There are some nervous followers out there. The Rabbitohs’ fans are nervous about injuries and their side being unable to overcome them to make the finals. The Dragons’ fans are nervous the team might be building up to another failure. But perhaps it is the fans of these two clubs, the Titans and the Eels, who are the most nervous – and with good reason as this clash shapes up as crunch time.
Despite some fantastic wins over the past fortnight, the Titans have never looked certain of a finals berth and still sit in the middle of the logjam in fifth spot.
A win here could get them to fourth but a loss could see them freefall to eighth.
The Eels inflated some hopes with some Jarryd Hayne-inspired victories – before the Carney Concorde grounded the Hayne Plane in a fabulous Roosters rout last weekend.
This has the Eels back in 10th, still with a negative differential, and while they might have been second favourites to win the premiership a week ago, they are still far from a certainty to even make the finals.
The nerves will definitely continue until a spot in the post-season is locked up, which for the Titans requires two more wins (one might cut it but their negative differential could kill them) while the Eels need four out of five to be certain, or three out of five with a lot of luck.
The run home for both sides suggests the Titans should get it done if they win here, with remaining games against the lowly Cowboys and Sharks as well as tough games against the Roosters and Wests Tigers.
But the Eels will be right up against the wall if they falter in this match, and face virtual sudden death against Brisbane (away), the Wests Tigers (home), the Rabbitohs (away) and the Warriors (home).
The home-side Gold Coast welcome back Origin forward Ashley Harrison at lock, which pushes Bodene Thompson to the bench. Luke O’Dwyer is out of the side that beat the Warriors after not being used in the match, with Shannon Walker joining a five-man bench.
The Eels have named the same side from their heavy loss to the Roosters, allowing the 17 men the chance to atone and right the ship.
Watch out Titans: It’s an obvious one but it must be stated. The Eels’ chances revolve around Jarryd Hayne and his impact. As soon as the Roosters were able to contain his impact, by kicking in short when he was back deep and by keeping the ball out of his hands as often as possible, the Eels lost any impetus.
They scored one try from his brilliance, the other from a passage of play too crazy to explain but it was essentially off a dropped ball.
If you keep the ‘Hayne Plane’ on the tarmac, you beat the Eels; it’s that simple. Hayne averages 169 metres a match (so kick away from him), has 11 line-breaks (three from kick returns), 14 line-break assists, nine tries and 13 try assists.
Watch out Eels: The Titans are going to send the cross-field kicks soaring on numerous occasions.
NRL.com revealed this week that the Gold Coast are the best in the league at getting repeat sets from goal-line drop-outs but giving their attacking kickers even more confidence this week is the knowledge the Eels have conceded more tries from kicks than any other side in the NRL. On 23 occasions the Eels have conceded points to kicks, and it is the cross-field bombs they have the biggest problem with.
As a team they are successfully defusing just 37 per cent of these kicks, to rank dead last in the competition. If this weren’t bad enough, they come up against a deadly accurate kicker in Scott Prince, who will be able to pinpoint their two wingers who successfully defuse just 20 per cent of cross-field bombs. In other words, expect Luke Burt and Krisnan Inu to get rained on from a great height throughout the contest.
Where it will be won: Between the ears. The Titans can win this game by just playing smart football, going in with a good game plan and executing it.
Brian Smith is no dummy – he researched Hayne and his positioning and he then exploited it to a tee last week. The Titans can do the same.
If they play clever, and they have arguably the smartest organising halfback in the game in Scott Prince, then they can nullify the Eels. If they play dumb and give up easy possession and field position, the Eels will get the confidence, Hayne will be cleared for take-off… and the Eels’ season will be alive and kicking.
The kicking game will be paramount for both sides. For the Titans it will be about placing the ball away from Hayne and chasing hard all day. For the Eels the focus needs to be distance and accuracy. The Titans can generate repeat sets with good field position but from distance they won’t be as effective. The Eels need to hem them down in their half, force them to take chances, and then force errors.
The History: Played 4; Titans 3, Eels 1. The last time these two met was in the finals last year when the Eels recorded their only win. In the three previous regular season games, the Titans have triumphed – including the sole encounter at Skilled Park.
Conclusion: It is anybody’s game, despite the Titans coming in hot and the Eels coming in cold. The Gold Coast is returning home after a gruelling two weeks away and might be a little flat to start this match. Remember two weeks ago when the Bulldogs started flat against the Eels? It was goodnight in a matter of minutes.
The Eels must come out firing to give them the confidence they need to get the job done, but if the Titans can maintain their strength in defence, the Eels might be forced into panic football.
Don’t be afraid to tip either side here.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.