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For a facet of the game worth 2 points, early penalty goals are often remarkably pointless. Occasionally a team will be thankful for their existence after scraping over the line in a tight contest, but it seems that far more often the shot at goal will prove to be a rare and hastily forfeited visit to the opponent's end of the field. The Gold Coast Titans 27-2 loss to the Eels in last Friday night's elimination match was the perfect example of a football team prioritising the early lead over the bigger picture. They took the free 2 points in the 7th minute via captain Scott Prince. They never scored a try and never looked like winning. It was akin to the efforts of those enthusiastic limelight-seekers that dress up in superhero outfits or silly hats and sprint the first 200 metres of Sydney's televised City to Surf - a 14 kilometre annual run from the city to Bondi Beach - only to fade badly, collapse beside a portaloo, and be overtaken by shuffling elderly couples and mums pushing prams. That is not to suggest that the Eels were ever likely to be pushing any prams. Racing the prams downhill, gathering unprecedented momentum, and being absolutely impossible to stop, more like it. They entered the match in hot form and it would take something special from the Gold Coast to topple them. All the more reason to attack; to go for the try; to use field position and possession to gain the edge physically as much as on the scoreboard. Tries win matches in the NRL. It's not Rugby Union. A defending side's relief is often palpable when the attacking captain points to the sticks after a penalty is awarded. It's a giant let-off and the whole ground can feel it. The whole ground except the attacking captain, that is.
What's more it fills the defending side with confidence. The tired players' body language suddenly springs to life like Wendell realising there's a camera about. Their collective demeanour seems to taunt their adversaries: 'Thanks for taking the 2 points, fellas, we really needed a breather. By the way, if you can't breach our line now, what exactly makes you think you can breach it later?' And yet teams persist. They cherish that frontrunner's feeling. It lasts about as long as the flavour in chewing gum, but they cherish it nevertheless. Any lead is a good lead, as the adage goes. Perhaps in the past it was true. Certainly Queensland achieved a famous Origin victory in Game One of 1995 by running away with the match 2-0 after a first-half penalty goal to Wayne Bartrim. These, though, are the days of rapid-fire try-scoring. Anything is possible. Even a 16 point lead can appear precarious. A 2 point lead is as solid as a highway built of eggshells. Is there still a place for the penalty goal in our game? Of course there is. The key to its use is the state of the game. It comes into its own in the second half, when a lead is more meaningful as the final whistle approaches. Any goal that forces an opponent to score an extra try to hit the front is a goal worth taking. Otherwise it does nothing but make the scoreboard look prettier. Often for no longer than a few minutes. Surely that can't be a goal worth pursuing?