Titans’ fans are once again spoiled with a mouth-watering Queensland derby match on what shapes as a sensational Friday night of football for the NRL in the lead-up to the finals.
While top-four combatants St George Illawarra and Melbourne do battle in Sydney, the third-placed Titans put their undefeated home record on the line against the Johnathan Thurston-led Cowboys just a week after they battled and busted Brisbane on the same surface.
The Titans have quietly gone about their business this season and it appears only an absolute catastrophe could see them miss out on an inaugural finals berth. They sit in third place on the NRL ladder after seeing off the Broncos 34-18 last weekend and have designs on a top-four finish and a home final.
They are now nine from nine at home this season and would love nothing more than to wrack up the perfect 10 against a Cowboys unit that has faltered a little in recent weeks to drop to eighth spot.
Having fallen 28-20 to Penrith in Townsville last weekend and losing heavily to the Wests Tigers prior, the Cowboys need to find a way to arrest the slide or they could finish the weekend outside the finals zone.
The Broncos are already tied on competition points with the Cowboys, so they could leapfrog with a win. Also, South Sydney are just one competition point behind, so they could also make the jump. Even the Wests Tigers are capable of overtaking the Cowboys on percentages (although that is unlikely).
The visitors come into the clash still without the likes of Aaron Payne and Luke O’Donnell although Anthony Watts is back from suspension to start at hooker, pushing Dayne Weston to the bench.
Matthew Scott has been given his starting spot back at prop, with Antonio Kaufusi reverting to the bench and Manase Manuokafoa has been added to a six-man reserves list.
For the Titans, suspension has claimed Anthony Laffranchi while injury has claimed Ashley Harrison.
Luke Bailey will move from prop to second row with Matt White starting up front. Brad Meyers will replace Harrison at lock. The new faces on the bench are Will Matthews and Josh Graham.
Watch out Titans: While the Cowboys might be without hooker Aaron Payne for the season it doesn’t mean the home side can relax around the rucks.
The Cowboys have scored an impressive 10 tries from dummy-half this season – more than any other side in the NRL. Considering the Titans have conceded nine from dummy-half, it’s a logical plan for the visitors.
Only South Sydney have conceded more tries from dummy-half so the Titans need to muscle-up and pay attention or face the reality of easy points being scored against them. Look for several Cowboys to chance their arm from close range if they get a sniff of an opening.
Watch out Cowboys: The Cowboys might be concentrating on the ruck in attack but they need to stay awake in defence even on early tackles, as the Titans don’t mind attacking from long range.
With 11 tries for the season from their own side of halfway the Titans are the third most prolific side in the competition at long-range tries. Armed with the knowledge the Cowboys have conceded 11 from the same range to be one of the NRL’s worst sides in the category, the Gold Coast’s attack may go hunting.
Look for Scott Prince to marshal his backs early in each set of six to, at the very least, threaten to go wide. This will force the Cowboys’ defence to spread a little and give the Titans’ forwards a little more room to take the yards. If the Cowboys stay compressed, watch for Esi Tonga and David Mead to be unleashed.
Where it will be won: The Johnathan Thurston v Scott Prince showdown. So blessed are these two individual halfbacks it is conceivable the winner of the head-to-head battle will be the winner of the match.
The skills sets of both men are of such a high standard and so important to their sides that the man who is most creative, who breaks through the most, and who directs play the best, will be the one smiling at game’s end with two competition points in the bank.
Scott Prince is running for 52 metres a match this season, kicking for 321 metres, has four line breaks, 12 line-break assists, four tries, 16 try assists, 44 tackle breaks, 17 offloads and just 30 errors.
Thurston’s stats read: 48 metres running, 233 metres kicking, six line breaks, 18 line-break assists, seven tries, 17 try assists, 55 tackle breaks, 17 offloads and 27 errors.
Thurston has played 17 games this season, Prince 16. Watching these two go up against each other will be enthralling.
The History: Played 4; Titans 3, Cowboys 1. Earlier this season the Titans gutsed out a 14-10 win over the Cowboys in Townsville to make it three in a row over their Queensland counterparts.
There has only been one match at Skilled Park which was won 36-18 by the Titans last season. The Cowboys’ only win over the Titans did come on the Gold Coast, at Carrara, in 2007. As mentioned earlier, the Titans are a perfect 9-0 on home turf this season while the Cowboys away record is a dismal 2-6.
Conclusion: The Cowboys were a little unlucky last weekend against the Panthers, with some controversial decisions going against them, so while they come in off two losses their form isn’t terrible.
The Titans once again got the job done against the Broncos last week but the loss of Laffranchi and Harrison is certainly significant. With Mark Minichiello in some doubt also, the 100 per cent home record is certainly under threat.
Safety tip is to stick with the home side but with a spot in the top eight on the line the Cowboys won’t be short on motivation. If you get the Cowboys vibe, trust it.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris James; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 3.30am.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.