A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Gold Coast Titans
I’m not sure I could have been more dismissive of the Titans at the start of the year:
Perhaps the most significant thing to happen to the Titans last season was being surpassed by Newcastle, to be left at the bottom of the league in class Elo ratings. It might be recalled that the Knights were the worst NRL team of all time in 2016 and since then, the Knights have gotten better and the Titans so much worse.
…The rest of the roster under Garth Brennan was a joke, hence the 4-20 record, so hopes are pinned on the incoming Justin Holbrook, having left the best Super League team for the worst NRL team. Indeed, last season the Titans were ranked lower than half of the Super League.
…[T]he Titans really should be better than they are. They are not and the sims reflect it. Fans will hope the new coach can get more out of the squad. Appointing Kevin Proctor captain is not the most auspicious start to turning around the club’s culture. Sick 9s jersey though.
It’s clear that they’ve outperformed expectations and they should be congratulated for that. Justin Holbrook has done a better job with the club than his predecessors. I bought their 9s jersey when it went on sale.
In summary, I was wrong. But let’s not break out the party poppers just yet.
The Titans finished as the best team in Queensland which, in any other year, would be an achievement worth having on the resume. It’s the first time since 2010, approximately the last time the Titans were relevant in the premiership race. Starting the season with new coach, Justin Holbrook, the Titans had a rocky 3-9 start but managed to finish strongly with five wins in a row to see out 2020, landing in ninth with a 9-11 record.
Recency bias is a huge factor in most assessments of the Titans’ season.
At the start of 2020, there was no question that they were the worst team in the NRL, coming off a 4-20 season in 2019. Despite the arrival of Holbrook, the season did not start in a promising fashion with big losses to the Raiders, Eels and Cowboys. They traded wins and losses before bottoming out 42-6 against the Storm and then started a run towards the midfield, including a run of five wins over the Dragons, Dogs, Broncos, Sea Eagles and Knights to wrap up the season. Note how many of those teams won a finals game.
The strong finish to the season has made Holbrook a popular man at Robina. This is because the bar has been set unfathomably low for the Titans after years of poor performances. A coach that has the team looking like they’re at least trying for the first time in living memory becomes a demi-god, instead of just meeting minimum expectations for a head coach in the NRL.
Before the season starts, I project a TPR for each player based on past performances. Players invariably outperform or underperform these expectations due to a range of reasons, including coaching. If we compare each player’s TPR to their pre-season projection and weight for the number of games played, we can get a good idea of which clubs got more out of their players than expected.
I think it’s telling that in a year where almost all of the league exceeded their player projections – thanks to rule changes increasing the amount of production occurring in all games – that the Titans are down with the Broncos at the bottom of the list.
Bearing in mind that their 1-5 start is as meaningful as their 5-1 finish and their points difference was the worst outside of the bottom four, I think we should really be questioning the extent and the sustainability of this year’s improvement in the Titans.
Having said that, the Titans will certainly get better. They seem to have worked out that they have some talent buried in reserve grade, as evidenced by the emergence of Jamal Fogarty. Signings for next season of the calibre of David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui are important. More important is that the Titans seem to be shedding the bad contracts that have hamstrung their performances over the last few years. It is difficult to understate how big these steps are in the right direction.
I don’t think anyone has written as positively about the commercial potential of the Titans as I have. To a certain extent, I want to see them succeed (just not at the expense of my own team) as proof that many rugby league talking heads don’t actually understand the sport. Those same people will overhype this team that lucked into a 9-11 record. The Titans will be expected to be comfortably in finals contention in 2021 and then be premiership contenders the year after.
If this all sounds eerily similar, it’s because we heard the same things about Nathan Brown’s Knights and Dean Pay’s Bulldogs after they bottomed out. Don’t fall for it. When the season was actually in play, the Titans were slumming it with the Broncos. Wins in garbage time over poor opposition mean jack.
If you give it another year, when the takes are less searing, they might actually be right. Mal Meninga has sprinkled his fairy dust over the club and, against all of my expectations, it’s actually goddamn working. Barring a miracle, it’s going to be a year of consolidating the gains, earning an 11-13 (or maybe even 12-12) record and laying the foundation for 2022. I hope Holbrook is up to it.