Two sides coming off back-to-back losses lock horns on the Gold Coast strip – with the Dragons in particular in desperate need of two competition points to blow wind into the sails of their stalled season.
St George Illawarra sit 12th on the ladder after successive defeats at the hands of the Roosters (34-10) and Sea Eagles (24-18) and another fruitless excursion on Sunday would likely see them regarded only a nuisance factor even before the midpoint of the 2013 season.
However, with the exception of their loss to the tricolours on Anzac Day, the Dragons’ recent form has been solid and if they take the verve they displayed against the Sea Eagles into their encounter with the Titans they will prove tough to overcome, even allowing for the absence of star winger Brett Morris who left the field 14 minutes into the clash against Manly after suffering a knee cartilage injury that will sideline him for up to a month.
Meanwhile the Gold Coast occupy sixth place on the ladder, the highest-ranked of four sides log-jammed on eight competition points. They fell 25-24 to the Warriors in Auckland last Sunday in a scoreline that belied the gap between the combatants. The Warriors led 24-6 with 20 minutes remaining before the Titans made it a six-point game 10 minutes before the siren. A Shaun Johnson field-goal delivered a match-winning buffer before Anthony Don’s consolation try on fulltime added more respectability to the scoreboard than was probably deserved.
Before that the Titans were no match for the Knights at Skilled Park, savaged 30-6 in a largely unforgettable 80 minutes.
Coach Cartwright welcomes back speedy wingers David Mead (broken jaw) and Kevin Gordon (hamstring) from injuries this week, with Anthony Don and Steve Michaels bumped from the squad, while Ben Ridge joins the interchange which numbers five at this stage.
Meanwhile the Dragons will give centre Matt Cooper very opportunity to prove his fitness; Cooper was a late withdrawal last week with an ongoing toe problem. The Dragons have yet to name a replacement for Morris, who was rule out on Wednesday.
Watch Out Titans: Hooker Mitch Rein is an under-rated player who is growing in confidence dictating terms out of dummy-half. Rein handled the ball 105 times last week, putting teammates through holes in the Sea Eagles’ defence twice and he was a tyro in defence, making a game-high 47 tackles. The Titans must bustle him and limit the amount of time he has to make decisions.
We say it every week but if it’s true it has to be repeated: Trent Merrin will pose the biggest threat in a Red V jersey. A shoo-in for the NSW Origin side, the lock continues to lay defences to waste, with 24 hit-ups fracturing the Sea Eagles into an uncharacteristic 44 missed tackles last Monday.
Watch Out Dragons: Greg Bird, Nate Myles and Dave Taylor will offer relentless roll-forward that will need to be checked. Bird leads all second-rowers for impact with 16.2 runs per game, while Myles makes nearly 15 runs per game. Taylor adds 12 runs in an average 52 minutes on the field – last week he punched out 15 runs for 106 metres and threw five offloads as well.
Fullback William Zillman is an under-rated threat: he ranks behind only Greg Inglis and Billy Slater for line-breaks in the No.1 jersey (with six) and has made the fourth-most tackle-busts by a fullback (30).
Lack of points could prove a stumbling block for the Red V; they are racking up five points less per game than the Titans’ 20 points average. They dominated the Sea Eagles last week with a 60 per cent share of possession but their 18 points still came up short.
Plays To Watch: How the respective defences react to the off-the-cuff plays that are likely to pepper this contest will be crucial.
Offloads will be the order of the afternoon – the Dragons lead the comp for promoting the ball with an average 13.1 offloads every 80 minutes, with the Titans not far behind them, ranked second with 12.4. That means the ball may be spread to the left, then back to the right, before it heads left again all in the one passage of play. ‘Shutting the gate’ in cover defence will be a key message from both coaches – as will be urgency in wrapping up the ball carrier.
The men most likely to put on a show are Gold Coast trio Dave Taylor, Greg Bird and Jamal Idris, who are each credited with 16 popped balls to date, and the Dragons’ Trent Merrin (with a league-high 21), Jason Nightingale (13) and Matt Prior (11).
Key Match-Up: Jamal Idris v Matt Cooper. Titans right-side centre Idris has been in menacing form of late and will be tough to contain, although Cooper has one of the best defensive records by a three-quarter over the past decade. Man mountain Idris opened his 2013 try-scoring account with a bullocking double last week, running 17 times for 150 metres and making a game-high seven tackle-breaks as well as a try assist. Idris offloads more than any centre in the NRL and he now has three try assists, the second most by any centre.
Cooper misses less than one tackle per match and is the most effective defensive three-quarter, erring just 0.3 times on average. The former Test star will sniff out opportunities off Jamie Soward and fullback Jason Nightingale, as well as prolific offloading winger Morris should he play.
Where It Will Be Won: Intensity in attack and defence – neither team can afford anything but total focus in each area.
Despite losing to Manly the Dragons showed what they are capable of when they combine solid go-forward with a steely defence. Prior to last week’s game the Red V ranked last for conceding metres to other teams, surrendering a whopping 1455 on average. But the Dragons restricted Manly – the team that through Round 7 averaged 1443 metres a match – to just 1084 metres. Their attack kept their side of the bargain too, making 1489 metres.
Meanwhile the Titans rank fourth for gaining territory (1378 metres) and are middle of the pack for yielding ground (1332 metres).
The History: Played 11; Dragons 8, Titans 3. The Dragons have won two of the past three clashes.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Peter Gough; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Neil Wharton.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 6pm.
The Way We See It: Providing the Dragons can rub out the silly errors that have marred their performances in recent weeks (17 against Manly) they are a huge chance of stealing the competition points. We’re expecting a fiery encounter, with the Dragons likely to be more desperate for the win given their precarious position on the ladder. The loss of Morris is a blow but given they scored as many points as Manly did with him off the field fans have every reason to be optimistic. St George Illawarra by four points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.