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Titans v Dragons
Skilled Park
Saturday 6.30pm (Qld)

What a difference a title makes! With diamond-studded premiership rings on their fingers the Dragons have breezed through their trial games, bagged the World Club Challenge and are now focussed on a third consecutive minor premiership and serious defence of their title.

In the past month they’ve monstered the Rabbitohs in the Charity Shield, easily accounted for the Bulldogs then defeated glamour Super League outfit Wigan 21-15.  

Having flown halfway across the world in the past fortnight, you wouldn’t think a 60-minute flight to the Gold Coast would present too much of an obstacle but given their whirlwind early season demands, they still have the job ahead coming up against the traditionally disciplined Titans in front of a packed house on their home turf.

The acid test will be applied to new Titans five-eighth Luke Capewell, charged with the task of stepping into Mat Rogers’ boots. And big boots they are – last year Rogers and halves partner Scott Prince recorded more runs (459) and metres gained (3,496) than any other team’s No.6 and 7.

Personnel-wise, the Titans will field William Zillman at fullback, with Preston Campbell on the bench. Injured hooker Nathan Friend is replaced by former Knight and Rooster, Riley Brown.

Dan Hunt starts at prop for the Dragons, with Matt Prior reverting to lock. Dean Young is out injured, which leaves a huge workload on their only established ruckman Nathan Fien.  It’s a big game for centre Matt Cooper who plays his 200th NRL game.

Watch Out Titans: By his lofty standards, right-side centre Mark Gasnier had a pretty timid return to the NRL in 2010. He made just three line-breaks in 12 outings and averaged less than 100 metres a game (96) for the first time since 2002.

Given Gasnier’s hefty salary, you’d suspect Wayne Bennett will look to get him more involved in 2011. That will make the Dragons even more dangerous, given their potent left-side attack was responsible for two thirds of their 90 tries last year. The Titans need to keep the pressure up to Gasnier and try to keep him from growing in confidence.

Danger Sign: Brett Morris looks set for another blistering year on the left wing – he carved up Wigan in the WCC with 195 metres, four line-breaks and a whopping13 tackle-breaks and is certain to make his presence felt here. Finding the sidelines with kicks will be an important part of the Titans’ game plan to combat Morris’ forays – or they’ll pay.

Watch Out Dragons: With enforcers Neville Costigan and Jeremy Smith no longer in the fold, now’s the chance for teams to test out the Dragons’ mettle in the centre of the ruck. You can expect former Dragon Luke Bailey (team-high 125 metres) to lead the way.

It will be interesting to see how John Cartwright uses Preston Campbell in his new role as a ‘super sub’. Last year Campbell played pretty much the full 80 minutes and averaged 92 metres with 68 tackle-breaks. He was the side’s chief kick-returner, averaging 42 metres a game, and it was here he was most dangerous. Expect him to take the field around the 25-minute mark and look to target the tiring Dragons’ forwards.

Scott Prince (25 try assists, 16 line-break assists) will play to his strengths and look to pick up the likes of Greg Bird and Mark Minichiello close to the Dragons’ line. He’ll also look to the flanks, hoping speedsters David Mead and Kevin Gordon can get around the Dragons. A left-side cut-out play reaped rewards for Gordon in their one-point victory last time out, so they know the Red V are vulnerable.

Danger Sign:  The Dragons can’t afford to feel comfortable even if they are ahead on the scoreboard. Last year the Titans were the champions of reversing half-time deficits, coming back to triumph on six occasions – including last time out against the Red V.

Where It Will Be Won: Composure, completions and kick metres. The premiers know that if they keep their mistakes to a minimum, all sides will find it hard to climb over them. Last year they started the first two rounds with unheard-of completion rates of 94 per cent and 92 per cent, before finishing with the NRL benchmark 79 per cent.

It could develop into a game of ‘whoever blinks first’: coaches John Cartwright and Wayne Bennett have a healthy respect for their opposition and will be endeavouring to play the game down the other end of the park at all costs. In their most recent clash (Round 20 last year) the sides racked up a record 2,178 metres from the boot, with the Titans edging out the Dragons 1072-1006 on a dour night where they grabbed the competition points in a golden-point cliffhanger.

Plays To Watch: Watch for Prince to try to build pressure and gain repeat sets after pegging the Dragons in their in-goal with deft grubbers late in the tackle count.

Expect the Dragons to again employ some variations on their lethal left-side plays, with second-rower Ben Creagh being fed flat ball inside the Titans’ 10-metre zone. Creagh has good force and a huge reach that helped him to 69 tackle-breaks and 10 tries last year.

The History: Played 8; Dragons 6, Titans 2. The Dragons hold a 2-1 advantage at Skilled Park. Last time they met the Titans won 11-10, with Mat Rogers snapping a crucial field goal to seal the deal in extra time at WIN Jubilee Oval.

Conclusion: The Titans will miss Mat Rogers, both in this game and for the rest of the season. But they’ll miss hooker Nathan Friend more, especially in the early rounds. Friend was the leading defender in the NRL in 2010, making 1108 tackles. He was also the game’s busiest player in attack, with 2,789 touches – a whopping 330 receives ahead of next-best Matt Ballin. We just don’t see Riley Brown covering for this vital contribution (no offence Riley).

Go the Dragons by 12.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Fox Sports – Viewer’s Choice/Live from 7.30pm (AEST).  

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

See the official team lists for round 1