Two of the NRL’s surprise packets face off this Monday night when the ladder-leading Gold Coast travel to the foot of the mountains to take on an under-rated Penrith outfit.
The Titans have enjoyed promising starts in each of their three years in the NRL – but there is something different about them this year. Having debunked the theories that they can’t win without talismanic captain Scott Prince, they then went about breaking down the suggestion that they forget how to play football once they leave the safe confines of Skilled Park.
Penrith on the other hand were not expected to cause many problems this season, but instead have competed in every game and can consider themselves unlucky not to be entrenched in the top eight – despite having a difficult opening six rounds which included playing last year’s top three teams Manly, Melbourne and Cronulla.
The Gold Coast have named an unchanged line-up from the one which overcame a gallant Canberra last weekend, although doubts remain over the fitness of co-captain Luke Bailey who sustained a knee injury during the match. Bailey will be given until game day to prove his fitness, and he more than anyone in this match will appreciate the 10-day break afforded to both teams who played last Friday night.
It is the longest possible break between regular season games in the NRL, with both teams not being called upon for 10 more days – so fatigue will not be a factor.
This could help the Panthers, who have a giant forward pack and have been known to struggle with a short turnaround.
They have had a few forced changes to their squad. Bench hooker Masada Iosefa has been dumped for a week for an off-field incident, and in his place former Newcastle halfback Luke Walsh gets his first chance in Penrith colours. Paul Aiton retains the starting hooking role.
Centre Brad Tighe suffered a torn pectoral muscle and is replaced by regular back-rower, and former Titan Gavin Cooper, and utility Maurice Blair and back-rower Joseph Paulo have been added to an extended bench.
Watch out Panthers: The Titans are running hot at the moment. Can’t win without Prince? Yes they can. Can’t win away from home? They can do that too!
But the most pleasing aspect of the Gold Coast’s start to 2009 for coach John Cartwright will be their willingness to defend. In previous years, the Titans have been renowned for their ability to post points – but also concede big totals. Not so in 2009, with the Titans holding the best defensive record in the NRL after six rounds, having conceded just over 12 points a match.
Without Prince, the Titans have restricted their play somewhat – minimising offloads (where they rank last in the NRL at just 7.5 a game) in an attempt to eradicate the errors (third best in the NRL, conceding 11.7 errors a game). But with Prince back, expect to see a more expansive style of play as the chief playmaker looks to run the attack a bit more.
Prince had three try assists in last Friday’s win over Canberra. He orchestrated the winning try for Mat Rogers. He knows how to win football games.
Watch out Titans: Penrith’s left side attack is arguably the best in the NRL. With Frank Pritchard and Michael Jennings providing the perfect combination of destructive running and blinding acceleration, much of Penrith’s attacking spark comes from the left flank.
Pritchard and Jennings have seven line breaks and four try assists between them this year – that’s nearly a quarter of Penrith’s tries this year, and neither has spent a second of game time in the halves!
The Gold Coast combination of Brett Delaney and Chris Walker will have to be on their game to contain Penrith’s powerful duo. While Delaney is a fine defensive centre, Walker has trouble committing to tackles and can be caught out of position – this could create opportunities for Panthers winger Shane Elford, who scored his first try of the season last week after some outstanding Jennings lead-up work.
Where it will be won: If Penrith are to win, it will need to be done in the forwards. They have a big, aggressive pack with the likes of Civoniceva, Waterhouse, Pritchard and the versatile Luke Lewis having great seasons.
They match up well against the lighter, but more mobile, Titans pack. However, the Titans will look to make this a fast-paced game with quick play-the-balls utilising their more-agile back-rowers (Laffranchi, Minichiello and Harrison) – this will open up the game for the smaller guys. Prince, Rogers and Preston Campbell will have room to move – and this will be enough to give the Gold Coast the upper hand.
The History: These two sides have only faced each other twice since the Gold Coast gained re-entry in 2007, with the honours split evenly. The Titans won the first encounter, played at CUA Stadium, 24-22 while Penrith won the return fixture last year 36-22 on the Gold Coast (with Pritchard running riot with two tries).
Conclusion: Take the Titans. Their form line is stronger, and with the extra time between games, Bailey should prove his fitness. His inclusion will be crucial against a big Penrith pack, but the Titans have more than enough weapons across the park.
Penrith aren’t without hope, especially given they are at home, but the Titans are the form team of the competition at the moment and should win a tight game.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins, Jarrod Maxwell; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Chris Ward.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats