Sharks v Titans
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm
 
Chances are the Toyota Stadium management have teamed their scoreboard operator with an assistant this week given these tackle-averse sides conceded a combined 96 points in losses to the Broncos and Knights last weekend.

The home side leaked eight soft tries to Brisbane – shaded by the Titans who slumped to a new season low when letting the Knights in for nine tries at Ausgrid Stadium. Between the two games they were the most and fourth-most points conceded by any side all year.

The Titans are left with a massive battle to avoid the wooden spoon; they sit in last place on the ladder, three points (effectively two wins) adrift of Parramatta. Meanwhile, even if the Sharks were to win all five of their remaining games, 28 competition points would still most likely see them fall one win and a couple of dozen for-and-against points shy of the finals zone.

All that’s left to compete for here is pride, bragging rights… and maybe even a few playing futures.

Quite a few team changes from the Sharks this week: in worrying news for the Titans the Sharks welcome back their powerhouse captain Paul Gallen after a fortnight out with a calf strain. His inclusion sees Jeremy Smith shift back to the second row, pushing Tyson Frizell to the extended bench. Paul Aiton also makes his return, named on the bench.

But the Sharks will be sweating on the fitness of mercurial fullback Nathan Gardner, who has been named on the bench – Isaac Gordon has been named at fullback to cover for him. Another blow is the loss of Colin Best (hamstring); he’s been replaced by rookie Ricky Leutele.

Elsewhere Ben Pomeroy will start at centre, with Matthew Wright moving to wing and pushing John Williams from the squad. Taulima Tautai has been named in the second row, with Anthony Tupou benched. Johnny Mannah rounds out their extended interchange.

Meanwhile injuries and poor form have forced John Cartwright to reshuffle his side; they’ll be without injured impact player Greg Bird, with Luke O’Dwyer replacing him at lock. Centre Clinton Toopi has been punted, with Dominique Peyroux moving from wing to centre and Steve Michaels recalled on the flank. Matt White returns to partner Luke Bailey in the front row with Anthony Laffranchi dropping back to the second row and Bodene Thompson benched. Matt Srama will start at hooker after paying from the bench last week, with Preston Campbell relegated to the pine. Will Matthews is the new face on the bench.

It’s a huge challenge for the Titans – no Gold Coast side ever won in the shire in 10 attempts!

Watch Out Sharks: If Scott Prince gets some room to move and time to think and has some willing supports he can make a dent in the Sharks from close range. The stats show the Sharks have conceded 18 tries off select passes close to their try line – the third most by any side.

Last week the ravenous Broncos put 11 line-breaks past the Sharks, the most by a team all year – and although they’ve struggled in this department the Titans still have a few troops capable of busting them open. Winger David Mead has 11 line-breaks to his name as well as 48 tackle-breaks, while centre William Zillman has seven line-breaks. Again, Prince is the man most likely to help his team-mates through; he has a team-high eight line-break assists.

The Titans favour a left-side attack and they may gain some unprecedented success this week coming up against the Sharks’ right-side defenders who have conceded 31 tries compared to 25 on the other side of the park.

Having said that Brisbane targeted the Sharks’ right side last week, crossing for seven tries, so Luke O’Dwyer and David Mead may combine to wreak some havoc there.

Danger Sign: If the Titans head right often you’ll know they’re playing mind games with the Sharks’ left-side defenders who were simply paper-thin with their tackles last week. The Titans scored three tries on the right side against the Knights.

Watch Out Titans: The Gold Coast players slipped off their tackles last week like the Knights’ players were covered in Funnel Web spiders, their 56 misses were the seventh most in a game this year. They need to turn things around or hard-running Sharks like Paul Gallen (62 tackle-breaks and an NRL-high 178 metres a game), Nathan Gardner, should he play (12 line-breaks, 100 tackle-breaks – third most by any player) and Wade Graham (10 line-breaks, 60 tackle-breaks) will run riot.

Kicks have really brought the Titans unstuck this year – the side has conceded 23 tries to the boot, more than any other team. The Sharks have had good success from kicks, scoring 12 tries.

With a greater share of possession this week the Sharks can make the most of their offloading skills. The team ranks fourth for offloads (12.9 a game) with Anthony Tupou their most dangerous with 47 made. Paul Gallen (36) and Ben Pomeroy (21) are threats too. The Titans need to wrap up these players and be especially alert near their try line – they’ve conceded eight tries from offloads.

Given their struggle to score points the Titans really need to make sure they give themselves every chance and execute correctly – they’ve conceded 16 penalties while in possession! D’oh!

Danger Sign: Only the Cowboys have more trouble defusing cross-field bombs than the Titans, who fumble the ball a worrying 67 per cent of the time. And overall the Titans are the least assured when fielding kicks, escaping problems just 60 per cent of times. You can bet Chad Townsend will launch plenty of aerial raids.

Plays To Watch: Nathan Gardner’s zippiness (102 metres and six tackle-breaks against the Broncos last week); Anthony Tupou’s offloads; Luke Douglas’ cart-ups; Paul Gallen’s no-fear charges; Scott Prince’s involvement to salvage some pride; Beau Henry’s clever flick passes; David Mead’s speed; Luke Bailey’s commitment (15 runs, 134 metres and 35 tackles last week).

Where It Will Be Won: In attitude. For the most part last week the Titans looked like they’d clocked off and weren’t prepared to put their bodies on the line in defence, especially in the second half when they gave up the ghost and conceded 34 points; meanwhile the Sharks were psychologically shattered by a far superior opponent. Whichever team shrugs off the funk and turns up prepared and focused will get the competition points. 

The History: Played 7; Sharks 4, Titans 3. The Sharks have won the past two games between the sides, including a 36-12 win at Skilled Park in Round 16. The Titans have lost all three games at Toyota Stadium.

Conclusion: The Titans owe John Cartwright. There isn’t a more passionate mentor in the game and to see some of the insipid efforts from his ‘reputation’ players this year… well, in the words of Dragons coach Wayne Bennett: “It makes you sick in the stomach.”

Whether they can turn things around so dramatically in a week though remains to be seen.

The Sharks were similarly dismal and even though they are done for 2011 there are some players who need to put in for the rest of the year to guarantee they figure in coach Shane Flanagan’s plans in 2012. At home, they have more upside – just.

The Sharks by a converted try. 

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & David Munro; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (viewer’s choice), delayed 9.20pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats