A depleted Sydney Roosters have leapt into the top four with seven rounds remaining with a 20-12 victory against a brave but error-riddled Gold Coast Titans but it came after one of most puzzling refereeing decisions of the season.
Three Roosters youngsters – halfback Sean O'Sullivan, centre Paul Momirovski and forward Poasa Faamausili – scored in their NRL debut appearance, in what is believed to be a competition record.
But the first-half four-pointer to O'Sullivan, standing in for Cooper Cronk, left spectators scratching their heads and Titans skipper Ryan James exasperated.
O'Sullivan had the ball stripped by Jarrod Wallace over the line. He then made contact with the ball off the goalpost pad and ripped it to the ground, immediately throwing his arms to the turf feeling he'd bombed the try.
The first surprise was that referee Jon Stone sent it to the bunker as a try, the second was that – after Sullivan seemed to knock the ball down off the goalpost pad – the bunker upheld the decision, ruling it was a knock back.
James immediately remonstrated with Stone, saying: "Even the player knew he knocked on. How could you give that a try?" Taukeiaho conversion made the half-time score 14-6.
The NRL Bunker took to Twitter to explain the verdict.
However, the Roosters were clearly the better side even without Origin stars James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell, Boyd Cordner plus Cronk, Dylan Napa and Mitchell Aubusson.
Keary, although sin-binned in the second half, directed them superbly in Cronk's absence. They led 14-6 at half-time after scoring two tries and had most of the running in the first half, with two more tries having been disallowed.
Two came off the back of errors by Titan halfback Ash Taylor, who had a horror half off the back of his uncustomary poor performance against the Broncos a week earlier.
The Roosters' first four-pointer, to Momirovski in the 14th minute, came after Taylor kicked dead on the last tackle.
From the seven-tackle set, the Roosters worked play deep into Gold Coast territory and Keary kicked over the top. Taylor fielded the ball but tried to squeeze a ball out to Brenko Lee, who spilled the ball.
After the Roosters scrum win, Momirovski scored on the third play from an outside-inside line, beating Lee. Taukeiaho converted for 8-0.
Fortunately for the Titans they were able to respond quickly, with prop Moeaki Fotuaika crossing for his first NRL try from a brilliant right-handed offload from Maroons forward Jarrod Wallace.
The Titans were being hammered for penalties in the ruck and the referees lost patience in the 27th minute when he sin-binned Will Matthews for a flop near the try-line. From the next play it looked like they were made to pay when Blake Ferguson crossed on the right edge but he was denied due to an obstruction in the lead-up.
Match: Titans v Roosters
Round 18 -
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium
- LIVE PASS
In the Titans' next set of possession Taylor made another error when the ball flipped forward from his grasp when passing. O'Sullivan's try came from the resulting kick, in the 33rd minute – although he couldn't believe it himself.
Faamausili became the third debutant to score for the Roosters when he ran a great line close the line and was too strong for the defence to cross next to the posts.
The Gold Coast got back into the contest after Keary was sin-binned for tackling Taylor without the ball in a potential try-scoring position 10 metres out. On the next set Leilani Latu dropped off a great ball to Wallace near the left upright and he scored the Titans' second. Gordon's conversion made it 20-12.
Wallace looked like he was in for his second try of the match to set the stage for a grandstand finish while Keary was still off the field when he steamed onto a ball and touched down, only for the Referees' Bunker to deny it due to an obstruction from Ryan James.
While Taylor was out of sorts, his haves partner Alexander Brimson was outstanding for the Titans in defence and attack, knocking down bigger men consistently, running the ball with purpose and taking on some of the kicking.
Wallace was also excellent backing up from Wednesday's Origin clash.
News & Notes: Zane Tetevano was placed on report for a late tackle on Titans sipper Ryan James … Four players scored their first NRL tries in this game, not only Rooster debutants Momirovski, O'Sullivan and Faamausili but Titans' 18-year-old prop Moeaki Fotuaika … the Titans have won only one of their past five games at Cbus Super Stadium … the Titans have lost nine from 10 clashes against top eight teams this season … Crowd: 10,074.