Oh dear – it’s getting to that worrying stage of the season where Titans’ fans might be wondering whether their boys are destined to tumble from top-eight calculations, just as they have after excellent starts in their first two NRL seasons.
Doubly worrying is this week they strike the resurgent premiers, fresh off their first two wins for 2009 without injured fullback Brett Stewart, achieved against competition front-runners the Broncos and the Eels respectively.
While Manly were awesome in turning around a 16-0 deficit in Brisbane two weeks ago, they were still scratchy. But their win at Brookvale last week finally showed their combinations are well-oiled and firing on all cylinders.
Key performers, led by Origin-bound duo Jamie Lyon and Glenn Stewart, are playing their roles and ‘bit-part’ characters such as new five-eighth Chris Bailey are stamping their worth.
Meanwhile the 32-18 scoreline against the Broncos didn’t do the Titans’ justice – they trailed by just two points with less than a quarter of the game to go before being swamped late.
With State of Origin sides selected after this round it’s the last chance for the likes of Scott Prince, Luke Bailey, Anthony Laffranchi and Ashley Harrison to press their claims.
Likewise for Manly, their big guns will be firing hoping to earn a berth in the NSW squad.
While the Titans have won all four of their games at Skilled Park this year, they are yet to defeat Manly in three attempts.
Watch out Titans: Last week was proof perfect that a confident Sea Eagles side is almost unbeatable. The same players took the field when they were losing earlier this season – but confidence has seen them really start to click into gear. Patchy periods of attack where potential tries were butchered by errors or poor execution are now sizzling passages of play where passes are sticking, kicks sitting up perfect and support plays rewarded.
Against the Eels six players gained more than 100 metres in territory, helping them to a season-high 1390 metres for the match. The main contributors were winger David Williams (112 metres) and prop Jason King (111 metres in just 45 minutes); even hulking George Rose made 92 metres in just 28 minutes from the bench.
The Titans need to bustle the visitors into errors early. If they can unsettle the Manly playmakers they can gain the ascendancy.
Watch out Sea Eagles: The Titans are a grinding sort of side. As a rule they don’t make too many tackle breaks (just six last game) or offloads (averaging 8.9 to the Sea Eagles’ 13.1). But they do come with a ‘wow’ factor and can bite oppositions from pretty much anywhere on the park.
To date they’ve scored 12 of their 33 tries from outside their 20-metre line (36 per cent), making them among the most dangerous in the NRL from beyond their quarter. Indeed their seven tries from over halfway rank them second behind the Panthers (eight); by comparison perceived expansive crowd-pleasers Manly have scored just two tries from over halfway.
Des Hasler will impress upon his front-line defenders the importance of not dropping off in their tackles – as some players including the enigmatic Anthony Watmough are prone to do.
Where it will be won: Tough defence in the opening 20 minutes. Running through the stats there’s not much between these sides: the Titans have scored 190 points and conceded 177 while Manly have scored 181 and conceded 194; both have scored 33 tries while the Titans’ 31 tries conceded is four fewer than the Sea Eagles; the Titans average 164 hit-ups a game to the Sea Eagles 166; and the Titans average 1319 metres of territory a game to the visitors’ 1303 metres.
But the home side has the edge defensively and they can ram home the advantage early.
To date, the Titans have made 3061 tackles to the Sea Eagles’ 2955; ordinarily you could make a case to say the Sea Eagles must be playing better as they haven’t needed to make as many tackles – that is until you see they have missed a whopping 337 tackles all year (second most behind, believe it or not, Brisbane) compared to the Titans’ 269. The difference there is 68 – or 6.8 a game difference!
John Cartwright knows cracking the Sea Eagles early is the key.
The History: Played 3; Sea Eagles 3, Titans 0. The Sea Eagles inflicted their biggest defeat on the Titans (34-14) at Skilled Park last year.
Conclusion: Both sides have Origin and their precarious positions on the NRL ladder (Titans 8th, Manly 12th) on their minds, meaning this should be a cracker of a game.
Expect no quarter given throughout – it could boil down to a single or few moments of brilliance from the likes of Matt Orford (9 try assists) and Scott Prince (6 try assists), while both sides’ mobile back rows will be punching it up all over Skilled Park.
It’s a particularly tough game to call and maybe home ground advantage could be the swaying vote. But only maybe!
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.