is that almost everything said here could have been easily written about the Knights had they not defeated the Titans on Friday evening. Adam O’Brien lives another week.
Looking at the trend of margin over the course of 80 minutes is always a good starting point for analysing why teams are struggling and you can see why with the Titans.
For 2022 (the purple highlighted line), the Gold Coast are generally quite competitive early in matches, only trailing by an average of -1.13 points by the 25th minute of games. The wheels start to fall off at that point though as the average margin increases to -3.63 by half time, -6.00 by the 60th minute and balloons out to -11.00 by the 80th minute.
With the number of times the Titans have forfeited a lead that gradient isn’t surprising, but it is telling that this season has their worst average margin after 80 minutes since 2016. The prior low mark was -8.54 from the 2018 campaign when they finished fourteenth.
The amount of time they’ve spent trailing is also the second most over the past eight seasons.
Nearly two thirds of the minutes they’re playing are spent behind on the scoreboard, only trailing the Titans 2020 season where they spent three quarters of their time on field behind. For reference, the bottom dwelling Knights side from 2016 faced 78.9% of their minutes playing from behind. Not elite company.
The Titans have the second lowest percentage of minutes played with a lead in the NRL at just 21.3%, only ahead of the hapless Warriors at 21.0%. They also have the second highest percentage of minutes played in a tied game at 13.1%, only behind the Wests Tigers at 15.8%.
All of this points to the Titans inability to manage a game and maintain a lead or keep a game close. Once they get behind on the scoreboard the team capitulates, falls apart defensively and takes unnecessary risks (like short kick offs) instead of remaining calm and trying to stay in the game. Again, this could come down to inexperienced players at key game management positions, a new captain and how the team is coached. How much you want to attribute each of those to the overall performance is subjective.
Part of this could be the way that the Titans get up and down the field. Gold Coast doesn’t generate a lot of metres per game – they sit lower than 10th in total run metres and pre-contact metres per game. They also sit 11th for metres per set, but 9th for complete sets per game.
A far bigger issue is that they don’t generate more run metres their opponents and are constantly battling out of bad field position.
Just three times this season have they ran for more total metres than their opponent.s They do place slightly higher in post contact metres, ranking 8th with 450.5 per game, but when you look at net post contact metres they’re only 11th at -22.8 per game. And again, only four times this season have they come out ahead in the post contact metre battle, which is shocking when you look at the strike forwards they have.
Overall, despite their forward pack being one of their strengths, there’s very little positive news here either. The Titans don’t generate more metres than their opponents, they don’t make more ground before contact and they certainly don’t create more metres post contact either.
Hurting this is the continued mismanagement of Greg Marzhew, who the Eye Test identified last year showed some similar statistical trends to Brian To’o’s breakout 2021. Marzhew is incredibly difficult to stop, breaks tackles at will and his ability to bring the ball out of his own area after kick returns would be a huge benefit to a forward pack struggling to make an impact. No matter what issues he has with the rest of his game, he is elite at something the Titans don’t do well. It would take some pressure of the middle men if Marzhew was able to start their sets off with a strong run.
Next, we’re going to put Holbrook’s performance in context by showing the average margin plotted against the average run metres by coach and season.
This chart shows a trend line with a positive relationship between longer runs and higher margins, yet Holbrook currently has the third worst average margin of a coach whose team matches the NRL average in metres per run. The Titans this season are averaging 8.904 metes per run, right on the NRL average at 8.908. Only Todd Payten last season with the Cowboys (9.380) and Jason Taylor with the Tigers in 2017 (9.500). A team hitting the league average for metres per run should be performing significantly better than losing each game by an average of 11 points.
This lack of metres is evident when you look at where their play the balls occur on the field. The Titans have the lowest percentage of play the balls spent inside an opponent’s twenty metre zone since 2014, at just 18.8%.
That 18.8% is only ahead of Brisbane and Melbourne this season for percentage of play the ball inside twenty metres. They do sit mid table though for time spent in their own half and opponent’s midfield (50m-20m area).
We have now established that with the ball, the Titans are below average at best in generating metres and where they experience most of their play the balls.
Defensively things look even worse. Looking at the same chart as above but flipped to look at opponent, the Titans are an absolute disaster.
They keep opponents inside their own half on just 48.6% of play the balls, dead last in the NRL and well below the NRL average of 54%. Allowing bad field position isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Melbourne place third worst for percentage of opponent play the balls inside their own half. But it can be an indicator of a larger issue.
Heightening this issue is that is that they let teams into their own twenty metre zone on almost a quarter of all play the balls, over 2% more than the second worst team in the competition (Canterbury at 22%). Again, this is significantly higher than the NRL average of 20%.
The amount of errors they make doens’t help. The Gold Coast sit 12th for error rate (number of possessions per error) at 37.37 touches per error.
That still places them in the bottom half of the competition, but they’re not too far below the other non top four teams. Only South Sydney (31 touches per error) really stands out here.
The defensive issues are highlighted by looking at individual Eye Test Player Contribution Ratings for this season. This metric is a possession adjusted attribution of how many points a player is worth above the average NRL first grader. Here’s the top and bottom 10 for the season so far.
Already it should be obvious where the problems lie. The Gold Coast accounts for the bottom three players – Patrick Herbert, Jamayne Isaako and Esan Marsters. All three are well below -2.5 ETPCR points per game worse than a league average player.
Given this metric is attributing the rating based on points scored and conceded, and the Titans have conceded a lot of points but not the most in the league, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see them dominate the bottom of the chart.
When you look at the team as a whole though it paints a clearer picture.
Only a handful of players are net positive players this season, and they’re mostly middle forwards.
The standout issue is just how significantly worse Herbert, Isaako and Marsters have been than the other backs. It appears that other teams are targeting them as weak links in defense. As mentioned above, Marzhew isn’t a fantastic defensive back but his ability to influence the game in other ways outweighs his shortcomings. Philip Sami being -0.119 whilst the other outside backs are lower than -1 is an interesting outcome as well, performing nowhere near as bad as the players around him.
All of this paints a very ordinary picture, especially for the club and Holbrook. The Titans don’t do a great job of moving the ball down the field, and on the off chance they do, they’re unable to finish sets effectively. When their opponents have the ball, they struggle to contain them and far too often allow them in scoring positions. And a handful of players seem to be conceding more points than the rest of the team.
These problems compound and whilst the Gold Coast can weather the storm for the first quarter of the game, these problems can’t be withstood for the full 80 minutes. Panic sets in and you end up taking a short kick off whilst leading because your twenty point margin is down to four.
To tie things back to the original question, it’s obvious there isn’t anything particularly that the Titans do well. Unless you count giving up massive leads, but that’s not something I’d want to hang my hat on. They’re decidedly below average across the board and awful at giving up field position and letting in points through certain players. It’s hard to see how Holbrook’s position is tenable given the way the team is under performing, especially once they fall behind on the scoreboard and the overall lack of commitment.
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