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Wests Tigers v Titans
Campbelltown Stadium
Monday 7pm

A tough road trip for the Titans this week as they battle to offload the wooden spoon, up against the Wests Tigers who will be looking to maintain their snarl as they strive for a seventh win in succession to push for the last up-for-grabs spot in the top four.

John Cartwright’s unit rallied last week, overcoming Canberra to lift themselves off the NRL canvas and leapfrog the Eels. But they are still very much on the ropes and a surprise knockout blow here and other results falling their way would guarantee they avoid the spoon. However, they are yet to string together consecutive wins in 2011 and the ravenous Tigers won’t be willing subjects to help put that stat behind them.

Tigers’ coach Tim Sheens will have his charges switched on – they may run onto the field knowing that a win would secure them fourth spot with just one week to play before the finals. They are currently sixth, level with the Warriors and Cowboys on 30 competition points. They’d climb over the Warriors should the Dragons topple the Kiwis in Wollongong on Sunday, and they’d edge ahead of the Cowboys even if the North Queenslanders defeat the Rabbitohs – if their winning margin over the Titans is at least five points greater than any Cowboys’ winning margin.

The Tigers are bolstered by the return of international winger Lote Tuqiri who suits up for just his sixth game of an injury-marred season. Matt Utai, who has filled in sensationally while Tuqiri has been sidelined, shifts to the centres with Mitch Brown moving to the bench. Gareth Ellis is also back in the second row, with Mark Flanagan making way.

In Titans personnel changes Clinton Toopi displaces Dominique Peyroux at centre, while Luke Bailey returns from injury to start at prop, initiating a chain reaction that pushes Anthony Laffranchi to the second row and Luke O’Dwyer to the bench.

It’s a special night for a host of Tigers, with departing brigade Todd Payten, Bryce Gibbs, Tim Moltzen, Wade McKinnon, Andrew Fifita and Mark Flanagan being honoured with a special post-match tribute.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Anthony Laffranchi, a premiership winner with the Tigers in 2005, will be out for a big game on former home turf before heading to the English Super League at season’s end. A NSW Origin player in 2008-09, Laffranchi has been down a little on impact this season (as have most Titans) but back in his favoured second row position he will look to remind his old mates of his star quality. Laffranchi used to be a prolific offloader but that’s taken a back seat recently (just seven all year) – obviously as a result of coach John Cartwright’s instructions to play it ‘tight’, the Titans have contributed the fourth fewest offloads (10.2) in the comp. But with the clock winding down on Preston Campbell’s career don’t be surprised if Laffranchi and back row partners Mark Minichiello (23 offloads) and Greg Bird (22), as well as Bodene Thompson (24) look to pop a sneaky pass to their diminutive skipper any time they get inside the Tigers’ 10 metres.

David Mead has been a tremendous success for the Titans in 2011. He leads the side for tries and line-breaks (14 each). He now ranks as the leading Titans tryscorer in club history and requires just one more to claim the record by any Gold Coast franchise player – he’s currently tied with former Seagull Danny Peacock who crossed for 14 in 1995. 

Danger Sign: Mead is one of the most dangerous broken-play runners in the game, as evidenced by his standing-start dash through the Canberra ruck to score from long range last week. The Titans need to secure any dropped balls or risk damage from a turnover – the Titans have crossed for four tries from turnovers while the Tigers have conceded four.

Watch Out Titans: The Tigers are challenging for top tackle-busting team in 2011, their average of 40.1 tackle-breaks a game is just three-tenths of a bust behind the league-leading Cowboys. Dangerous exponents the Titans need to watch include Benji Marshall and Matt Utai (82 each), Chris Heighington (80) and Robert Lui and Blake Ayshford (67 – sixth most by a centre).

As if Marshall isn’t dangerous from anywhere on the field pretty much all of the time he has added incentive to run more often over the concluding two weeks. He’s neck and neck with Blake Ayshford for most tries scored (10) – should he edge ahead by season’s end he’ll become the first five-eighth to top the team’s tryscoring list since the joint venture’s formation in 2000. (The last Balmain player to do so was the late Scott Gale with 11 in 1987, while the last Magpie was Denis Pittard with nine in 1967.)

Danger Sign: The Titans have successfully defused just 61 per cent of all attacking kicks – the lowest rate in the comp. If the Tigers go to the air or grubber into the in-goal the scoreboard could start to tick over quickly.

Plays To Watch: Robbie Farrah grubbers into the in-goal from close range; Benji showing the ball inside before hitting the afterburners; Todd Payten toiling overtime in his final home game; Greg Bird’s niggle; Luke Bailey’s charges; high kicks to Lote Tuqiri’s wing to test out the ring-rusty star. 

Where It Will Be Won: The focus will be on how the Titans’ left-side defenders repel the Wests Tigers’ right-side attack. Or if indeed they can. The Tigers have scored more tries down the right corridor than any other team (43). Meanwhile the Titans have leaked more tries to teams down the right sideline (their left defence) than any other side (42).   

The History: Played 8; Titans 5, Wests Tigers 3. The Titans have won three of the past four games between the sides, including a 20-14 win at Skilled Park in Round 6. The record is one game apiece at Campbelltown Stadium. 

Conclusion: Although the Titans have a strong record against the black-and-golds and the past three games have been extremely close affairs (a combined winning margin of just 10 points), it’s difficult to see the home side squandering their momentum. Especially given the Tigers are the ‘Monday Night Kings’ – over the past three seasons they’ve won seven of eight games to close out a round.

We can’t see this being a close contest. The Wests Tigers should get plenty of opportunities to rehearse their pet plays. There’s a likelihood they’ll rack up a score here – we suggest the Tigers by 12 points.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & David Munro; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm. 

* Stats: NRL Stats