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Gold Coast Titans v Wests Tigers
Skilled Park
Friday 7.30pm

Just five rounds into the season and already it is desperation stakes for the Gold Coast Titans. Semi-finalists in the past two years, the Titans have been but a shadow of their usual selves in 2011 with four losses from their opening five games – their sole win coming only from a fortuitous turn of events in the final minutes against Canberra.

The Titans have been somewhat of a contradiction this season with even coach John Cartwright admitting to some bemusement that they find themselves 16th on the Telstra Premiership ladder. Averaging 1333 metres per game, they rank fourth in the NRL and have dominated field position for large periods.

Yet they have failed to turn some positive stats into points and have subsequently fallen to losses against St George Illawarra, Melbourne, Brisbane and North Queensland.

Halfback Scott Prince has been surprisingly out of sorts this season and the Titans rank 13th for kick metres in 2011. In four appearances Prince has produced just two try assists.

The task doesn’t get any easier this week against a Wests Tigers side that has picked up where it left off in 2010. Inspired by the unwavering direction of classy hooker Robbie Farah and the utter brilliance of five-eighth Benji Marshall, the Tigers are one of the competition’s most dangerous attacking teams and without doubt the most thrilling.

And that’s despite an injury toll that would have crippled a lesser side. Already this season the Tigers have seen Gareth Ellis (although back last week), Liam Fulton, Bryce Gibbs and Beau Ryan sidelined while Lote Tuqiri, Chris Lawrence and Robert Lui are all recovering from long-term injuries.

In their absence, it has been Marshall’s individual flair at the heart of the Tigers’ charge and he leads the league for try assists with nine as well as ranking second for line-break assists (10) and adding 21 tackle-breaks. His solo try against South Sydney last Friday night was one for the ages.

An ankle injury has seen Titans back-rower Anthony Laffranchi ruled out, with Greg Bird coming back into the side after suspension in the second row and Ashley Harrison returning at lock. William Zillman retains his role at five-eighth with Luke Capewell named at fullback.

Winger Beau Ryan makes his long-awaited return for the Tigers after missing the start of the season with a groin injury. Mitch Brown moves from the wing to the centres with Geoff Daniela dropping out. Todd Payten moves off the bench into the starting side in place of the injured Keith Galloway.

A win by the Titans would see them surpass the previous Gold Coast franchise for total wins. Both currently sit on 53.

Michael Henderson will play his 100th NRL game.

Watch Out Titans: Benji Marshall has always been a match-winning player but his remarkable form so early in the season must have opposition coaches extremely worried. Along with his partner in point-scoring crime Robbie Farah, Marshall poses a constant threat to defensive lines and the Titans can’t afford to rest on their laurels for one minute.

And while, like any side, the Tigers are most dangerous from close range, they can also score from anywhere on the park, with four tries notched from beyond the 20-metre line in 2011 and one from beyond halfway.

The return from injury of Tim Moltzen has also made a difference and he has proven a real threat since moving back to halfback to cover for the injured Robert Lui.

Danger Sign: The Titans have been lazy in defence this season with 185 missed tackles throughout their five games – more than all but South Sydney and the Warriors. Worryingly, the Tigers thrive on such defensive weakness and much of their attack this season has come on the back of second-phase play and broken tackles. In fact, they are by far the league leaders for both offloads (75) and tackle-breaks (225), with Andrew Fifita (31) and Matthew Utai (30) their danger men when it comes to breaking tackles. Also, Utai, Marshall and Chris Heighington have 10 offloads each.

Watch Out Tigers: The Gold Coast have been strong up the middle this season and it is only through a dominant performance by their forwards that they can expect to slow the Tigers’ charge.

The main man up front for the Titans is veteran prop Luke Bailey (on 99 career wins heading into this game) who has averaged an impressive 140 metres in 2011, while Greg Bird and Ashley Harrison also average well over triple figures.

Danger Sign: The Tigers can expect to see plenty of traffic directed at their right edge with the Gold Coast’s left-hand pairing of Esi Tonga and Steve Michaels a favourite target of their inside men. In particular the Titans like to hit the ball up centre-field or slightly to the right and then shift the ball quickly to Tonga and Michaels. This very play was responsible for a scintillating try to Michaels against North Queensland last week.

The Titans have shifted the ball strongly to their left on 44 occasions in 2011 compared to just 14 times to the right, in an effort to capitalise on Michaels’ blistering speed.

Plays To Watch: The Benji Marshall sidestep; the Benji Marshall quick short-ball to his left centre; the Titans’ quick shift to the left.

Where It Will Be Won: Up the middle. Both sides have been solid in centre-field this season, with the Gold Coast averaging 1333 metres per game (4th in the NRL) and the Tigers 1328 (5th).

On current form, if the Tigers can continue to impress up front they should have too much class out wide – but if the Gold Coast can gain the ascendency an upset is on the cards.

The History: Played 7; Gold Coast 4, Wests Tigers 3. These two sides split their games with a win apiece last season in two nail-biters – the Titans getting up 21-18 at Skilled Park and Wests Tigers winning by a solitary point at Campbelltown.

Conclusion: The Gold Coast’s decline this season has been as unexpected as it has been dramatic. Expected to again challenge for a top-four berth, they instead look disorganised with the ball in hand, with injuries and unstable halves pairings sapping their confidence.

The Tigers, on the other hand, look the real deal and will head into this game as warm favourites to book their fourth win of the year.

Of course, the Gold Coast have the talent to turn it all around. Halfback Scott Prince remains one of the NRL’s premier playmakers, their forward pack is one of the best in the competition… but until they actually produce results they will remain a difficult side to tip.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.