Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ Time)
If we are going to be honest – and why shouldn’t we be – then we could say the Warriors have easily been the biggest disappointment of season 2009.
After the side stormed into and through the 2008 finals series you got the feeling something big was brewing across the Tasman. But for one reason or another, the Warriors have failed to be a real threat this season and last weekend’s draw against the Panthers gave a pretty good indication of their year.
Despite having a mammoth 32-6 lead with 26 minutes remaining the Warriors somehow allowed the Panthers to rampage their way into a draw, with the result leaving Ivan Cleary’s men languishing in 14th spot on the ladder.
Now technically, the Warriors could still make the finals – but they would need to win all five remaining games by big margins and rely on other teams to falter. Stranger things have happened but the likelihood of this eventuating is akin to John Williamson renouncing his Australian citizenship to become a citizen of the United States! Nonetheless it is something to dream about and as such they must bring everything they have this Sunday afternoon against the third-placed Titans, who themselves are beginning to show a few chinks in their armour.
The Titans fell pretty easily to the Cowboys last weekend, making it two losses in their past three games, and while they are still in a good position to finish in the top four, they need at least another win to secure a finals berth.
John Cartwright knows finals football is about momentum and the Titans need to find some in this last five weeks of the regular season – or face being cannon fodder in the big games.
The side flies to New Zealand without centres Esi Tonga and Brett Delaney, with Mat Rogers and Jordan Atkins coming in as replacements.
Anthony Laffranchi returns from suspension, pushing Luke Bailey back up to the front row and Matthew White to the bench.
Josh Graham will start the match at lock, which sees Brad Meyers join the bench, while Sam Tagataese is also out of the side, replaced by Chris Walker.
The home side has its own changes for this clash, one of the last in Auckland for the little general Stacey Jones.
Wade McKinnon is out for disciplinary reasons, which sees Kevin Locke move from wing to fullback and Patrick Ah Van come onto the flank. Centre Jerome Ropati is out, with debutant Elijah Taylor, the Warriors’ Toyota Cup captain, slated to start.
Isaac John makes way for Aaron Heremaia at five-eighth and Ian Henderson is out with Lewis Brown set to start at hooker, his preferred position.
Ukuma Ta’ai is the fresh man on the bench in the new-look side.
Watch out Warriors: Titans coach John Cartwright has seen the raw data that shows the Warriors have conceded 42 tries down the left side of the field compared to just 24 on the right side, so he’ll be sending plenty of traffic in that direction.
It is true the Warriors’ defence hasn’t been solid in general but the right-side defenders (those who have left side attack coming at them) have been particularly shoddy. They must lift if the side is to make a miracle run to the finals.
Scott Prince and Preston Campbell will make sure each and every weakness is exploited.
Watch out Titans: The visitors need to be sure they are not sucked into a game of touch football by a Warriors side full of youth and with nothing to lose.
With the knowledge that their chances of finals football are basically gone, the Warriors will no doubt revert to some ad-lib footy to get their youngsters and fans enjoying their football. Now while this style of footy can provide occasional results, it needs an element of luck and it needs the opposition to buy into the style.
If the Titans stay composed and concentrate of simple, structured football they will get the better of the Warriors in the end. But doing this is easier said than done – especially if the Warriors get an early try or two.
Coach Cartwright must stress patience… or they might just get burned.
Where it will be won: Cohesion. Both sides have some changes going into this match and it will be the side that can best handle those that may obtain the edge.
The Titans have new centres, one of which (Mat Rogers) is world class. But the other (Jordan Atkins) has mainly played wing previously. This could be a potential target for the Warriors’ attack.
On the other side of the coin the Warriors have plenty of new faces, in key positions, with a new fullback, five-eighth and hooker as well as a debutant centre, so getting some fluency could be difficult.
Each of the new players are solid in their own right but trying to get them to gel quickly is a tough ask. The upside to the raft of changes is it brings enthusiasm to the side and as the team has nothing to lose at this point of the year, they are sure to chance their arm. If they get a bit of luck and the passes stick, the Titans could be in big trouble.
The History: Played 4; Warriors 2, Titans 2. The Titans beat the Warriors 28-12 earlier this year at Skilled Park but they are yet to beat the Warriors in New Zealand. In the only other encounter at Mt Smart Stadium the Warriors prevailed 30-6 in 2007.
Conclusion: If the Titans are to convince us they are the real deal they need to prove it with a gritty away win here. They have had a poor lead-up due to a rare home loss and have to travel a long way… but good sides get things done whatever the obstacles.
The Warriors have a little bit of fight left in them and they are injecting some exciting youth into this contest. But if the Titans turn up to play they should win.
In saying that, don’t be afraid to cheer for the upset if you’re feeling it.
Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Chris Ward.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 12pm AEST.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.