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Can the Eels go one better than '01?

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Eels (8) v Titans (3)
Sydney Football Stadium
Friday 7.45pm

General consensus is the Titans have run their race in 2009 – but the stats show there’s not much between these two sides as they face off in sudden death at the SFS on Friday. And, importantly, the Eels are the only side the Titans have yet to lose to in three years of competition.

The Titans are reeling from consecutive losses to the Sea Eagles (38-4) and Broncos (40-32) – although they showed great courage last week to claw back from a 30-10 deficit shortly after halftime to keep the game in the balance with just minutes to play against Brisbane. Meanwhile the Eels showed their 37-0 loss to the Dragons a fortnight ago was a blip on the radar, comfortably accounting for the same opponents 25-12 at Kogarah last weekend.

But back to those stats: the sides’ average completion rates are Eels – 74 per cent, Titans – 73 per cent; average hit-ups are Eels’ 166 to Titans’ 164; points scored are Titans’ 21.8 to Eels’ 20; points conceded are Eels’ 19.4 to Titans’ 20.3. Very close indeed.

In milestone moments, Luke Burt enters the game on 99 tries, while Jarryd Hayne needs one more four-pointer for 50. And you know what? If Hayne gets to score that try then the Titans are in big trouble…   

Watch out Eels: It’s the biggest game in the three-year history of the newest Gold Coast franchise, so coach John Cartwright will be expecting nothing less than total involvement from their biggest players. That means a shared, punishing effort from Scott Prince, Luke Bailey, Mat Rogers, Preston Campbell and Anthony Laffranchi.

Prince has been solid for the Titans in 2009, with 23 try assists ranking him fifth in the NRL through the 26 rounds of regular competition. He also contributed 19 line-break assists (fourth in NRL) – 18 of them off pinpoint passes.

Bailey is averaging 132 metres from an average 60 minutes of game time; Rogers has 13 line breaks and nine try assists; Campbell has a team-high 87 tackle breaks; and Laffranchi’s 363 runs through Round 26 were the fifth most in the comp.

If everyone pulls their weight they can lift the younger members of the squad on to great things.

Watch out Titans: Two words: Jarryd Hayne. The 2009 Dally M medal winner is arguably demonstrating consistent brilliance not seen in the game’s history.

Everything the fullback does is gilt-edged. Through Round 26 he led the NRL for line breaks with 29. He makes more metres per game than any other player, with 172 (208 last week against the Dragons). His 3793 metres gained is 392 metres more than next-best, Rooster Sam Perrett. And on average he makes 13.3 metres returning kicks. And his 133 tackle breaks were just five behind Sea Eagle Anthony Watmough.

If the Titans give Hayne space he’ll grow in confidence – and it will be goodnight and goodbye 2009.

Elsewhere John Cartwright will have spent the week instructing his forwards to muscle up on Fuifui Moimoi – the imposing Eels unit ranks ninth in metres gained with 2843 – the most by any prop in the comp. When Moimoi gets up a full head of steam, he lifts his side – as the Dragons discovered last week with 12 punching hit-ups in just 38 minutes.

Where it will be won: Keeping Jarryd Hayne quiet. “Well thanks, Captain Obvious!” we hear you say. But really, take Hayne out of the equation and the Eels are just another good side.

Two weeks ago the Dragons worked out the best way to nullify Hayne was to kick to winger Luke Burt, forcing Hayne into dummy-half or first-receiver at the ensuing play-the-ball. And the Dragons’ defence was ready and waiting.

They employed the same tactic during last week’s loss… but Hayne still managed three line breaks and 17 tackle breaks. But how? Answer: Having done such a good job on Hayne the week before (no line breaks for the first time since Round 14) the Dragons went to sleep. Got lazy. Complacent. They turned up on the kick chase and were there to meet Hayne in the line but didn’t commit to the tackles. And Hayne burned them.

So the plan for the Titans is simple: no complacency in defence. And they need to be effective and try to restrict the Eels’ high average offloads (16.7) that help them to their devastating second-phase attack.

The history:
Played 3, Eels 0, Gold Coast 3. The Titans have been victors in single clashes in each of the past three years, including an 18-12 win at Skilled Park in Round 18 – although the Eels were missing Jarryd Hayne to Origin duty.
Conclusion: What a difference a week makes. If these sides had been scheduled to meet last week the Titans would arguably been narrow favourites. But now they are $3.40 outsiders and the Eels firm $1.30 picks. But we don’t see this game panning out to be that one-sided – even allowing for the fact it’s away from the Gold Coast’s Skilled Park fortress.

While the Titans have an ordinary five wins and seven losses on the road, they managed some big ‘away’ scalps during the season, accounting for the Storm in Melbourne and the Cowboys in Townsville. So they are capable.

A big worry, though, is that the Titans have leaked 42 tries down their right-side defence compared to 33 on their left side. That will play into left-side attacker Hayne’s hands.

It’s a big occasion for the Titans – but having won eight of their past nine games all the momentum is with the Eels who look to be brewing to something special in 2009. Our tip is the blue and golds to advance to the grand final qualifier with the Bulldogs – although they won’t have it all their own way.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.45pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.
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