Titans v Eels
Skilled Park
Saturday 7.30pm

Well, here we are: last chance at the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. After 25 rounds of blood, sweat and tears, it all comes down to this – a two-team shootout for the wooden spoon.

It has been an unequivocally disastrous season for both of these clubs, and this match presents one last opportunity for each unit to try to claw back a modicum of pride and dodge the most unwanted ‘prize’ in rugby league.

Although if the Raiders were to lose to the Bulldogs by more than 60 points they would technically come into calculations, realistically the loser of this match will take out last spot on the ladder in 2011. In the almost-as-unlikely scenario that the Eels record a second golden point draw in a season they would finish equal with the Titans on competition points – the Gold Coast would then take the spoon based on a far worse for-and-against.

Both clubs will no doubt now have one eye cast towards not just Mad Monday, but also towards 2012 when each will be reinforced thanks to some heavy spending on some high-profile recruits.

But despite the fact there is now just 80 minutes of football left in the year, both coaches will want to keep their charges focused – the carved cutlery hasn’t been seen on the Gold Coast since the time of the ill-fated Gold Coast Seagulls who took it home in three consecutive years from 1991-3, while the Eels have managed to keep the spoon at bay for 39 years, since the Class of ’72.

(Interestingly, the Eels finished second last in 1991 and 1992, only being saved from the spoon in those years by the presence of the Seagulls.)

As you’d expect in a wooden spoon shootout, neither side brings significant form into the clash, although the Titans are ahead in this respect – they may have been blown away by the Wests Tigers last week but they have actually won two of their past four games (admittedly those wins were against fellow cellar-dwellers Canberra and Cronulla).

However, the Eels may be in danger of forgetting what their victory song sounds like – it’s now seven losses on the trot for the blue-and-golds, a run which includes a scarcely believable three golden-point losses. The fact that the Eels were in front late in the piece in five of those seven losses will no doubt have caused coach Stephen Kearney a few grey hairs at the end of his first season as a top grade coach.

With no fresh injury concerns and despite the respective form guides of each side, both coaches have elected to go in with an identical line-up to last week. A final chance for the players to earn redemption…

Watch Out Titans: We may have been saying this for a while now already, but: how long can the Eels keep going so close without a win? No doubt the likes of Kearney and skipper Nathan Hindmarsh are both perplexed and frustrated – but the fact is they’ve proved they’re good enough to match it with any team over 60 or 70 minutes – it’s just sealing the deal that’s the issue.

Aside from the 50-point debacle against Souths the Eels have actually been defending well for long periods, they just haven’t been scoring enough points to make it count. This week they get a chance against a side that is not only missing a raft of first grade players but has also conceded the most points in the league this season.

The Eels need to take a lesson in commitment from inspirational skipper Hindmarsh. ‘Hindy’ made 70 tackles against the Roosters, ran 16 times for 116 metres with three tackle-breaks and offloaded twice. If the Eels can continue their run of getting out to an early lead and then take a leaf out of Hindy’s playing manual they’ll give themselves a chance of holding on for a win.

Danger Sign: Hindy won’t want his first season as skipper to result in the Eels’ first wooden spoon in four decades. With a chance for a rest after this game, look for the old warhorse to throw himself at absolutely everything for the full 80 as he desperately tries to drag his team across the line.

Watch Out Eels: Despite their relative inability to score tries in 2011 the Titans are actually the second most dangerous side in the NRL, after Manly, at scoring from their opponent’s 21-50 metre zone, with 19 tries at this distance.

And while the Eels are relatively good at defending inside their own 10 metres (they have conceded 30 tries from this distance, only the Storm with 21 are better on their own line) they happen to be the worst in the league in terms of letting in tries from 21-50 metres with 25 conceded. This is mostly as a result of line-breaks – the Eels have conceded 42 tries from line-breaks, leaving them by far the worst in the competition (the Titans and Raiders are next worst with 37 apiece).

It shows the Eels’ sliding defence is really struggling out wide when there is a hint of an overlap, and the Titans’ makeshift halves need to spread the ball wide as soon as they get into the Eels’ side of halfway to test out those fringes.

With halfback and skipper Scott Prince out for the season it will be left to the retiring Preston Campbell to orchestrate the Eels’ demise. Preston showed us he still has it, adding seven runs for 87 metres, 11 tackles and 10 tackle-breaks last week.

Danger Sign: The Titans have a specialist out wide in David Mead. The young flyer has 15 line-breaks for the season (equal fifth) and his 15 tries see him equal third best in the comp. Campbell and lock Greg Bird both have great vision and passing games and will spread the ball to Mead at every opportunity.

Plays To Watch: Greg Bird’s fend and offload to put support players through a hole; Fuifui Moimoi to finish his exemplary season with some explosive hit-ups; a touch of class from Preston Campbell in his last game in the top grade; relentless tackling from Nathan Hindmarsh who will finish the regular season as the NRL’s top tackler (1160 tackles so far, next best Shaun Fensom, 1110).

Where It Will Be Won: It will come down to whether or not the spluttering Eels’ attack can put a few points past the struggling Gold Coast defence.

Although the Titans have won two of their past four and the Eels are on a seven-match losing streak, if you take it back to their past 10 games the Eels have won one game and the Titans two – and the Titans have conceded 31 points per game over that period, compared to just 22.6 for the Eels (even including that touch-up from the Rabbitohs). Each side has averaged just under 15 points scored per game in that period.

These have been the two worst attacking teams in the league this year – the only side to have scored fewer than the Titans’ 63 tries is Parramatta with 59.

What it all means is this: if the Titans can put their turnstile-like defence in order it’s likely the Eels will struggle to score enough points to win. But if the Eels’ attack finally clicks into gear, the chances are their defence will be good enough to hold the Titans out.

The History: Played 6; Titans 4, Eels 2. In the short history of the Titans they have had the better of the Eels and won both previous match-ups at Skilled Park. The Eels prevailed at Parramatta in Round 7 after snatching a win in the dying moments (in a noticeable reversal of the way they have been finishing matches in the back end of the season!).

Conclusion: Skilled Park has been something of a fortress in the last couple of years but the Titans have only won three from 11 played there this year. Both teams will be desperate knowing that a loss guarantees them the wooden spoon. It’s not how Preston Campbell will want to finish his career and it’s not a prize Nathan Hindmarsh will want in his first season as skipper. It really is too close to call and probably comes down to which team is more likely to hold it together for 80 minutes without clocking off.

Match Officials: Referees – Brett Suttor & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Gavin Morris & Peter Gough; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.