Move over Cowboys – there’s a new Queensland rivalry in town.
Since their inception in 2007, the Titans were merely the new boys in the state. Now, in just their third year, not only are they preparing for their maiden finals appearance, but they’re hosting rivals Brisbane in what will be a massive sell-out crowd at Skilled Park come Saturday night.
A win over the perennial premiership contenders in this qualifying final will go a long way to announcing themselves onto the big stage, with punters continuing to keep their distance from coach John Cartwright’s team, particularly after their 38-4 no-show against Manly last week.
But despite finishing one win away from the minor premiership, Gold Coast rank as outsiders against a Broncos side that has won six straight. In fact, this week’s opponents and even the resurgent Eels are at shorter odds than the Titans are of walking away with the trophy in October.
All the same, this Saturday night presents the perfect opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong and get one over their more-fancied neighbours after splitting their two games this year.
Cartwright has kicked off the mind games by naming five-eighth Mat Rogers, despite early reports saying that the veteran would be out for several weeks with a hamstring strain.
Centre Brett Delaney also returns after recovering from his hamstring strain, pushing Sam Tagataese to the bench. Forward Brad Meyers makes his comeback as well after a week off with a hand injury, adding some much-needed starch on the bench. Will Matthews has been added as 18th man.
For the Broncos, normality has been reached after a three-game losing streak threatened to ruin their chances of a 22nd straight finals appearance. But after their 56-0 drubbing in Canberra just over a month ago, coach Ivan Henjak has to be commended for restoring some vital confidence and securing sixth spot. A semi-final in Gold Coast is a lot easier than one in Sydney.
Henjak has made just the one change to last week’s team that registered a regulatory 22-10 victory over the Raiders at Suncorp. Josh McGuire comes onto the bench, with Joel Clinton sliding down to 18th man. In a slight change, Tonie Carroll returns to the run-on side after starting on the bench last week.
Watch out Broncos: The Titans aren’t the flashiest team in the NRL. They’re 8th in average points (21.4), 9th in average tries (3.7), 13th in offloads (10.1) and 14th in tackle breaks (29.9).
One factor they do boast, however, is being the second best kick-chase team in the competition, recording 130 good chases of Scott Prince and Preston Campbell kicks this year – just one behind leaders St George Illawarra.
Also, if there’s any particular player to attack in the defensive line, it’s not the problematic Darren Lockyer. It’s his partner Peter Wallace, whose 85 missed tackles (7th in the NRL) is two more than the veteran five-eighth, while he’s also surrendered more penalties than any of his team-mates this year (14).
Watch out Titans: Some coaches say finals are all about momentum, and if stats are anything to go by, the Broncos have it in bucket-loads. Prior to Round 21, the Broncos averaged 21.3 points (9th), 3.8 tries (6th) and 4.6 line breaks (10th) per game. In the past five weeks, however, Brisbane have increased their attack to 27.6 points (4th), 4.8 tries (4th) and 6.4 line breaks a game (2nd). Their average tackles busts has also risen from 38.1 to 51.4 (1st) in the same period.
But the real transformation has been in their defence, which has yielded just 11.2 average points in the past five weeks (1st), compared to the 23.6 earlier this year (13th). They’ve also gone from ranking last in missed tackles per game (41.1) to 10th (36.2).
Where it will be won: Both teams lead the league in tackle busts leading to line breaks, with 50 each. Brisbane’s Dave Taylor has been in irresistible form over the past month, with seven of his 58 busts leading to breaks. Justin Hodges (6), Ben Te’o and Karmichael Hunt (5) are the other three men capable of starting an attacking raid.
For the Titans, the contribution is shared between Rogers (7), and Preston Campbell, Mark Minichiello, Kevin Gordon and Anthony Laffranchi (all 4).
Whichever side can limit the destructiveness of those players, as well as their support players, will go long way to deciding the outcome of this semi-final.
The history: Played 6; Titans 3, Broncos 3. Whoever leaves Skilled Park victorious takes the outright lead in their head-to-head ledger. Brisbane have yet to taste victory at Skilled Park, going down twice to the Titans, who haven’t lost a night game at home this year.
In their two match-ups in the regular season, both teams notched record wins over the other – with the Broncos defeating Gold Coast 32-18 at Suncorp, while the Titans returned the favour with a 34-18 victory at Skilled Park. One key difference in both games was a player by the name of Israel Folau, who scored four tries in the first but was unavailable in the second game.
Conclusion: A lot hinges on the availability of playmaker Mat Rogers, even though he was below his best last week (four errors). Should the dual international play, his experience and creativity give the Titans a full-strength line-up that has almost been unbeatable at home this year.
Without him though, the Titans may struggle to look for options outside of Scott Prince and Preston Campbell. The Broncos have enough strike-power across the park to beat anyone on their day but Gold Coast have proved the more consistent of the two this year.
This game could be the closest of all the finals this weekend, so we’re tipping a one-point margin either way.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Ashley Klein; Sideline officials – Paul Holland & Gerard Sutton; Video referee – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 6:30pm. Fox Sports – Delayed, Sunday, 5am
* Statistics: NRL Stats.