Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Cowboys v Titans
This one shapes as an intriguing contest between two teams that are seemingly right where they want to be – the Cowboys back at home and the Titans some 1400 kilometres away from theirs.
After playing the part of road warrior these past two weeks, the Cowboys will again want to channel that combative side this week against a Titans side that has silenced their critics every time they have been counted out. The task should prove a little easier though, with the home side sporting a specially-made Thor jersey thanks to the NRL’s unofficial 'Marvel Round', which will see four other clubs (Sea Eagles, Roosters, Dragons and Raiders) become superheroes for a day.
It’s home sweet home for North Queensland as they will grace the Townsville turf for the first time in over a month at a venue that has been nothing but a graveyard for opposing sides, while Gold Coast will want to add to their competition-best record (6-2) at away venues.
While it’s a costume party up north at the moment, the Coasters are currently enduring one of the club’s most serious periods since their inauguration in 2007. Along with the fallout of a salary cap investigation, they are dealing with an all-encompassing review of the organisation.
In team news, the Cowboys welcome back friendly giant Matthew Scott after recovering from a fractured cheekbone. Prop partner James Tamou is named despite being taken to hospital with a suspected neck injury early in last week’s Bulldogs game. In a move Paul Green says is defence-oriented, Tautau Moga and Matthew Wright swap jerseys from last week, with Moga named on the wing and Wright in the centres.
Only one change for the Gold Coast this week. Speedster David Mead slots back to the wing after injury, replacing former Cowboy Kalifa Faifai Loa who suffered a knee injury against Parra last week.
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Watch Out Cowboys: He's 123 kilograms, 185 centimetres and possesses a right-foot step that would have made every AND1 mixtape ever made if that were the game he played. The Titans have used Dave Taylor essentially as a forward in the past two weeks, with 13 first-receiver runs in each game. The only difference is that he now lives on the edge of the ruck. The Coal Train has chugged his way through a mountain of work in that period, running 353 metres, 31 hit-ups and nine tackle breaks. Can he wreak some more havoc this time around? We think he can... we think he can.
The standout stat in an otherwise ugly attacking profile is the Titans' ability to generate second-phase play. Sitting in second behind Cronulla, the two clubs have left the others for dead in this category over the course of 2014, but what does that say about this stat? The two leaders in offloads are in the bottom three teams for points scored this season. Their lack of attacking options will be compounded Saturday as the Cowboys are themselves still the best at wrapping up tackles and denying second-phase opportunities. North Queensland have been especially focused on locking up the ruck, after coming off games against Cronulla and the Bulldogs.
Watch Out Titans: Johnathan Thurston, Robert Lui, Michael Morgan. What more needs to be said? That’s right, we forgot Matt Scott and James Tamou. The combination of flair and function within these five players will likely make sure that Gold Coast’s last visit into the top eight was its final one in 2014. Since Paul Green’s experiment of moving Thurston to halfback three games ago the wily veteran has found himself in season-best touch, engaging the defensive line more and chancing his arm with one of those famous dummies that end in line breaks more often than not. The master has also managed three try assists and as many line break assists in that period.
We could go on about Morgan’s 14 try assists (tied for fifth-best in the competition) and Scott’s 149 metres per game (most by a prop), but the point has well and truly been made.
Plays To Watch: The Cowboys may not want to hear it, but we hope Australia’s answer to Usain Bolt gets another chance to engage the afterburners again this Saturday. James Roberts’ 60-metre solo try against Parramatta last week, where he scorched Semi Radradra and beat even Jarryd Hayne for pace, was spectacular to say the least, and has left this footy fan wanting more. His direct opponent this week is Kane Linnett, who is of the larger variety for an outside back, so we can only cross our fingers and hope that some real estate opens up on that right side.
Where It Will Be Won: Decision making. If it’s not the jerseys that have Gold Coast shaking in their boots, it will probably be the competition’s in-form halves pairing of Robert Lui and Johnathan Thurston. Unfortunately the Titans have run a second-string pairing most of the year and it shows, failing to reach 24 points in a game since Round 5 against the Storm. The glamour club currently sits third-last in points scored this season, just four points better than Newcastle. The ship needs to be steered in a structured and assertive fashion by the likes of Mortimer and Takairangi.
They could consider putting away the slapdash second-phase play and focus their creative streaks more structurally, instead of one-out hit-ups that hope to generate offloads.
The History: Played 14; Titans 8, Cowboys 6. If we were to put this head-to-head into a picture, it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d get from acclaimed artist Escher – it’s symmetrical. Long story short, the 12-game pattern that suggests a Titans win in the next couple of outings between the two.
What Are The Odds:
The Cowboys ($1.30) are back home after two away wins, and have had slightly more money placed on them in head to head markets compared to the Titans ($3.50). Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee – Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Rickey MacFarlane & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 5.30pm.
The Way We See It: Escher does make a case for a Titans victory, however he’s the only one. Logic dictates the Cowboys, in a season-best frame of mind, will be rampant over a Titans side trying its best to keep up appearances. The Cowboys are the best home defensive side in the NRL and their defensive gameplan matches up well with their opponent. Chuck in revenge factor from a Round 4 loss and we can only see this going one way; Cowboys by 20 points.