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Titans v Sharks
Skilled Park
Saturday 5.30pm

It’s hardly a top-of-the-table clash but there is still plenty to play for on the Gold Coast strip on Saturday night when the Sharks get the chance to launch their final hurrah for 2011, while the Titans will be desperate to push off the bottom of the NRL table and away from the dreaded wooden-spoon zone.

By taking down the Bulldogs last week the Sharks climbed a couple of rungs to 13th place. They’re on 12 competition points and still two wins away from the top eight but victory over the Titans will keep them in the mix.

Meanwhile the Titans slumped to their fifth loss from their past six games against the Rabbitohs last week. In a display totally unbefitting captain Scott Prince’s 250th NRL game they undid all their good work of a fortnight ago when they took down premiers St George Illawarra. They were sadly found out in defence, missing 55 tackles for the match – that’s 17 more misses than the average 38 tallied by the Warriors, who are the least effective defensive outfit in the comp. Back-rowers Mark Minichiello and Anthony Laffranchi missed 11 tackles, while centres Clinton Toopi and Joseph Tomane missed nine. Preston Campbell missed five alone. Woeful stuff.

The Titans suffered a major blow on Friday when inspirational duo Luke Bailey and Preston Campbell pulled out with injury; they’ve been replaced by Brenton Lawrence who makes his debut in the front row at the age of 25, and Jordan Rankin who became the NRL’s youngest player (and the third-youngest first grader of all time) when he made his debut for the Titans in 2008 aged 16 years, 238 days. In other changes this week coach John Cartwright has named Anthony Laffranchi in the front row with Michael Henderson benched, while Blues representative Greg Bird will start in the second row after a week’s rest following Origin II. Luke O’Dwyer rounds out the interchange bench. Another major blow is the loss of Ryan James for the season after he hyper-extended his knee last week.

Meanwhile Paul Gallen has resisted Ricky Stuart’s urgings and has been named to lead the Sharks in an unchanged line-up to the one that muzzled the Bulldogs. 

Watch Out Titans: Gallen is the obvious threat. He tops the league for average hit-ups (262), average metres (185) and total territory (2222 metres).

Out wide Nathan Gardner is warming back to top form. The energetic fullback set up Ben Pomeroy’s opening try last week with an on-the-run grubber into the in-goal and then bamboozled the Bulldogs’ outside backs with a blistering run to the line. Titans’ centres Tomane and Toopi can’t afford any bad reads or half-hearted defensive efforts or they’ll get burned.

Veteran centre Colin Best continues to give good service down the left edge – he managed four offloads last week and made 14 runs for 124 metres. Again, Toopi will be a target.

Danger Sign: If you see Gardner getting animated behind the attacking line you’ll know he’s ready to inject himself into the action.

Watch Out Sharks: It’s taken him a while, and he’s still showing some inconsistency, but Titans captain Scott Prince is slowly warming back to form. In the past two weeks he’s almost doubled his number of try assists for the year, adding three to take his total to seven. With Campbell gone the Titans need Prince’s spark if they’re any chance of taking down the visitors.

Second-rower Mark Minichiello will be primed for a big game after his defensive embarrassment last week – he has a team-high 46 tackle-breaks (and made just one last week).

Danger Sign: If the Titans can force themselves into prime field position early in the tackle count it means Prince can plot his plays without pressure.

Plays To Watch: William Zillman’s and David Mead’s explosive speed; Jordan Rankin’s enthusiasm; Minichiello’s leg drive near the Sharks’ line; Scott Prince’s grubbers, show-and-go and cross-field bombs; Paul Gallen’s robotic input; Nathan Gardner’s speed and deception; Jeremy Smith’s aggression.

Where It Will Be Won: To be honest, the bounce of the ball. Nothing splits these teams in attack or defence – the Titans are averaging 16.2 points a game to the Sharks’ 17, while the home side yields 22.7 points a game to the Sharks’ 22.6. That’s sum total of 0.9 points difference in favour of the Sharks.

The History: Played 6; Titans 3, Sharks 3. The teams have been in alternate winning mode since the first game won by the Gold Coast in 2007 – that leaves the Titans next in line for victory. Supporting that is the fact all six games have been won by the home side.

Conclusion: We were prepared to suggest the Titans would be open to improvement in the back half of the competition but last week’s ugly performance against the Rabbitohs has us closing the book on that argument. While the Sharks have been hit and miss all year a massive thing they have going for them is the current momentum behind captain Paul Gallen. It’s hard to know when, or if, it will stop, but we can’t see it letting off just yet.

A Titans win would not surprise. But it would annoy all fans who’ve been burned by them time and again in tipping comps to date. The Sharks by eight.  

Match Officials: Referees – Tony De Las Heras & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats