Titans v Storm preview

Gold Coast Titans v Melbourne Storm
Skilled Park
Saturday 4.30pm (Qld time)

Forget Friday’s blue-ribbon blockbuster between the Dragons and Wests Tigers – the Titans-Storm clash could well prove to be the most exciting match of Round 3… if Gold Coast play to their potential and if the relentless Storm ease up and give the Titans’ playmakers room to move.

Gold Coast have had an inconsistent start to the year, winning a game they were expected to lose and losing a match they were expected to win. John Cartwright’s men kicked off the season with a bang, beating the Cowboys 18-0 in the Townsville heat in Round 1. Last week, however, was a different story, suffering their first ever home defeat against Canberra 24-12. The Raiders got off to a strong start, leading 12-0 before the Titans came back to square things up before the break. After the resumption, though, it was all the visitors, with Canberra scoring two unanswered and converted tries to take the match by a dozen. The final two tries the Titans conceded would particularly worry coach Cartwright – both were defensive misreads which cost his team dearly.

The Storm is brewing in Melbourne and the NRL’s most consistent side has begun 2012 in ominous form. Following a determined effort against the Raiders in the opening round in atrocious conditions, the Storm withstood a courageous South Sydney effort to record back-to-back victories to open the season. The Rabbitohs launched a first-half comeback after trailing 10-0 early, but were blown off the park in the second half, with fullback Billy Slater finding red-hot form late to spearhead a 24-10 win.

The Titans have reshuffled their backline this week, with centre Beau Champion added to the line-up to make his debut for the Titans against his former club. Champion’s inclusion shifts Dominique Peyroux to the wing to accommodate for the injured David Mead, who broke his jaw midway through the second half against the Raiders. Luke O’Dwyer and Brenton Lawrence have been added to the team to form a 19-man squad. It’s a special match for the Titans, with Mark Minichiello (200th), Greg Bird (150th) and Matthew White (100th) all due to pass match-number milestones.

Meanwhile Melbourne have named an unchanged line-up, with Rory Kostjasyn named in jersey No.18. Slater is expected to play despite pulling up with soreness after the victory over Souths.

Watch Out Titans: Billy’s on the boil! The game’s number one No.1, Slater is pushing career-best form once again and he poses a huge threat for any defensive line with the ball in hand. The thing is, though, he’s not just a ball-runner – the re-energised fullback is also one of the competition’s most dangerous ball-players. Last week was a case in point – not only did ‘The Kid’ score a brace, but he set up another two as well, in addition to running for 112 metres and breaking six tackles in the process. Watch out Gold Coast indeed!

Danger Sign: When the Storm start stringing passes together, the Titans had better be prepared. Melbourne, and in particular Slater and halfback Cooper Cronk, are very effective at exposing defensive mismatches and slicing through ‘on the slide’ – it’s how they scored all five tries against South Sydney last round. In fact, only one of their nine tries this season has been scored ‘up the guts’ – a sign the Storm’s catch-and-pass game is silky smooth.

Combine that with a message from coach Bellamy that the team’s ball control has been “concerning” and Melbourne are bound to be in an even-more-threatening mood come kick-off.

Watch Out Storm: Most of the time, Melbourne’s renowned, aggressive up-and-in defence works perfectly, resulting in ball-runners being slamming into the turf and the attacking play nullified. However, sometimes the Storm are too aggressive, like on one occasion against the Rabbitohs when a right-to-left shift and a couple of smart offloads resulted in an overlap and a try to winger Chris McQueen. The same can be said of the other try the Storm conceded against the Rabbitohs – a barging, spinning run close to the line when the Storm were on the back foot. Cartwright and his right-hand men would surely have taken note of this – expect the Titans to look to promote the football and give Melbourne plenty of work to do. Gold Coast will look to their ball-playing big men Greg Bird, Luke Bailey and Ashley Harrison to get the movement going, allowing free space to the Titans’ outside men and, quite possibly, an overlap or vacant pastures and a free run to the try line.

