It might only be Round 13 but the Titans’ season could go on the line on Monday night when they face up to the might of the competition-leading Dragons – whom they haven’t beaten in five attempts!
John Cartwright’s charges are nicely positioned in fifth place on the ladder, their 16 points just two adrift of the Dragons. But they have had the luxury of the bye and, with a bunch of other sides nipping at their heels they can’t afford a slip-up – or they’ll start questioning whether their year is about to head down the path of their past two seasons of early promise but no cigars.
Who backs up from Origin fit and firing will have a huge affect on the outcome of this game – the Titans will be sweating on Luke Bailey, Anthony Laffranchi (both NSW) and Ashley Harrison (Queensland), while the Dragons hopefully welcome back Justin Poore, Michael Weyman, Ben Creagh (NSW and Darius Boyd (Queensland). In all players’ favour is that this game is on the five-day back-up (Monday night).
Seems an age ago now but the Titans’ last moments on a footy field came when Preston Campbell was awarded a controversial penalty that saw them home over Manly by a point in Round 11. Before that they registered just one win from four attempts (Rabbitohs, Round 8).
Meanwhile the Dragons continue to grind their opponents out of the contest. They have strung together a hat-trick of wins, and five from their past six, only falling to the Cowboys in Townsville (24-20) in the back-up after the one-off Test and Country-City games.
Watch out Titans: Darius Boyd’s and Brett Morris’ incredible kick-return prowess spells a clear and present danger. Morris and Boyd have propelled the Dragons to be best in the comp at making line breaks from kick returns – 10 of their total 57 have originated from the back. Morris’ 16.9 metres average carry back from kicks ranks him second in the comp (he also ranks third in line breaks with 11), while Boyd is a rung behind, making 14.3 metres (he also leads the NRL in tackle breaks with 66).
Scott Prince and Mat Rogers will need to make sure they kick to space – or kick the ball out – or else they’ll be on the back foot all night.
Watch out Dragons: The Titans would be wise not to get drawn into a battle of the big men. Instead, they should utilise their small, elusive individuals like Preston Campbell, Prince and Rogers – especially given forwards Weyman, Poore and Creagh will likely tire early.
Campbell and Prince each have seven try assists and if they can shift up a gear inside their opponents’ 30-metre zone then points may follow.
It’s important to note that more than half the 24 tries scored against the Dragons (13) have come from line breaks, so if this duo can scout wide and pop a short pass to a fringe-running forward like Laffranchi, it could reap dividends – the Panthers had success this way last week when Frank Pritchard burst through to score on the left fringe.
Where it will be won: Composure. The Dragons are masters at building momentum into a clash. Over the past two weeks they’ve weathered onslaughts from the Sharks and Panthers in the first half; once the threat has been contained, they’ve seized on their opportunities to post quick points and put the issue beyond doubt.
Mostly it’s because the Dragons, under Wayne Bennett, make the fewest errors of any side: they’re making 9.8 errors a game. By comparison the Titans are ranked sixth with 12. Not much of a difference you say? Two errors can add up to 12 points...
The History: Played 5; Dragons 5, Titans 0. The Dragons are the Gold Coast’s bogy side; they’ve even lost their only game played at Skilled Park.
Conclusion: The Titans will be freshened up off the bye, and that will certainly be in their favour. They need to make the contest fast-paced from the outset and hooker Nathan Friend (most receives in the NRL with 1291) needs to get them easy metres out of dummy-half, either from himself or from a hit-up merchant close to the ruck – the Dragons were caught out with their markers not square on several occasions last week against the Panthers. When this occurred the red-and-whites looked vulnerable.
The other crucial factor will be Jamie Soward’s kicking game. Every week the critics have waited for him to falter, but he’s answered his coach’s call every time. While he gets assistance from the likes of Ben Hornby and others, he’s a pinpoint powerhouse with the boot – his average 590 metres gain a match is more than the combined efforts of Prince (245 metres) and Rogers (173 metres).
As mentioned above, it’s a danger game for the Titans. But it’s also of great importance to the Dragons in their quest for the minor premiership. With coach Bennett the master of motivation, and calculating back-ups from all Origin competitors, the Dragons look the stronger – there might be only two points between them on the ladder but a true indicator would be the Dragons’ massive 108 points differential compared to the Titans’ 14 – by far the smallest of any side in the top eight.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.