We may be eight games out from the semi-finals but the two competition points on offer here will go a long way to determining the fate of these sides in season 2009.
Both share second place on 26 points on the NRL ladder, two points adrift of the Dragons who are guaranteed to maintain their top rung with a bye this week.
That means one of these sides will stay in touch with the race for the minor premiership, while the loser could fall to fourth place and face a battle in coming weeks to return to the top two.
Both sides have a short back-up, although the Titans have the advantage of having to sweat on the return of just the one Origin star in back-rower Ashley Harrison. Conversely the Bulldogs have their paws crossed centre Josh Morris, halfback Brett Kimmorley and hooker Michael Ennis emerge unscathed from Origin III.
Also, the Bulldogs have effectively surrendered their home-ground advantage, with this clash the second scheduled in a wonderful double-header at Suncorp Stadium – the Titans are likely to have as many if not more fans make the trip up the corridor from the Gold Coast strip.
The Bulldogs have won four of their past five, their only recent blemish when they were overpowered by the Sea Eagles at Brookvale a fortnight ago. Despite being massively under-strength last week they were still too good for the Warriors in New Zealand, getting up in dramatic fashion with a 78th-minute try.
Injured prop Ben Hannant and suspended duo Bryson Goodwin and Greg Eastwood remain sidelined for another week. Yileen Gordon, who has been in excellent form the past month, earns a starting position in the second row, which pushes Gary Warburton to a bench bolstered by the inclusion of Toyota Cup star Ben Barba in jersey no.22.
The Titans have won five of the past six, their hiccup a 34-28 loss to the Raiders in Canberra. They weren’t at their best against the Eels last Monday night and met some spirited opposition but they managed to grind out an ugly win.
Preston Campbell returns after a week out, pushing William Zillman to the bench, while rookie David Mead takes over from the injured Chris Walker on the wing. Harrison’s return pushes Brad Meyers to the bench.
Watch out Bulldogs: Spurned NSW back-rower Anthony Laffranchi will be out to show he didn’t deserve to be overlooked by the Blues. Certainly his stats this season show he’s powering through his work – he ranks second in the NRL for hit-ups with 258 (the only forward in the top five), plus he ranks 15th for tackles made with 508 (33 a game). He also ranks 13th for offloads with 25, making him a genuine threat all around the park.
Watch out Titans: Scott Prince and Mat Rogers will need to bring their kicking games with them and ensure they boot the ball well away from Bulldogs fullback Luke Patten. The NSW 18th man is making 140 metres a game from the back. His total of 2237 metres gained ranks second to Newcastle’s Kurt Gidley.
Patten has a wonderful knack of knowing how to link with his supports to turn a kick-return into a blistering counter-attack, so the Titans will need to ensure their kick-chase defensive line moves up in a straight line.
Where it will be won: Resilience on the short back-up. The Titans have just a four-day turnaround after defeating the Eels at Skilled Park, while their opponents have just one day extra to prepare having accounted for the Warriors in New Zealand on Sunday – although their travel home on Monday evens that up.
There are two intriguing battles in particular – in the halves and at hooker.
Brett Kimmorley has thoroughly deserved his Origin recall and is proving a wonderful initiator in attack. His vision and quick shifts are allowing five-eighth Ben Roberts plenty of latitude to plot raids out wide, and have helped him to compile 12 try assist and 12 line-break assists.
The Titans’outside defenders will need to be careful they don’t rush up too quickly or else Roberts will punish them – he likes nothing more than to wait until the last moment to catch the ball, which enables him to position himself on the outside of his marker. From here he can either use his strong fend to break the tackle or else offload to supports including Josh Morris out wide.
Prince remains one of the most creative forces in the comp with nine line-break assists and 11 try assists.
Bulldogs rake Michael Ennis is a deadly link close to the line – he has fashioned 12 try assists, most from close range. Likewise Titans hooker Nathan Friend is a valuable contributor, easily leading the NRL for most touches with 1843 – 193 receives more than second-ranked Ennis.
The history: Played 4; Bulldogs 2, Titans 2. The Bulldogs won both games played in the Gold Coast’s inaugural year in 2007, but the Titans have won the past two games including a 20-12 win in Round 3 at Skilled Park.
Conclusion: Don’t expect this to be a walkover by either side. With so much at stake it has the potential to be one of the games of the season.
The Titans have most to lose. The majority of pundits are expecting them to fall away soon but they have a fit squad and are playing consistent football.
The Bulldogs appear to have more strike-power though and given their line-up plays to form they should prove too good. We’ll tip them by less than six points.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Chris James; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 3am.
Statistics: NRL Stats.