Things might get ugly in Sydney’s outer west on Friday night – but we don’t mean these sides will be engaging in a battle of the biff.
Rather, the Wests Tigers have made it clear they’ll do anything they can to win games, and if that means doing away with their flashy plays to grind out a win against the odds, then so be it.
That’s exactly what they delivered in shocking conditions at Suncorp Stadium last week against the Broncos, doing everything wrong and being on the wrong end of all the important statistics categories.
Nevertheless, they got out of jail courtesy of a Robbie Farah cross-field kick for Mitch Brown, which sealed their hollow victory in the 78th minute.
Even though they haven’t looked impressive for the past month or so, the Tigers have won five of their past six. They enter this game in third place on the ladder, four points adrift of the co-pacesetters St George Illawarra and Penrith.
The Titans are in a similar boat to their opponents; they have four losses from their past six outings, including a worrying 24-16 defeat to the Knights at home before their bye last week.
Personnel-wise, the Tigers gain a player and lose a player – Robert Lui returns in the no.7 after missing several weeks with a knee injury, pushing Daniel Fitzhenry to the bench. But “British bulldog” second-rower Gareth Ellis is out with a groin injury; his place is taken by Liam Fulton. Mark Flanagan and Junior Moors join the extended bench which also retains Mitch Brown and rookie Andrew Fifita.
The Titans have some injury disruptions although a huge plus for them is the return of skipper Scott Prince after two games on the sideline with a hamstring strain. This sees Preston Campbell revert back to fullback, with William Zillman shifting to wing to cover for the injured David Mead. Bodene Thompson slots in at centre in place of the injured Sam Tagataese. Luke O’Dwyer joins the bench at the expense of Kane Lawton, with ex-Bronco Steve Michaels in jersey no.19.
The Titans will be sweating on Origin reps Greg Bird and Ashley Harrison backing up.
Watch out Wests Tigers: It’s been a long time since the flamboyant Tigers have languished as far down as 11th in the comp for tries scored (47). Why are they suffering in 2010? Because it’s all revolving around Benji Marshall, and when you’ve only got the one go-to man, it’s easier for opposition defences to nullify raids.
The stats show Marshall is pulling his weight – his 12 line-break assists ranks him fourth in the comp while he’s also added 13 try assists. (Incidentally, he needs just one more try to register 50 in his career.)
But compare that to the Titans: Prince matches Marshall for line-break assists with 12 and has nine try assists (from just 10 games), while five-eighth Greg Bird has 11 line-break assists and 10 try assists. Bird is also one of the most prolific offloaders in the NRL (33, ranks fourth).
So the dangers for the Tigers are two-fold: Not enough internal spark and the need to shut down the opposition playmakers.
Watch out Titans: Wade McKinnon has played less than three games in the black and gold since shifting from the Warriors but has stamped himself the buy of 2010.
In just 210 minutes he’s averaging 18 runs for 163 metres – with more than five tackle-breaks a game. In their loss to the Dragons a fortnight ago he made 247 metres, with nine tackle-breaks.
McKinnon brings a great running game to complement fellow Tigers flier Lote Tuqiri, who has been in great form too. Tuqiri’s 81 tackle-breaks ranks sixth most in the comp and has helped him to the seventh most metres gained by any player (2000).
The Titans’ backs, already affected by the loss of Tagataese and Mead, need to hold their structure or else they’ll be made to pay.
Where it will be won: Keeping the foot to the pedal. For two sides occupying spots in the top four, neither is giving their fans cause for great celebrations.
The home side has a lacklustre +11 points differential, while the Titans have returned a woeful -7 differential.
Neither side has shown any great ability to put an opposition to the sword and often let their opponents back into the contest.
It’s about time one of these spluttering sides made a statement if they are to be considered premiership hopes.
The history: Played 5; Titans 3, Wests Tigers 2. The Wests Tigers have won two of the past three times they’ve met, although the Titans won the only clash at Campbelltown Stadium between the sides.
The last time they met in Round 25 last year the Titans won 36-24 at Skilled Park.
Conclusion: The loss of Gareth Ellis is a huge one for the home side, who have relied on his starch up front all year. It means others, including Chris Heighington (222 hit-ups, seventh in the NRL), Liam Fulton and Todd Payten will need to take on added responsibility.
It’s a difficult game to predict with any sort of confidence. Intensity will be the critical factor; the Titans should play upbeat given Prince’s return but there’s no question the home side would have been delivered a no-holds-barred spray for their plodding display against the Broncos last week and should be a different side from the kick-off.
Maybe the Wests Tigers… just.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Russel Turner & Phil Haines; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.