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Broncos v Titans
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

While not quite the mouth-watering local derby south-east Queensland fans have become accustomed to over the past few years, this game to kick off Rivalry Round could have a massive effect on the Broncos’ top-four aspirations and also the Titans’ bid to distance themselves from the wooden spoon.

Brisbane take the field with a week’s rest after banking their second bye, giving their weary Origin contingent time to recover from any niggling injuries. Their baby Broncos got the job done last time out against the Eels in Parramatta. It was a much-needed away win given their saddle slipped a little in falling to the Rabbitohs in Perth the week before.

The victory over Parramatta was their fourth from the past six games and the bye lifts them to 26 competition points, leaving them in fifth place on the ladder trailing the Cowboys on points differential.

Meanwhile the Titans’ season of misery continued against the Warriors, the 22-6 defeat their seventh from their past eight outings. Injuries and poor form continue to spoil their year and the Roosters’ upset win over the Panthers last week leaves them a clear last on the ladder.

Things have gotten so desperate veteran star Mat Rogers hauled himself out of retirement to lend some assistance last week – but it appears to have been just a cameo appearance (and his 200th NRL game) with Preston Campbell named on the bench to make his return this week and Rogers missing from the team sheet.

In Broncos’ team changes this week Justin Hodges’ return at centre pushes Gerard Beale to the left wing, bumping Dale Copley from the squad. Dane Gagai makes way for Jharal Yow Yeh on the right wing, with Corey Norman vacating the No.6 for the return of Darren Lockyer. Ben Hannant replaces Nick Kenny at prop while Sam Thaiday pushes Dunamis Lui to the extended bench of 19. Matt Gillett hits the pine for Corey Parker at lock. Josh McGuire and Kurt Baptiste are the new faces on the bench, with impressive debut tryscorer David Hala not included.  

Meanwhile John Cartwright has named Luke Capewell at fullback for the Titans. Anthony Laffranchi will start at prop, pushing Michael Henderson to the bench, with Greg Bird returning in the second row.

Watch Out Broncos: Matt Srama continues his evolution at hooker for the Titans. Already an above-average ruck dictator, Srama will be looking to use the last eight games of the season to broaden his skills set. In his sixth first grade game last week he recorded a game-high 108 touches and backed that up with a whopping 52 tackles.

Aside from go-to man Scott Prince (seven try assists, six line-break assists) the Titans’ best chances of points come on the flanks from their speed merchants David Mead (eight tries and line-breaks) and Steve Michaels (six tries and eight line-breaks). The Titans failed to make even a single line-break last week so you can bet they’ll be running with more purpose here against their neighbours.

Danger Sign: Srama will be dangerous inside the Broncos’ 10 metre-zone where he’ll look to pick up support players Mark Minichiello (23 supports) and Ashley Harrison (27). Prop Luke Bailey could be difficult to stop too (27).

Watch Out Titans: The Broncos have scored the fewest tries in the comp in the region near the opposition goalposts (just three), highlighting their spectacular ability to shift the ball wide either left or right.

They’ve scored 26 tries on the left side of the field and 24 on the right so far in 2011. This balance is rare in the NRL. The Broncos get this sort of return through their blindingly quick shifts from one side of the field to the other. The Titans’ fringe defenders need to regroup and stay alert even when the play drifts away from their side of the field – you can bet it will be heading back again very quickly.

Despite taking to the field in just 50 per cent of games so far (eight played) Justin Hodges has made a dent in oppositions. He has a massive average five tackle busts a game plus three line-breaks and is averaging 126 metres. The Titans surrender among the most line-breaks a game (4.6 – fourth most) so they need to pay particular attention to wrapping up Hodges or he’ll have them on the back foot all night.

Also, the Broncos love this time of year – they’ve lost a Round 19 game just twice in the past 15 seasons!

Danger Sign: It’s red alert when Hodges ducks into dummy-half or gets the ball at first receiver, especially inside the Brisbane half. With even a skerrick of room to move he’ll make huge inroads. One of his three line-breaks came from the ruck.

Plays To Watch: Peter Wallace and Darren Lockyer initiating long shifts to the other side of the field, or darting from the open side down the short blind side at the last minute; Jack Reed chasing like a Jack Russell (41 good chases, second most in the NRL); Sam Thaiday’s supports (38 to date) inside the Titans’ 20-metre zone; Corey Parker and Alex Glenn busting through would-be tackles (57 and 53 respectively); William Zillman’s energetic support play (79, third most supports); David Mead’s speed and power running (eight tackle-breaks last week); Scott Prince lifting a gear against Lockyer and Wallace.

Where It Will Be Won: In the air; or rather whichever team best turns bombs into points. Brisbane (and the Warriors) lead the league for hoisting the high ball, with 48 bombs booted to date. The Broncos have scored 16 tries from kicks, the second most by any side. Meanwhile the Titans have conceded 19 tries to kicks, easily the most. And their outside men have the worst record for defusing cross-field bombs, making a meal of things 67 per cent of the time.

But the Titans will puncture the sky too: their 46 bombs are the third most in the comp, they’ve scored 10 of 42 tries from kicks and the Brisbane wingers are vulnerable, defusing only 56 per cent of cross-field bombs.

Brisbane average 25 metres of distance per bomb; the Titans average 23. Whenever the ball is sent to Scott Prince, Peter Wallace or Darren Lockyer late in the tackle count this distance out, you can bet a bomb will rain down.

The History: Played 10; Broncos 7, Titans 3. The Broncos have won six of the past eight games, including a 14-8 victory at Skilled Park in Round 3. The Broncos hold a 4-1 advantage at Suncorp Stadium and recorded their biggest win over their southern neighbours there in Round 10 last year (28-6).  The Titans have won just two of their total 10 games played at the venue – and three of their losses have been by 20 or more points.

Conclusion: If Peter Wallace and Darren Lockyer get adequate time to call the shots the Broncos should get the job done without too many hiccups. The pair have combined for the most try assists by any halves combination (26) and rarely get flustered.

It’s an important game for the Broncos and two competition points they can’t afford to squander through complacency. We don’t see any of that on the horizon; the Titans have been devoid of attacking brilliance so an upset seems unlikely.

Broncos by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Michael Wise; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

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

* Stats: NRL Stats