Cowboys superstar Johnathan Thurston is sure to be eyeing off any deficiencies in the Titans' left side defence. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos
He has a more intimate knowledge of the capabilities of Johnathan Thurston than most but Titans assistant coach Neil Henry believes the left side defence that was left so exposed last week can handle whatever the Cowboys superstar throws at them.
With Brad Takairangi named at five-eighth and Dave Taylor in the centres for the third week in succession, Thurston will be plotting ways in which to force the Titans into defensive errors, something the Eels pairing of Chris Sandow and Jarryd Hayne did to great effect last Saturday.
Parramatta's opening three tries of the game came through the Titans' left edge but Henry believes it was the work on the inside that made them vulnerable out wide.
For the Eels' first try Sandow was able to hold up a pass for winger Ken Sio after Taylor rushed out of the line, Hayne burst through a gap between Takairangi and Greg Bird midway through the second half and then Sandow enticed Takairangi out of the line to put Hayne over in between Takairangi and Taylor.
All told Taylor has missed 11 tackles in his past two games in the centres and the success of Parramatta will have served as a blueprint that Thurston and Cowboys coach Paul Green will be poring over in the lead-up to their crucial clash at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday evening.
"Hayne went through between 'Birdy' and Taka and I thought Dave's been defending quite well out there actually," said Henry, who will be returning to Townsville for the first time since departing at the end of the 2013 season after five years there as head coach.
"He's mobile for a big fella and I thought he's been handling their speed men quite well. He's certainly getting his runs up and getting the full 80 minutes out which is a bonus for us.
"He came in a couple of times when he probably could have stayed out but he used his speed again to get to [Will] Hopoate so I thought there that the problem was on the inside of the line. We had a man shoot out of the line there which enabled Sandow to skip across and hit Hayne on a short ball so we've addressed that in our review so that we need to work together in the line.
"When you look at it, it comes down to a couple of defensive lapses and Jarryd's good enough to make you pay for it, and he certainly did."
Of concern to the Titans will be the fact that the Cowboys are becoming less reliant on Thurston due to the emergence of Michael Morgan at fullback. With 16 try assists Morgan is ranked fifth in the entire competition with Thurston at the top of the list with 20.
Morgan made his NRL debut under Henry at halfback in Round 9, 2010 and his former mentor has been impressed – but not surprised – with how he has adapted to his new role at the back.
"He'd played a fair bit of footy for the [Mackay] Cutters in the centre position so his running game has always been a strong point of his game and he had played that style of footy when he was younger as a junior," Henry recalled. "He hadn't played fullback before but he's certainly played in the outside backs before.
"It doesn't surprise me really. He had a disrupted year last year and he's got a good pre-season in and he's certainly a talent, he's slotted in there and been one of their more consistent players.
"He's got a good selection of passes and he can kick the ball. He's laid on a few tries with some selective passes and kicks so that's another dimension that not all fullbacks have because he's played in the halves.
"They're dangerous when they all link together and sweep and we saw evidence the other week where he was strong close to the line and got a try where he was on his knees for three or four metres and planted the ball. He's quite a big player; he's deceptive. He's over 6-foot and he can really run."
The Titans will share the fullback duties between Kevin Gordon and David Mead, who makes his return to the side after missing the past three weeks with a hamstring injury.
Kalifa Faifai Loa misses out on a trip to Townsville to face his former club after suffering a minor medial ligament strain in his knee against the Eels last weekend.