Titans v Panthers
Skilled Park
Saturday 5.30pm

Titans fans – your team needs you… now! When the fulltime siren sounds on Saturday night half of the 2011 season will be done and dusted and if the home side is lamenting another loss they can just about officially kiss the finals goodbye.

With just three wins from 11 starts the Titans sit last on the ladder.

In recent times teams have needed to win at least half of their games, sometimes more, to make the finals. As it stands now they need to win at least nine of their remaining 13 to have a chance. While the Dragons are on a nine-games run, the Titans haven’t shown even a skerrick of similar form to suggest they could emulate that.

They have lost their past three straight, were bullied by Canterbury last week and now must face a Panthers side fresh off a confidence-boosting win over the Rabbitohs.

Titans coach John Cartwright spent years bleeding for the Panthers… now he must find a way to take them down, or his side will slip into oblivion and be playing for nothing but to avoid the wooden spoon.

The positive is they welcome back Ashley Harrison this week. As a result Luke O’Dwyer reverts to the bench, while NSW Origin star Greg Bird will start in place of Ben Ridge.

Clinton Toopi has been added to a five-man reserves list.

The Panthers’ hot display in freezing, wet conditions against the Rabbitohs last Monday night has pushed them up to 10th on the NRL ladder. But at the end of the day they have won only one more match than the Titans – they too need to start their push for the top eight. Losses are not an option if they have hopes of finals football. This game is a golden opportunity to get level with sides in and on the bubble of the top eight.

Coach Matt Elliott has kept the faith with Monday night’s team, adding only Dayne Weston as an 18th man on the bench.

Watch Out Titans: It’s likely the Panthers are going to try their luck with second-phase play after reading some interesting stats. Already this season Penrith have scored seven tries directly from an offload. Of course, several other offloads have been part of the lead-up to tries… but on seven occasions – the most by any team in the NRL – a Panther has popped a pass and the direct result has been four points. Why is this even more important this week? Well, the Titans have conceded six tries in this fashion to be the third-worst side in the NRL. (On the other side of the coin the Panthers are even worse, with seven conceded! But the Titans haven’t shown an ability to capitalise in this manner.)

Danger Sign: The man to watch is Trent Waterhouse, who leads the Panthers’ offloads tally with 34. Luke Walsh (last week) and Matthew Bell are other players who’ve set up tries with popped passes while big Petero Civoniceva still has the ability to hit and spin.

Watch Out Panthers: The Titans might have unearthed a real winner with young hooker Matt Srama. Although soundly beaten by the Bulldogs, Srama made a better-than-solid debut with 36 tackles, an offload, a tackle-break and a try assist. These numbers are impressive enough but when you add the fact he ran the ball 15 times for 120 metres gained, all of a sudden the fears surrounding Nathan Friend’s departure to the Warriors next season start to ease a little. It seems the Titans have found another weapon to help out Scott Prince around the rucks.

Danger Sign: As 20-year-old Srama’s confidence grows he is likely to have even more impact. Watch for him to dart out of dummy-half near the line and draw in defenders before opening up space for Prince with a clever pass. He isn’t afraid to go himself, either. He came agonisingly close to a try on debut when he had a crack, only to have the ball dislodged as he attempted to ground it.

Plays To Watch: Countless Titans’ attacking kicks… but will they be successful? The Titans have scored just three tries off kicks this season, despite having punted the most kicks in an opponent’s quarter by any team in the NRL (83). Also, watch for Lachlan Coote to chase Penrith kicks; Coote scored a hat-trick against the Titans last year, his only career three-try effort.

Where It Will Be Won: This clash will all be about goal-line defence. Both sides have struggled when defending their goal lines this season and it is a major contributor to their respective positions on the ladder. If they are to prevail in this match-up they must improve their defensive attitude when their backs are to the wall.

The Panthers have conceded 21 tries from within 10 metres of the goal line this season, the third most by any team. The Titans aren’t much better, having conceded 20 tries so far in 2011 from the same distance.

At least the fact both sides haven’t been good offensively from the same distance should give them a chance to improve defensively! The Panthers have scored just 11 tries from close range, the Titans nine.

The History: Played 4; Titans 2, Panthers 2. These teams have played each other just once each season since the Titans joined the fold in 2007, with the Gold Coast winning the first and last of four games. They have split the games at Skilled Park, the Panthers winning in 2008 but the Titans getting the chocolates last season. In an interesting trend, exactly 14 points have decided the past three games.

Conclusion: This is one of those games where the lean is away from form. The Panthers have given reason to back them in this match but the sense of desperation will certainly give the home-side Titans a real shot. They encountered plenty of misfortune against the ’Dogs and they are due a change of luck.

Don’t count out the Panthers though… they have certainly lifted since Phil Gould’s appointment as club general manager. Funny how players react when their futures are on the line, eh?

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Luke Phillips; Touch Judges – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.