Danger Sign: New five-eighth Jordan Rankin is the key to the Titans’ chances – when he’s on song he’s the perfect foil for halfback Scott Prince – so if he hits his stride the Storm are in for a tough night. It’s hard to believe the Burleigh Bears junior, just 20, made his debut in 2008… but only this season has the NRL 11-gamer started to realise his true potential. In the new role of No.6, Rankin has done a good job of providing service for his outside men while also seizing any attacking opportunities himself. Last week against the Raiders, Rankin showed a few glimpses of his potential at five-eighth, breaking nine tackles, running for 60 metres and scoring a scintillating try in the process. Against the Cowboys in Round 1 he was similarly effective, running for 85 metres and setting up a try. He’s certainly warming to the task and, outside clever playmaker Prince, there are plenty of reasons for the Titans to be excited… and the Storm worried. If Melbourne focus too much on Prince, Rankin just might start to shine.

Scott Prince v Cooper Cronk: Two evenly matched forward packs mean it’s the job of the playmaking maestros to deliver the trump cards. Cronk has been in sparkling form in recent weeks, with the as-yet unsigned for 2013 half wreaking havoc on oppositions. So far he’s racked up three try assists, but it’s his kicking game, passing precision and all-round vision that’s impressed most, giving his outside men, in particular Billy Slater, attacking opportunities.

Look for Cronk to target the Titans’ wingers with his boot – they’ve only managed to defuse one of four cross-field kicks this season, the worst record in the NRL. The Storm No.7 will also look to isolate Titans centre Jamal Idris, who has a tackle efficiency of just 54.5 per cent.

Prince (two line-breaks and two try assists in 2012) will no doubt scheme around the ruck with short plays to hard-running forwards including Greg Bird (nine tackle-breaks) and look to catch Melbourne’s central defenders on the hop, before shifting to Rankin (11 tackle-breaks) and Idris (nine tackle-breaks).

Thus far the Titans have proved equally effective across the park, scoring their tries, evenly created through kicks and line-breaks, right across the paddock (apart from on the right sideline) – a bonus should Prince wish to isolate a particular area and hammer it throughout the match.

Where It Will Be Won: Only one metre separates the metres gained from both clubs so far in 2012 – how the forwards fare against each other in this game will determine the winner. Whichever team marches downfield quickest and most often will give their playmakers a huge advantage, one the No.6 and No.7 are likely to take and convert into points. The Titans’ big men have been particularly effective so far in 2012, with Bailey (117 metres), Bird (142 metres), Minichiello (105 metres) and Roosters recruit Nate Myles (109 metres) all averaging more than 100 metres per match. For the Storm, though, it’s more of a team effort, with returnee Ryan Hoffman (107 metres) the only forward recording more than triple figures per match – Melbourne’s backs carry a lot of the ball-carrying workload. One missed or ineffective tackle could prove the difference…

The History: Played 7; Storm 4, Titans 3. The Titans have the wood over the Storm at Skilled Park though, with Gold Coast winning two of the three clashes.

The Last Time They Met: In Round 23 last year, the Storm beat the Titans for the first time at Skilled Park, 40-16. Cronk (three tries) and Slater (two tries) both starred for the visitors, who led 22-6 at halftime. In their other clash last season, the Storm also scored 40 points in their 40-12 Round 2 victory. Once again, ‘The Kid’ Slater scored two tries – a sign of what’s to come on Saturday night, perhaps?

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson and Gavin Reynolds; Video Referee – Tim Mander; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane and Michael Wise.

The Way We See It: All signs point to another perfect Storm after strong performances against the Raiders and Rabbitohs. The Titans, however, can spring an upset, like they did against the Cowboys in Round 1 in Townsville, especially if Prince finds his majestic, scheming best. Plus they’ll be motivated to perform in their stars’ milestone matches. Expect the teams to go blow for blow in the opening half before the Storm come out on top… by, we think, 10 points.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 4.30pm (Qld time), 5.30pm (AEDT).

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.