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Titans v Raiders
Skilled Park
Saturday 5.30pm
Twelve months ago this would have been viewed as a crucial semi-finals warm-up but as the 2011 season winds down these combatants find themselves with little to play for other than avoiding the dreaded wooden spoon.

The Titans showed some early grit against the Storm last week before the title favourites slipped up a gear and bolted away 40-16 winners. The loss leaves John Cartwright’s side rooted to the bottom of the NRL ladder – but they’re only one competition point adrift of the under-achieving Eels and one victory off the 14th-placed Raiders.

This game looms as stage one in their three-week assignment to avoid last place. Even if they were to win they would not leapfrog (well, it’s unlikely) the Raiders, who have a superior points differential (-177 to -225). They need to win by 49 points to overtake Canberra. 

The only other way they can climb the ladder this week is if they win by even the smallest margin and the Eels get rolled by the Wests Tigers on Monday night. 

Meanwhile the Raiders played in fits and starts in their 47-18 loss to the Rabbitohs at home. In fairness Souths are red hot right now but some of the Raiders’ defence was simply schoolboys’ stuff and if they don’t stiffen up this week they are a real chance of being left in the mix for the spoon, given they face the Panthers and Bulldogs in their final two games.
Canberra are averaging their fewest points away from home (just 16.4 per game) since their 2007 season when they finished the season third from the bottom of the table. And if they concede 40 points again this week they will establish an unwanted record – they’ve never leaked that many points in three successive games.

It’s a milestone game for back-rower Bronson Harrison who makes his 150th NRL appearance.

Meanwhile the Titans close out the season with games against the Wests Tigers and Eels – the latter in all likelihood a showdown for the wooden spoon. But first they have to get past the Raiders…

In team changes Anthony Laffranchi, a late withdrawal for the Titans last week, returns in the second row with Greg Bird shifting to lock and Luke O’Dwyer benched.

Meanwhile a groin injury has sidelined Raiders’ fullback Josh Dugan; he’s been replaced in the No. 1 jersey by David Milne. Joe Picker joins younger brother Mick on the bench, with Josh Miller missing out.

Watch Out Titans: Winger Blake Ferguson (207 metres last week) will be a danger down the right edge. Ferguson bagged his 13th try for the year against the bunnies – setting a club record for most by a first-season player – and the Titans have shown they are vulnerable to his flair and speed, leaking an NRL-high 41 tries down their left side.

Given their problems reading defences John Cartwright would have schooled his side on the decoy runs of Raiders lock Shaun Fensom, who leads the league for metres made off the ball, running 122 confusing decoys.

Danger Sign: If the Titans don’t improve their completions from last week (just 65 per cent) and gift the Raiders good field position they’ll find it hard to pressure their opponent. They need to get through their sets, pump the ball deep and throw the onus back on the Raiders to claw back the territory.
Watch Out Raiders: David Mead is the go-to man for the home side, whether it’s through the hands or in the air. Mead scored his 13th try of the season last week fielding a Matt Srama cross-field chip and given the Raiders have defused just 55 per cent of all cross-field kicks it’s safe to assume they’ll try their luck again here.

The Titans may also look to gain a result from a short kick either wide or into no-man’s land between the Raiders’ defensive line and fullback David Milne – the Raiders have safely handled just 50 per cent of these kicks.

The Raiders need to cover for their fullback when he’s forced into making tackles. John Sutton exploited this to perfection last week when he noticed Josh Dugan up at marker and no-one at home at fullback midway through a tackle count 40 metres out. He chip-kicked ahead and Nathan Merritt won the race for the ball to score this third try of the afternoon. 

Luke Bailey and Greg Bird will look to make charges on an angle from close range after Ben Ross found joy this way last week. 

Bird and right-side centre Dominique Peyroux will target Jarrod Croker, who missed six tackles last week. Croker has missed 58 all year, the most by any centre.

Danger Sign: Bird has great deception skills for a forward and likes to change the point of the attack when the opposition defence gets in his face. He does this with urgency and pace, which can catch out defenders back on the other side of the field. He executed this to perfection against the Storm last week when making a long, stepping run from the right side of the field back across to the left, linking with William Zillman who scored. If the Raiders go to sleep when the ball drifts away from them, Bird can create nightmares.

Plays To Watch: William Zillman looking to get around Joel Thompson; Preston Campbell showing sprite in the No.7; Titans’ forwards running angles close to the Raiders’ try line; Greg Bird’s ball-playing on the edges; Blake Ferguson’s pace; David Shillington hitting it up hard (last week he made 15 runs for 121 metres); plenty of tackle-busts from the Raiders’ backs – they combined for a phenomenal 33 last week.  
Where It Will Be Won: Desire to avoid the spoon will be evident in how each side applies themselves in defence. These are the two worst defensive units in 2011 – and there’s not a struck match between them. The Raiders rank rock bottom for points and tries scored against them yielding 25.7 and 4.4 respectively. The Titans have conceded 25.8 points a game and 4.5 tries each 80 minutes. 

Their dismal defences aren’t just due to missed tackles but also poor judgment and defensive structure. That’s shown by their difficulty in stopping opposition busts – the Raiders have conceded the most line-breaks all year (5.1), with the Titans breathing down their neck (five).

Whichever team muscles up from the outset – and most importantly maintains application and structure – will lay the foundations for victory. 

The History: Played 9; Titans 5, Raiders 4. Results have run in sequence since these teams first met in 2007, when the Titans were victorious. The Titans won 23-22 in golden point in Canberra in Round 4 – does that mean the Raiders are due? Countering that, the Titans hold a 3-0 advantage on the Gold Coast.
Conclusion: Neither side wants to end 2011 with the wooden spoon so there will be no excuses should one team not turn up ready to go.

Defence is the key – both teams’ attacks have struggled to score points this year (Raiders average three tries scored, Titans 2.7) so they’ll happily take any advantage a poor defensive unit might present them. The Titans missed 46 tackles last week, the Raiders 44. Whichever side can lower that number to high 20s, or even low 30s, will prevail.

We’re in the Titans’ camp for this one – especially given Josh Dugan’s absence. There’s too much pride at stake. The Gold Coast by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony De Las Heras & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Peter Gough; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm. 

* Stats: NRL Stats