The undermanned Sydney Roosters live to fight another day in 2021 with a heartstopping 25-24 win over Gold Coast while South Sydney moved to just one win away from only their second grand final in 50 years after they stunned Penrith 16-10 in their NRL qualifying final.
Unable to get close to the Panthers or Melbourne for the past two seasons, the Rabbitohs turned on their grittiest performance of the year in Townsville.
Adam Reynolds starred while fullback Blake Taaffe overcame an early scare, justifying the faith put in him by Wayne Bennett to replace the suspended Latrell Mitchell.
The result leaves Penrith with a nightmare run to return to the grand final, with Liam Martin and Isaah Yeo both facing possible trouble for crusher tackles.
The Panthers now not only have a do-or-die battle with Parramatta or Newcastle next week, but also face the prospect of having to contend with Melbourne in the preliminary final.
Souths meanwhile are flying, having qualified for their fourth preliminary final in as many years.
But the real drama of the night came in the closing seconds of the Roosters breathtaking victory over the Titans.
For the second time this season Sam Walker nailed the field goal that sank the Titans in a bizarre repeat of their 35-34 win in round 14.
Except this time it ended the Titans’ finals campaign that was torpedoedin front of 15,237 fans in Townsville.
The gutsy Titans levelled the scores at 24-all when Jarrod Wallace pounced on a Matt Ikuvalu knock on, igniting a frenzy with 10 minutes to go.
It raged until the dying seconds when Beau Fermor raced 40 metres down field, ending in Patrick Herbert flicking the ball into touch in a desperate bid to offload on the third tackle.
‘We can play better’
The wild finish showed how far the Titans have come, but booked the Roosters a date with Manly on Friday night to continue their horribly disrupted season.
“We can play better and that’s what we’re searching for,” said coach Trent Robinson.
“I love the fact that they keep working hard and keep trying to win, but that imperfect game that we’re talking about, that continual search for perfect even though you may never get there, that’s next week.”
Not once have Robinson’s men used a remarkable injury toll as an excuse, Saturday’s win continuing an incredible show of perseverance in the face of adversity in 2021.
Despite losing co-captains Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Brett Morris to retirement this year the Roosters simply turned to another leader in James Tedesco, who was the difference on Saturday.
The third-choice skipper now a gold-standard NRL captain, Tedesco set up three tries and scored one of his own to carry the Roosters to victory.
“You can see there’s a lot of our guys trying to emulate him on and off the field,” Robinson said.
“He’s built for these games and these moments.”
Roosters crow early
The Roosters shot out to a 12-2 lead midway through the first half but in their first finals game in six seasons the Titans would not go away.
A grubber from Tyrone Peachey put Fermor over on halftime to keep them close but when the Roosters extended again the Titans followed.
Fighting for their first finals win since 2010, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Brian Kelly got through scrappy defence to level the scores 18-all with 24 minutes to play.
But it wasn’t to be and the anguish was obvious.
“We just had a lot of near misses and it cost us,” said coach Justin Holbrook.
“I’m really proud of the boys, we chased them all game. It’s just heartbreaking.
“Our whole city got behind us this week and I’d love to be playing next week.”
For the Roosters, the big concern will now turn to hooker Sam Verrills who was put on report in the first half for a high shot on Kelly that forced the Titans centre from the field with a bloody nose.
Verrills wasn’t sin-binned and has no priors with the NRL judiciary, but the hit could cost him a semi-final game.