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Titans v Dragons
Skilled Park
Friday 7.35pm

Okay, hands up: has anyone really gotten warm to the Titans’ chances as a premiership hope in any of their first three seasons? Wow, not exactly a sea of hands showing…

But you have to admit that will all change if they manage to defeat the Dragons this week and add that scalp to the Storm’s from last week, that sees them flying as competition co-leaders.

John Cartwright’s boys slogged out a tough win over the Storm last week. The 20-16 victory was particularly gratifying given they chased down the premiers’ 12-point halftime lead and ran away with the competition points – albeit controversially given the penalty imposed on Cameron Smith for time-wasting. Still, a win is a win – and victory here would set them up perfectly heading towards the halfway stage of the season. Next week they play the Sea Eagles at Brookvale, before some ‘softer’ competition looms in the form of the Panthers (home), Knights (away) and Broncos (away), before their bye leaves them refreshed leading into Round 12.

Cartwright knows wins over the next fortnight are imperative for his side to build momentum and confirm their status as legitimate front-runners.

Yes, Scott Prince remains sidelined with his broken thumb, but the skipper aside, they are injury-free and have retained the 17 who performed so stoutly last week.

Meanwhile the Dragons face a defining period. They have the luxury of a 4-1 record to date but key injuries and the upcoming representative season will surely test their depth.

Out from the side that accounted for the Broncos last week are prop Matt Prior and tackling dynamo second-rower Jeremy Smith, while their other bookend Michael Weyman needs to successfully challenge his striking charge at the judiciary tonight (Wednesday) in order to take his place.

Former Queensland Origin rep Neville Costigan makes his 2010 debut, taking Smith’s back-row spot, while Jon Green, Nick Emmett, Trent Merrin, ex-Rabbitoh Michael Greenfield, Ricky Thorby and Michael Lett make up an extended bench of 19.

Watch out Titans: Brett Morris is destined for high rep honours this year. His numbers show he’s among the biggest threats in the NRL: averages 129 metres a game, equal highest try-scorer (7), best good chases (10), fifth most tackle-breaks (27). The key for the Titans is to bustle the Dragons’ inside men into error before they have a chance to execute their plays for Morris. Or at the very least, ensure the plays are rushed so that Morris is forced into error – he does have six so far, the second most in the team behind playmaker Jamie Soward’s seven.

Elsewhere, Luke Priddis has really warmed into the no.9 jersey following Nathan Fien’s season-ending injury in Round 1; he has three try assists and his forwards are lining up to feed off his direction.

Also, this week expert analyst Peter Sterling rated Priddis’ pass at the advantage line the best in the NRL!

Watch out Dragons: Nathan Friend may not get the headlines and he may never be destined for the representative ranks, but he’s the sort of contributor that will be remembered by his club long after he hangs up his boots.

The no.9 thrives on involvement and his direction of his strong-running back-rowers in particular will prove crucial here. His 539 touches are the most in the NRL and a whopping 57 more than next busiest, the Sea Eagles’ Matt Ballin. Friend has three try assists, so any lack of cohesion by the injury-depleted Dragons forwards in defence will be exploited.

Also, the Dragons might need to be on the lookout for aerial threats. They are good at defusing most attacking kicks – except for cross-field bombs. While they have cleaned up 16 of 17 grubbers for 94 per cent effectiveness, they are a little scratchy in the air on the edges, defusing at just 25 per cent. Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale can expect Preston Campbell to direct some aerial raids their way.

Where it will be won: Organisation and execution.
Given the changes to the Dragons’ pack, expect the Titans to try to play through the centre of the ruck. If the Dragons second-guess any plays they will pay for it, with the likes of Mark Minichiello (27 tackle-breaks) and Anthony Laffranchi (17 tackle-breaks) steaming onto short balls, breaking the game open for wider runners like Joseph Tomane (27 tackle-breaks).

Meanwhile, surprise would seem to be a good weapon for the Dragons. They have the most potent left-side attack in the NRL (they’ve scored 11 tries on the left compared to four on the right and five in the middle of the field) but to dismiss their right side would be foolish.

Last week against the Broncos their first few good, structured attacking plays were focused to the right – and it led to points when Beau Scott crashed over for their first try. Later, Priddis combined to put Nightingale over in the right corner.

Elsewhere, the Titans need to make good reads on opposition fullback Darius Boyd (29 tackle-breaks, five try assists). He as much as any player is the fulcrum of their left-side attack. His pet play is the double cut-out, giving Morris a passage on the outside of opposition wingers – he did it last week for Morris’ first try. But he can also suck in the outside defenders and go himself – as he did last week – setting up long-range attacking raids and four-pointers.

The history: Played 6; Dragons 5, Titans 1. A formidable advantage to the visitors – although the two games to date at this venue have been close encounters. The most recent time they met the Titans won 28-24, while the Dragons won the only other clash at Skilled Park 26-22 in 2008.

Conclusion: This is one of those games where home ground advantage comes into play.

The Dragons have been ultra-impressive, and if they were at full strength it would be difficult to tip against them. While they have some strong back-up available, at some time inexperience and a lack of depth is likely to tell. The errors will mount, the crowd will lift, and the Titans will steam home.

Go the home side by six.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Stats: NRL Stats.
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