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Wests Tigers v Sydney Roosters
Leichhardt Oval
Saturday 7.30pm

Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens knows victory over the lowly Roosters would afford his side breathing space on the stuffy NRL ladder in the final run to this year’s semi-finals. But there’s a snag – the Tigers have an atrocious record against the Tricolours, losing the past four games and winning just two of the past eight.

However, last week’s energetic win over the Cowboys, which shattered a three-game losing streak, was enough to suggest they’ve shrugged off the lethargy of the past month and are ripe for an opponent struggling to avoid the wooden spoon.

The Tigers dominated the Cowboys with some blistering attack in last week’s 38-18 win in Townsville. The victory elevated them to seventh on the ladder, heading the Panthers and Knights on 20 competition points courtesy of a positive points differential.

Meanwhile the Roosters suffered a shattering loss to the Rabbitohs in golden point last week. They appeared to have done enough when they led by six points with five minutes remaining before Rabbitohs’ five-eighth John Sutton conjured a wonderful try assist for Greg Inglis to cross for the equaliser, then watched forlornly as Chris Sandow drilled the winning field goal over from 50 metres some 90 seconds into the second section of extra time.

That defeat leaves them mired in 15th place on the ladder, level with the Raiders and just two competition points ahead of the cellar-dwelling Titans. 

The Tigers receive a huge boost this week with the return of Lote Tuqiri. The Kangaroos’ winger plays just his fifth game after a season marred by injury. Tuqiri’s return pushes Beau Ryan to the right wing with Mitch Brown benched. Liam Fulton will start in the second row with Aaron Woods hitting the pine, while Mark Flanagan and Todd Payten are the new faces on an extended interchange.

In Roosters’ team changes fullback Anthony Minichiello returns after a fortnight off the scene, while Aiden Guerra will pack down alongside Braith Anasta in the second row with Tom Symonds shunted to join an extended bench that includes Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Sam Perrett and Shaun Kenny-Dowall loom as the Roosters’ danger men on the left and right side of the field respectively.

Perrett is a dependable metre-eater for the Roosters and leads the way for his side with 130 churned out every week. Against the Rabbitohs he tallied 163 metres and scored two tries, with a game-high two line-breaks and nine tackle busts.

Kenny-Dowall has returned to form over the past two weeks and offered two try assists last weekend as well as three offloads, a line-break and 111 metres. Against the Panthers the week before he ran 20 times for 167 metres with a game-high eight tackle-breaks.

Take Mitchell Pearce out of the picture and the Roosters would be in an even darker place than they’re currently in: he has 13 try assists (sixth most in the comp) and 12 line-break assists (fifth most). Five of those try assists have come in his past two games (two against the Rabbitohs, three against the Panthers).

Danger Sign: If Pearce is given depth to operate he can make life difficult for the Wests Tigers’ edge defenders by sending cut-out balls wide for wingers Perrett and BJ Leilua. Meanwhile Kenny-Dowall is sure to keep Chris Lawrence busy in defence on the right fringe. And if Todd Carney, who has been quiet for the majority of 2011, manages to make his presence felt the Roosters could be on track for a huge upset.

Watch Out Roosters: The Tigers’ four tries from within 10 metres of the Cowboys’ line last week elevated them to 42 tries scored from close range, the equal most in the comp (ironically, it drew them level with the Cowboys). That’s a huge danger to the Roosters who have conceded 27 of their 60 tries from 10 metres out, with 11 coming from passes close to the line. Benji Marshall will enjoy finding a way through for the likes of Gareth Ellis, Liam Fulton and centres Chris Lawrence and Blake Ayshford.

Tim Moltzen seized his chance in the No.1 last week, scoring a try, offering a try assist, making a line-break and running 125 metres. Marshall will be keen to sound him out for more involvement.

Robert Lui’s strong running from halfback continues to create headaches for opponents. Lui has 51 tackle-breaks so far, which ranks him second in his position behind Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans.

Robbie Farah is warming to some form and came up with two try assists last week. The Roosters need to watch for his deception from close range and also make sure they ‘shut the gate’ on plays when he feeds the ball back inside to a fringe runner after drifting across the field from dummy-half.

Danger Sign: Benji Marshall has been mixing his game of late and was curiously quiet when running the ball last week. The No.6 ranks third among his team-mates for tackle-breaks (with 61) but made just two against the Cowboys. His unpredictability could make it difficult for the Roosters to come up with the right game plan to contain him.

Plays To Watch: Moltzen supporting Benji; Lote Tuqiri winding up out wide; Robert Lui threatening the defensive line; Benji’s show-and-go, his cut-out passes for Tuqiri and other short passes close to the try line; Robbie Farah probing for holes as the Roosters tire; Anthony Minichiello’s support play; Sam Perrett’s dummy-half dashes; Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s one-arm up-and-over offloads; Mitchell Pearce’s chip kicks close to the try line.     

Where It Will Be Won: It will come down to the number of attacking plays each side gets in the opposition 20-metre zone. Just as the Tigers’ are lethal from close range (see above), a whopping 26 of the Roosters’ total 46 tries have originated from inside their opponents’ 10 metres.

Three things stand out that will determine who edges closer: the similar low average territory each side has gained in 2011; their similar error woes; and their long-kicking records.

The Tigers are averaging the fifth-fewest metres each week (1305) while the Roosters are clawing out even less (1269 – the third fewest).

Meanwhile the home side is making the fourth-most errors per game (12.8) and the Roosters the second most (13.5).

When it comes to kicks the Tigers have booted 5896 metres on clearances to the Roosters’ 5385. More importantly though the Tigers are kicking to open space 69 per cent of the time (best accuracy in the comp), with the Roosters second best but lagging well behind with 60 per cent.

The History: Played 19; Roosters 12, Wests Tigers 7. The Roosters have won six of the past eight games between the two sides including the past four. Their most recent match-up resulted in a 24-6 victory at the SFS in Round 4. The Roosters are yet to play the joint venture at Leichhardt Oval but prior to their formation won every game there dating back to 1990.

Conclusion: It’s a must-win game for the Tigers but exactly the type of contest the Roosters could run away with. If the Tigers are serious premiership contenders they need to start building now. They certainly have the more upside although don’t get too carried away by last week’s win – three times this year they’ve scored 30 or more points in victories only to come a cropper the following week.

Still, if you want to play the odds, the Tigers revved up by a vocal Leichhardt crowd should prove tough to topple. Tigers by six points.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats