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Titans v Cowboys
Skilled Park
Saturday 5.30pm

Having failed to make a dent in their south-east Queensland neighbours the Broncos last week the struggling Titans now regroup and focus on inflicting some pain on top-four aspirants the Cowboys at home on Saturday night.

Their latest defeat was their fourth in a row and leaves them rooted to the bottom of the NRL ladder with just four wins to their credit; they now face a massive battle to offload the wooden spoon to the Raiders or Roosters who each sit two competition points higher than them.

Still, captain Scott Prince will be determined his 100th appearance for the Titans (153 NRL games overall) will be a celebration rather than yet another of the weekly wakes that have been so common in 2011. With Johnathan Thurston still sidelined Prince will relish the chance to dominate the ruck.

It’s a crunch game for the Cowboys; they’ve lost touch with the top four but will be desperate for the two competition points here which would see them back in the mix for a home semi-final should the Storm take down the Broncos on Friday night.

Titans’ lock Ashley Harrison’s elbow injury has allowed John Cartwright to introduce mid-season signing Beau Henry to the squad. In a significant reshuffle, second-rower Greg Bird shifts to lock, with centre Bodene Thompson moving to the second row. Regular five-eighth William Zillman moves to centre for Thompson and Henry suits up in the No.6. Brenton Lawrence takes Michael Henderson’s spot on the bench.

Meanwhile Cowboys’ coach Neil Henry has decided to shield under-20s halfback Michael Morgan from the pressures of filling in for Johnathan Thurston, opting for Ben Jones in the No.7 instead. Morgan was found out defensively in the Cowboys’ home loss to the Wests Tigers last week; Henry’s call is probably a sensible one for the long term.

Elsewhere captain Matthew Scott returns at prop, pushing James Tamou to the bench, while Joel Riethmuller returns to an extended interchange of 20.

Worryingly the Titans have lost their past four games at Skilled Park, conceding an average 27.3 points – up on their season average of 23.9 points conceded.

Watch Out Titans: While the Cowboys have scored a massive 38 tries down the left side of the field (second most in the comp) compared to just 22 on the right, it’s likely they’ll target the Titans’ right side here – especially given the Titans are the weakest of all NRL sides on that edge, having leaked 30 tries.

In any event the Cowboys will look to shift it wide and often – of the 16 wing partnerships in the NRL (total 32 players) Titan David Mead misses the most tackles by any winger (31) while Michaels misses the 10th most (20).

In the centres, Willie Tonga has scored five tries in four games against the Gold Coast side.

Danger Sign: When he’s not chiming into the backline inside the Titans’ red zone looking to link with wingers Kalifa Faifai Loa and Ashley Graham, Cowboys’ fullback Matthew Bowen may look to spark some long-distance raids – the Cowboys have scored the second-most tries from over halfway (10) while the Titans have conceded the most from this distance (10). 

Watch Out Cowboys: Greg Bird loves a challenge – against the Broncos last week he pounded out 20 hit-ups for 153 metres, with five tackle-breaks and two offloads. He also toiled hard in defence, making 32 tackles.

Perhaps the Titans’ best chances of points will come from high balls out wide – the Cowboys’ wingers remain the shakiest under cross-field bombs, safely defusing just 32 per cent of kicks.

Danger Sign: If Scott Prince gets his radar right and the home side can get some cheap points from cross-field bombs early in the contest it could just give the Titans some confidence and see them play a notch or two above their current disappointing standard.

Plays To Watch: Greg Bird and Luke Bailey taking it to the Cowboys; Quick shifts to David Mead and Steve Michaels (both scored last week); Scott Prince’s array of attacking kicks; Matthew Bowen’s dazzling acceleration; Brent Tate and Willie Tonga breaking through on the fringes; Tariq Sims’ take-no-prisoners charges and crunching tackles; Aaron Payne having a go from close range (the Titans have conceded four tries from dummy-half).

Where It Will Be Won: Through powerful attack. This game appears a glaring mismatch given the Cowboys are the league co-leaders for line-breaks and tackle-breaks (4.8 and 40.9 a game respectively) while the Titans are the worst in the NRL in those categories, tallying just 2.9 and 27.2 a game.

Take Titans wingers David Mead and Steve Michaels out of the equation (nine line-breaks each) and only William Zillman (six) has made more than five incisions. Meanwhile the Cowboys boast strike-power in Ashley Graham (10), Matthew Bowen (eight), Tariq Sims and Kalifa Faifai Loa (seven each), as well as Willie Tonga, Gavin Cooper and Ray Thompson (five apiece). And, of course, the sidelined Thurston has made 10.

The History: Played 8; Titans 4, Cowboys 4. The Cowboys have won three of the past four including a 22-12 victory in Townsville in Round 5. The Titans hold a 2-1 advantage in games at Skilled Park. 

Conclusion: This is a danger game for the Cowboys. The Titans have nothing to lose and should show desperation over the coming weeks as they bid to stave off the wooden spoon.

Meanwhile, although their position in the semi-finals would seem assured the Cowboys can’t afford complacency or they’ll find themselves out of the running for a home semi-final. That would leave them exposed to a possible first-week exit – just ask the Warriors how they felt about that last year.

The Cowboys were soundly beaten last week but even in defeat they showed enough to suggest they should still be too strong for the Titans. Cowboys by 10 points.   

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats