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Dragons v Titans
WIN Jubilee Stadium
Friday, 7.35pm

Titans coach John Cartwright may have seriously considered some hypnotherapy as a means of boosting his troops’ confidence this week, such are the hurdles both physical and mental that have been erected between them and a semi-finals berth.

A month ago the Gold Coast unit were equal second on the NRL ladder. But three successive losses, cushioned only by a bye, have seen them plummet to eighth – and if defeated by the Dragons they will slip from the top eight for the first time since the end of the 2008 season.

They showed great intensity to lead the Broncos 10-nil with less than 10 minutes to go before halftime last week, but capitulated. Before that they suffered a heartbreaking one-point loss to the Wests Tigers (in the game marked by Benji Marshall’s 50-metre field goal), while in Round 16 against the Knights they squandered a 12-6 lead after 27 minutes. Clearly application is letting them down.

To add to their woes this week they have lost crucial personnel Greg Bird (hamstring) and Ashley Harrison. In a reshuffle, former Bronco Steve Michaels makes his debut for the club in the centres, with Mat Rogers taking Bird’s no.6 jersey. Bodene Thompson moves from centre to slot in at lock for Harrison, with Clinton Toopi his replacement. Ben Ridge and Shannon Walker join the extended bench, with Ryan James missing out.

The Titans have a dreadful record against the Dragons, winning just one of seven games – their worst record against any opponent. They have yet to beat the Dragon in Sydney, and have never scored more than 12 points against them in the city.

Meanwhile the Dragons keep ticking over nicely. They’ve shown an inherent ability to grind out a victory, as evidenced by their 16-13 win over the Rabbitohs last week, which was secured inside the final 10 minutes with a 70-metre raid initiated by back-rower Neville Costigan and finished off by Mark Gasnier.

In a significant roster change Matt Cooper, off the scene since tearing his hamstring in Origin II, returns at centre replacing Kyle Stanley. Jeremy Smith joins the six-man bench which includes Mark Gasnier.

Watch out Dragons: Mat Rogers and Scott Prince are an accomplished halves pairing, and it will fall to captain Prince to take this game by the throat if the Titans are to remain a finals force.

Prince has 11 try assists from just 12 games.

Hooker Nathan Friend is the busiest player in the NRL; his 1909 receives are a staggering 153 more touches than the second most involved, Manly’s Matt Ballin. The Dragons need to shut down his decision-making time.

And the Red V can be sure that former Dragon Luke Bailey will be primed for a huge game. Bailey, who has yet to win against his old side, delivered a powerful 57 minutes against the Broncos last week, running for 142 metres with 31 tackles.

Watch out Titans: Poor discipline when in possession is killing the Titans. They’re averaging just 69 per cent for their completions – the second worst rate in the comp.

And they’ve been even worse over the past month. In their loss to the Knights they completed 25/37 (67 per cent), while against the Wests Tigers they completed 24/36 (66 per cent).

They were slightly better last week (30/42 for 71 per cent) but even that figure ranks outside the other top-eight sides.

By comparison the Dragons are the masters at strangling their oppositions – their 78 per cent average completion rate is the NRL benchmark.

Player-wise the Titans have to shut down the involvement of star fullback Darius Boyd, who has made 232 runs this year for an average gain of 148 metres a match. He is the go-to man on their sideline sweeps, and the player most likely to provide the final pass for wingers Brett Morris (15 tries) and Jason Nightingale (11 tries).

Boyd ranks second for line-break assists (13) and fifth for try assists (14). He has registered at least one try assist in each of his past five games.

Where it will be won:
Keeping the ball up the other end, and committing to defence.

With completion rates crucial, making an error or turning over the ball in your own end is likely to be punished. In this regard the Titans are making nearly 11 errors a game, compared to the home side’s 7.4.

As for defence, well, the Titans are missing more tackles per game than any other side (37.9), compared to the Dragons’ 26.4 (the fewest in the comp).

The history: Played 7; Dragons 6, Titans 1. The Dragons won 19-6 back in Round 6. The Titans secured their only win 28-24 at Skilled Park last season.

This is the first clash between the sides at Kogarah.

Conclusion: In our Dragons-Rabbitohs preview last week we said: “If [the Rabbitohs] go try-for-try with the Dragons, their opponents will pull away from them late in proceedings. No; they need a try, try, try start to get the points.” We were correct, and we’ll go again and say that’s pretty much the scenario for the Titans, too.

It’s clear they need to blow the Dragons away early, as recent history shows they simply don’t have the weaponry when it counts later in games – they have scored only three tries in their past four second halves.

Otherwise, this could be a nasty touch-up.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & David Abood; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – delayed 1am.
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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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