Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
Eight weeks ago, no-one would’ve expected this match to have any impact on the top eight. At the end of Round 9, the Titans had won just two games and, it seemed, were destined to hug the bottom of the table in 2012. A week earlier, the Warriors were going down a similar path – last year’s grand-finalists were just three wins from their opening eight clashes.
Now entering Round 18, the two teams are riding warm-to-hot patches of form and surging up the competition ladder. In the past month and a half, the Titans are four wins from six matches, while the Warriors are improving and have recorded four from seven.
With the home side in 10th and the visitors in ninth, the result in this clash will have huge ramifications for both teams. A win keeps the victor in touch with the top eight… but a loss, with two competition points currently separating the finals-qualifying cut-off from the rest of the teams, could prove deadly.
There is a raft of changes to the Titans side that lost 8-6 to the Dragons in Wollongong, although coach John Cartwright will make his final decisions on the players later in the week.
In the backs, William Zillman (hamstring) and Beau Champion (ankle) have come into the side to replace Phil Graham and Steve Michaels respectively. In the forwards, veteran Luke Bailey (ribs) returns to the front row, shifting Origin forward Nate Myles to lock, and Luke O’Dwyer to the bench. Matt White (tonsillitis) has also been added to the bench. Ashley Harrison (broken toe) will not return for at least the next fortnight.
The Warriors have made just one forced change to the team that defeated the Cowboys in Auckland, with forward Micheal Luck once again succumbing to his troublesome left shoulder. Luck had already missed the first half of what is going to be his final season of NRL. Steve Rapira comes onto the bench to replace Luck, with Samoan rep and halfback/hooker Pita Godinet also named on a five-man interchange. Winger Omar Slaimankhel has retained his place in the line-up and for the first time in his career has been named in the run-on squad (he was a last-minute replacement in his previous NRL appearances).
Watch Out Titans: The Warriors are an NRL attacking superpower… when they want to be! The team’s ninth position on the ladder is belied by the fact they are the fourth-best attacking team in the competition – they have already scored 63 tries this season, and in the process scored an average of almost 24 points per game. If they ‘click’ in this game, and begin to show some of the team play that saw them march to the 2011 grand final, John Cartwright should begin to feel worried.
Danger Sign: The Titans are struggling to negotiate opposition kicking games… and you can bet your last dollar the Warriors’ scheming halves have already noticed. The Gold Coast have defused just 60 per cent of chip kicks (13th in the league), 43 per cent of cross-field kicks (14th in the league) and just 68 per cent of all kicks overall (14th in league). If the prospect of Kevin Locke, Bill Tupou and Konrad Hurrell running at them wasn’t enough, they’ll have even more – in Maloney and Johnson’s kicking games – to deal with this week.
Watch Out Warriors: The Warriors rely on a power game, particularly close to an opponent’s line. So far they’ve scored 34 tries from the 0-10m zone (fourth in the league), but when an opponent dominates field position, how will they cope? If the Titans, as expected, try to tire the Warriors’ big forwards and hulking outside backs with an intelligent (and possibly early) long-kicking game and make the game an arm-wrestle for field position, the Warriors may need to turn to Plan B.
Danger Sign: On paper, this Titans team offers little in attack – with just 55 line-breaks all season (only Parramatta have fewer) they could easily be seen by an attacking team like the Warriors as ‘easy-beats’. But the visitors had better watch out – on the back of some stronger efforts from their most experienced players, the Gold Coast have recently stretched the Dragons, smashed the Panthers, thumped the Cowboys, and upset the Knights and Bulldogs. This’ll be no easy two points for the visitors, especially as the Warriors have the worst tackling efficiency of any team in the comp (just 85.9 per cent) and concede an average of 22.8 points per game.
Jamal Idris v Konrad Hurrell: The earth will shake when these two giants cross paths down the same edge of the field. In recent weeks both the hirsute Idris and hulking Hurrell have been impressive. So far in 2012, Idris has proven a handful, breaking 35 tackles and averaging almost 80 metres per game. The former Bulldog has also four tries, broken the line six times and recorded three line-break assists. The Warriors centre has been even more damaging in his debut NRL season. The Tongan-born former Toyota Cup star is averaging 126 metres per game, has scored nine tries, broken 57 tackles and split the line nine times. Who gets the running – and pulls out the game-changing defensive play – in this match will give his side a huge advantage.
Where It Will Be Won: Two evenly matched forward packs (the Titans average 1375 metres per game, slightly more than the Warriors’ 1319 metres) and equally explosive outside backs means it’s all up to the halves in this match. It’s veteran Scott Prince and rising star Aidan Sezer up against exciting pairing James Maloney and Shaun Johnson. No doubt the Warriors duo is the more settled, with the Titans shuffling five-eighths throughout the 2012 season and Prince missing several games through injury. Who gets the decision here? The Warriors’ No.6 and No.7 definitely have the upper hand with 26 try assists between them (the Titans have 18) as well as 19 line-breaks (the Titans have just seven). If the Titans’ halves provide good service and challenge the line, and the Gold Coast defence doesn’t over-read the Warriors halves, the home side are still a chance. A lot will rest on Prince’s attacking game. The No.7 is the linchpin for the Titans… and he’s poised to become just the fourth man in NRL history (behind Lockyer, Orford and Kimmorley) to crack 200 try assists. He has 198 in his career to date, and interestingly has scored 17 tries from just 18 appearances against the Warriors.
The History: Played 11 – Gold Coast 6, Warriors 5. At Skilled Park, the Titans have a significant advantage, with four wins from five starts. The Gold Coast, however, have not won against the Warriors since 2010
Last Time They Met: It was a one-sided contest across the Tasman back in Round 4, with last year’s grand-finalists 26-6 winners.
The Warriors powered to a 14-nil half-time lead on the back of a 644 metres to 517 metres first half, which the home side also dominated three line-breaks to one.
Warriors halves James Maloney and Shaun Johnson were particularly tough for the Titans to handle; Roosters-bound Maloney broke the line twice and busted seven tackles, while No.7 Johnson ran for 129 metres, recording two line-breaks, five tackle-breaks, one try assist and two tries.
No doubt the Titans’ preparations entering the match were marred by revelations the club was drowning in debt and, potentially, ready to fold.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin and Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland and Michael Wise; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.
The Way We See It: Expect a bottler – two teams on the rise desperate for the two points to remain within striking distance of the top-eight finals cut-off. The Origin impact, though, with Titans forwards Greg Bird and Nate Myles in the final match, sways our prediction. Without them, or with both playing below full fitness, the visitors should prevail. The Warriors by four points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats