The Wests Tigers are battered and bruised but still coming back for more as the door is still ajar for a finals berth – but it could very well close shut if they can’t come up with the goods on the holiday strip.
The record-breaking and history-making Titans (most wins in a season for the new franchise and first finals berth for new team) are already in a party mood; not the type of party where you don’t care, but more the type of party mood that brings confidence and flair to your football.
While their spot in the top four cannot be taken away, they do still have a small chance at winning a minor premiership (although they are paying $101 with the bookies) or pushing up into an all-important top-two spot, so if the Tigers are expecting a relaxed side come Saturday afternoon, they better think again.
After getting over the top of the Sharks last weekend, the Titans cemented third spot but the Bulldogs and Dragons are just a win above them.
Even though both of those two sides would need to lose their remaining two games to be overtaken, it is still achievable for the home side… plus momentum into the finals is paramount.
Esi Tonga is out of the side with Sam Tagataese named to replace him in the centres. Representative star Ashley Harrison is back at lock, which pushes Will Matthews back to the bench.
Kayne Lawton, Josh Graham and Chris Walker have been added to an extended bench of seven players as John Cartwright ponders the final make-up of his 17.
The Tigers, who lost a thriller to Parramatta last weekend to fall from fifth to 10th on the ladder, have been smashed by injuries.
Big barnstorming winger Taniela Tuiaki is out, with Dean Collis coming in at centre and Blake Ayshford named on the wing.
Fellow winger Beau Ryan is also out, with good friend Rhys Hanbury taking his place while at this stage the only extra reserve named is Dene Halatau.
However, Ayshford, Tim Moltzen, Keith Galloway, Chris Heighington and John Skandalis all have injury clouds hanging over them, while Bryce Gibbs fronts the judiciary tonight (Wednesday) to try to get a kneeing charge downgraded – otherwise he’ll be out also.
Should any or all of those players be rubbed out, the 2005 premiers will be facing a severe uphill battle.
Watch out Titans: Watch Robbie Farah like a hawk! The Wests Tigers skipper and hooker is a real schemer and while Benji Marshall has been the main attacking focus in recent weeks, Farah is where everything starts for the Tigers.
He has helped his side to 13 line breaks from dummy-half, the most in the NRL and many more than the three the Titans have managed.
The side also has nine tries from dummy-half to be second in the NRL while the Titans have leaked eight tries from dummy-half to be ranked 14th, so you can expect Farah to target the line from close range if he gets even just half a sniff of points.
Watch out Wests Tigers: Former Tiger Anthony Laffranchi appears to be getting back to his best rugby league after a solid game against the Sharks. Laffranchi has always been a workhorse but has added class to his game by being a great line runner and selective offloader. It allows him to score good tries and also put others into space to do the same.
After a relatively quiet season by his lofty standards Laffranchi is slowly lifting his averages and he now runs for 127 metres a match, has six line breaks, five tries and 34 offloads. He also averages just over 33 tackles a game.
In terms of being somebody to watch for the Tigers, they need to pay particular attention near the try line where he comes into his own running off Scott Prince, Mat Rogers or Preston Campbell.
Where it will be won: Guts, determination and attitude. The mental state of both teams will be the clinching factor here. You see on paper and form the Titans should win this battle; however it doesn’t take much in the NRL to bring teams back to square.
If the home side has any complacency, or if their minds aren’t quite on the job thanks to their already-secured finals berth, they will most certainly get rolled.
Similarly, the Wests Tigers have been reading all week just how hard it will be for them to make the finals now. They have a bulging casualty ward, they have to play the Titans away at a fortress; basically there are ready-made excuses. Just how they approach this game, and how they play when adversity hits in the 80 minutes, will prove how fair dinkum they are.
Everything goes on the line for them here. If their minds have any weakness or doubts whatsoever, they will be found wanting. The Tigers must believe in themselves and their own ability to recover from anything. This is easier said than done, especially if you get behind early, but internal motivation can be very powerful if used well. Momentum can shift easily in this great game of ours and a side can rack up points quickly.
The history: Played 4; Titans 2, Wests Tigers 2. The Titans won the first two clashes against the Wests Tigers but the Tigers have won the past two clashes, including the only clash at Skilled Park.
In a slightly bizarre coincidence the first-match winning margin was two points, the second 16 points, the third two points and the last 16 once again… so should we expect a two-point margin?
Conclusion: The Titans deserve favouritism here but the Wests Tigers aren’t dead and buried just yet.
Sadly the past few years have done nothing to suggest the Wests Tigers have the fortitude to win under these do-or-die conditions but their last five weeks have been very impressive, including their effort in losing last week.
If injuries ravage them further, it would be a huge effort to win, but sometimes teams produce against the odds.
If you are tipping well, stay with the home side. If you are as desperate as the Tigers, pick them and then hold on for the roller coaster ride.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.