Titans v Cowboys preview

Gold Coast Titans v North Queensland Cowboys
Skilled Park
Friday 7.35pm

The Gold Coast’s season reaches a defining moment on Friday night when they host North Queensland in what promises to be a blockbuster of a derby.

It was barely a month ago that the Titans looked on course to endure another season of disappointment with just two wins from their opening nine games leaving them again battling to avoid the wooden spoon.

But coach John Cartwright had insisted that his side was playing too well to keep losing and it seems he was right on the money with consecutive victories giving the Titans hope that they can surge into finals contention over the back half of the season.

In fact, since the Gold Coast fell to their fifth consecutive loss, against the Roosters in Round 6, they have won three out of five and there is no doubt that they are playing a much-improved brand of football.

Having showed rare grit to upset Canterbury 25-14 in Round 10 after trailing 6-4 at the break, they produced their most dominant display of the year last start in Newcastle to down the Knights 24-14. And it has been their big names finally standing tall, with Jamal Idris showing considerable improvement after a slow and injury-hampered start to the year, and Origin forwards Greg Bird and Nate Myles leading from the front. The recent return from injury of captain Scott Prince has also played a leading role in their resurgence.

But they will be tested by a North Queensland side that has, for the most part, established themselves as one of the teams to beat in 2012.

Led by captain Johnathan Thurston and fullback Matt Bowen, their attack has been scintillating so far this season with the 300 points they’ve scored bettered only by competition leaders Melbourne (330).

Key to their success has been the threat they pose across the field. While Thurston and Bowen remain the central figures, halfback Ray Thompson has taken his game to a new level with a full season (including part of 2011) under his belt, while centre Brent Tate and winger Ashley Graham have formed a lethal combination on the right edge with 16 tries and 13 line-breaks between them.

Ironically, while their attack has shone in 2012, they have also been held scoreless once this year – against the Titans back in Round 1.

No doubt that dismal performance will still linger in North Queensland’s subconscious: in what could only be described as an absolute shocker the Cowboys made a whopping 28 errors and completed just 18 of 39 sets at 46 per cent!

The Titans have named an unchanged line-up for this week’s clash, with Brenton Lawrence again the 18th man.

North Queensland have also named an identical line-up, with Cory Paterson added as the 18th man.

Cowboys prop James Tamou’s 228 metres against Wests Tigers last week was some 26 per cent more than his previous career best and included a 66-metre charge that fell just two metres short of the club record for the longest ever run recorded by a front-rower.

Watch Out Titans: North Queensland winger Ashley Graham is the NRL’s top tryscorer this season with 12 from 11 games, which places him on track to break Matt Bowen’s club record of 22 tries back in 2007. Graham has scored in eight games this year including the last three and is a favourite target of Thurston on the right edge. Expect plenty of ball to flow in his direction.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys will look to play an up-tempo game with their little men – Thurston, Bowen and Thompson – using their speed and skill to catch the Titans on the back foot. Key to this is their play-the-ball speed and no side has produced as many quick play-the-balls in 2012 as North Queensland. In total, 324 of their 1607 play-the-balls this season have been fast at an NRL-best 20.2 per cent. The Gold Coast will have to work hard in the tackle to limit the Cowboys’ effectiveness.

Watch Out Cowboys: Young hooker Matt Srama has been exceptional for the Titans in recent weeks, his crisp service and ability to follow the football a highlight of his play. Growing in confidence with each outing, Srama has upped the tempo of the Titans’ attack and has a natural ability to produce the big play. Two significant moments have stood out in wins over Canterbury and Newcastle: against the Bulldogs he showed great awareness to dive over from dummy-half for a crucial try, then against the Knights he fired a bullet pass close to the line to a rampaging Nate Myles which caught the Newcastle defence unawares.

Danger Sign: The Gold Coast’s back three – William Zillman, Kevin Gordon and David Mead – have been one of their strengths this season and they are among the dominant sides in the Telstra Premiership when it comes to the kick return.  Their average 12.2 metres per kick return is the best in the NRL and they rank third for total metres made running the ball back with 1416 at 128.7 per game.

Jamal Idris v Brent Tate: Big Jamal Idris has certainly made his presence felt in recent weeks – upping his involvement, his metres gained and his total runs to help the Titans get their season back on track. He also scored a blockbusting try against his former club Canterbury three weeks ago which would have brought a smile to coach John Cartwright’s lips. He faces a tough test this week, however, against Queensland State of Origin star Brent Tate. Tate was arguably the Maroons’ best player in Origin I (along with Thurston) and he will test out Idris’ positional play in defence.

Where It Will Be Won: On the edges. Johnathan Thurston is a master of causing confusion three- and four-players-in to create space out wide, but he finds himself up against one of the best back rows in the competition with Greg Bird, Mark Minichiello and Ashley Harrison key members of the Titans pack. Getting one over on them will be easier said than done.

The History: Played 10; Titans 5, Cowboys 5. Nothing splits these two with five wins each since 2007 and two wins apiece at Skilled Park. Only three points separates the Titans and Cowboys from their 10 previous meetings, with the Gold Coast scoring 209 points to 206.

The Last Time They Met: North Queensland were abysmal as they fumbled their way to an 18-0 loss at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 1 this year. With 28 errors and a completion rate of just 46 per cent, the Cowboys were never in the contest despite trailing just 6-0 at the break following an early Jamal Idris try.

While Johnathan Thurston described the performance as probably the worst in the club’s 18-season history, it was a sparkling debut for Idris after joining the Titans from Canterbury in the pre-season. Having opened his side’s account, he also sealed the deal with his second try as he ran strongly onto a Matt Srama pass with seven minutes remaining. Steve Michaels was the other tryscorer – the speedster swooping on a dropped ball from Ashley Graham to cross in the 56th minute.

The Cowboys were forced to make 90 tackles more than the visitors and ran for just 1080 metres to the Gold Coast’s 1375.

Greg Bird was a standout, running for 170 metres from 22 runs with six tackle-breaks and two offloads, while Luke Bailey was also strong with 135 metres up front.

A total of 12 North Queensland players were guilty of making errors, with Thurston the main culprit (six) and Ashley Graham chipping in with four.

Match Officials: Referees –  Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.

The Way We See It: One of the toughest games of the round to pick. The Titans know it is crucial that they keep their good run going with a third consecutive win, while North Queensland will be keen to avoid a second straight loss following their narrow defeat to the Wests Tigers last Sunday. The loss of back-rower Tariq Sims for the season remains a huge blow for North Queensland and they will miss his impact against the Gold Coast’s strong back row. It could go either way but we think the Titans might just have found their mojo and can scrape home in this one. Titans by two points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am Sat.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats