The Broncos venture down the corridor to the Gold Coast strip with their 2009 premiership aspirations well and truly on the line.
Co-competition leaders approaching the halfway stage of the regular rounds they’re now sitting in 9th place on 22 points, sharing the rung with three other sides. But they’ve exited the finals zone due to their wretched -65 points differential – the fourth worst differential in the competition.
They’ve now lost five of their past six, including last week’s record 44-12 defeat at home to the Rabbitohs. While defence is clearly an issue for Ivan Henjak’s charges they are also struggling to score points (an average of 15 in their past six games which has dragged their season average down to 20.9). That’s particularly worrying given strike players Israel Folau and Sam Thaiday, plus defensive rock Tonie Carroll – not to mention key playmaker Darren Lockyer – remain sidelined with injury.
Their line-up tweak for this clash sees Dave Taylor start at prop in place of Josh McGuire, while Ben Te’o earns a starting spot in the second row to cover for Thaiday. Ashton Sims and Josh Hoffman earn bench call-ups.
With 30 competition points figured the guaranteed cut-off for a finals berth, the Gold Coast need just two wins to play semi-finals football for the first time in their latest incarnation.
Their progress through 2009 has mirrored that of their first two years – although whereas they hit turbulent patches in 2007 and 2008 to slide out of calculations that doesn’t appear to be the case in 2009.
They’ve won four of their past six and were impressive even though defeated by the Bulldogs 23-16 last week.
Their playing roster is relatively unaffected, with only Mat Rogers, Luke O’Dwyer and Chris Walker missing from this clash. To counter Rogers’ absence Preston Campbell shifts from fullback to five-eighth, with William Zillman to wear the no.1. Aaron Cannings and Kane Lawton (on debut) join the bench.
Watch out Titans: Everything falls on the shoulders of stars Justin Hodges and Karmichael Hunt. The duo did some good things against the Rabbitohs last week and can’t be blamed for their massive defeat but they still need to do plenty more if the Broncos are to get the points.
With Lockyer gone expect Hunt (17 try assists, fifth in the NRL) to take more of a dominant playmaker role, dictating one-off the ruck especially on the short blindside, where he’ll look to suck in defenders with his prop and step, before offloading or grubbering for a support.
Also look for the Broncos’ forwards – and their backs – to ‘spot’ five-eighth Campbell in the defensive line. The diminutive Campbell is averaging three tackle misses a game – but the last time these two sides met in Round 10 he missed five.
Watch out Broncos: The Titans’ forwards combine strength and mobility to great effect. The likes of Luke Bailey, Anthony Laffranchi and Mark Minichiello will keep punching up the centre of the field gaining good territory and looking for offload opportunities. Their average 1358 metres gained per match ranks them fourth in the comp. And controlling everything will be hooker Nathan Friend, whose 1957 receives is a whopping 177 touches more than the next most prolific game dictator Michael Ennis.
If the Broncos fail to stop the Titans from breaching their advantage line with regularity, they will find it tough to win.
Where it will be won: How Brisbane defends will be key. They have been simply woeful in past efforts and unless their troops muscle up and shut down the ball carrier early they will haemorrhage points again here.
Over the past five weeks they’ve conceded 169 points for an average 33.8 points a game. That’s seen their average points conceded blow out from 20 points to 24.7. They have the worst tackle effectiveness percentage in the game (82 per cent). They’ve missed 734 tackles all year – a whopping 130 more than the next-worst side.
Their biggest problems lie in their left-edge defence, where centre Steve Michaels and winger Antonio Winterstein were cruelly exposed last week by John Sutton and his try-hungry team-mates. Heading into this game it seems all the Titans have to do to manufacture points is work into that sector of the ground and pop a short flat pass to a fringe runner.
But the flipside is at least the Broncos are aware of their massive shortcomings. Hopefully some corrective surgery during the week will leave the patient a lot healthier this time around.
The history: Played 5; Titans 2, Broncos 3. That head-to-head record is a little misleading as the Titans surrendered their “home-ground” advantage to Suncorp Stadium on one occasion. The Titans have won the only game at Skilled Park, a 26-24 thriller last year.
Conclusion: The loss of Thaiday and Lockyer proved insurmountable last week when facing the lowly Rabbitohs. Minus that duo the Broncos look decidedly thin on attacking options other than Hodges, Hunt and possibly stand-in skipper Corey Parker. If that’s all they’ve got expect Scott Prince to be salivating at the thought of adding to his 12 try assists and keeping his side’s unbeaten run at Skilled Park in 2009 intact..
The Broncos have a fine tradition of making the semi-finals, having played post-season for the past 17 years straight. But defeat here will make it tough to extend that streak. The Titans by eight.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Devcich; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.