Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 6.30pm (Qld time)
The two youngest Queensland ‘brothers’ meet up north for an early season battle royal, and while the Titans come in undefeated, they also come in vulnerable.
That’s right: despite being 3-0 to start the year the Gold Coast have lost Scott Prince to injury and also have a salary cap issue causing all sorts of distraction, not to mention the ongoing Ben Hannant subplot.
This gives the Cowboys a wonderful opportunity to pounce and start building a better platform for their season because at this stage their 1-2 record has them down in 12th spot on the NRL ladder, 10 spots behind the opposing Titans who sit second.
After having been humbled 33-8 by St George Illawarra in Wollongong last weekend the Cowboys know they need to get back on the horse quickly (so to speak) to ensure the other teams don’t make an early break on them.
The home side has made a few changes, with two Toyota Cup-eligible players joining the squad, as they look to become a more ominous outfit.
Grant Rovelli has been dropped at five-eighth, with youngster Ray Thompson getting his chance to shine outside Johnathan Thurston.
Michael Bani is also out of the side, with his place on the wing taken by another kid in Will Tupou.
In other changes for the Cowboys, Steve Southern is out, with James Tamou and Leeson Ah Mau added to a bench of five, while Steve Rapira has been named to start with Willie Mason reverting back to the bench.
The Titans are buoyant following a third straight win, the last a 24-4 triumph over Canberra – although Prince’s ongoing salary cap dramas and broken thumb have the side looking much shakier this round.
Thankfully for Titans fans, former Dally M Medal winner Preston Campbell can slot into the no.7 jersey, with William Zillman set to start at fullback.
Ashley Harrison is also back for the Titans in the back row, which pushes Sam Tagataese to the bench.
Bodene Thompson has been suspended (three weeks) for breaking young Raiders hooker Travis Waddell’s jaw, with Titans coach John Cartwright naming both Riley Brown and Michael Henderson as possible replacements.
Watch out Cowboys: Young Titans centre Joseph Tomane is really coming along as a prospect in the early part of this season. Since joining from the Melbourne Storm, Tomane has averaged 117 metres a match and has scored three tries.
He has two line-breaks, a line-break assist, two try assists and an impressive, club-high 21 tackle-breaks. Only Canberra’s Josh Dugan and Warrior Manu Vatuvei have busted more tackles in the opening three rounds.
If he can maintain his form without Scott Prince feeding him, then he could well turn out to be one of the buys of the year.
Watch out Titans: Discipline could be crucial in this match; worryingly, just like last season, the Titans are lacking in this area.
So far this season Gold Coast are equal worst in the league for penalties conceded with 8.67 per match, and this could be exposed against a Cowboys side that is averaging just six penalties conceded each week.
If refs Steve ‘Tedro’ Lyons and Alan ‘Shorty’ Shortall are called upon to intervene too often, you will most certainly see Johnathan Thurston take advantage.
Look for the Cowboys to try to milk some penalties from the main Titans offenders Luke Bailey (four conceded this year), Mark Minichiello (four) and Greg Bird (three).
Where it will be won: Between the ears. The Titans need to not only believe they can win without Scott Prince, but they need to have full concentration on the job at hand despite the numerous distractions.
The Cowboys also need some personal belief; their confidence is lacking after a few seasons out of the finals and they need to be switched on from the outset to stop the opposition getting a head start.
The start will be crucial. The side that posts first points and builds momentum off the back of it will be hard to run down – because the demons will start to whisper louder and louder in the chasing team’s ears.
The History: Played 5; Cowboys 2, Titans 3. Believe it or not neither of the Cowboys’ two wins over the Titans have come at home, with the Gold Coast winning both previous clashes at this venue. In 2008 the Titans won the Dairy Farmers Stadium clash 26-20, while last season they prevailed 14-10.
Conclusion: Chances are just one team will sit alone undefeated in the NRL after Round 4 unless the Titans can overcome all the hurdles placed in front of them.
Now, to write them off completely would be silly… they have won both previous matches in North Queensland and they still have a very good side making the trip. But the Cowboys should be desperate.
If Johnathan Thurston isn’t too busy thinking about the riches that may await him elsewhere, he should be able to manufacture a home win.
With this being the first match in a run where four of five are at home, the Cowboys must win to set up their season. They should be more desperate, but they are far from certainties.
Match officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Ricky McFarlane; Video Ref – Chris Ward.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm AEDT
* Statistics: NRL Stats.