It’s crunch time for the 10th-placed Titans and 11th-placed Dragons with defeat here likely to leave the loser three wins away from the semi-finals zone and with a serious battle on their hands to remain relevant in the 2012 premiership.
St George Illawarra recorded their fifth loss from their past six outings against the Bulldogs in Wollongong last Friday night, effectively shooting themselves in the foot when they allowed the visitors to race to an 18-nil lead in better than even time. However, on the plus side they showed enterprise in attack in their second-half comeback, compiling three spectacular, ad-lib tries before falling 28-20.
Meanwhile the Titans dominated the out-of-sorts Panthers on the Gold Coast last Sunday, continuing the resurgent, spirited form that’s earned them four wins from their past five games to leave them some chance of participating deep into September.
With captain Scott Prince weaving his magic the Titans have snuck up on the pack after their horror 1-5 start to the season and a win here, plus their second bye next week, would leave them knocking on the door of the top eight.
Meanwhile the Dragons need to stop the haemorrhaging in a hurry – they face a tough road trip to Canberra next week: they’ve lost 12 of their past 13 games against the Green Machine and haven’t won in Canberra since 2000. Plus they’ll be without their Origin duo Ben Creagh and Trent Merrin, so two competition points this week is imperative if they’re to remain in the premiership picture.
Fans in Wollongong will be hoping to cheer loudly at fulltime – worryingly the Dragons have lost four of their past six games at WIN Stadium.
In team changes, centre Kyle Stanley has not recovered from the leg injury he sustained last week – with brother Chase filling his boots. Matt Prior rejoins the squad on the bench after his five-game suspension for a late hit on Johnathan Thurston in Round 9, while Dean Young will start at lock with Jake Marketo reverting to the bench.
Meanwhile centre Jamal Idris returns to the run-on side after being a late withdrawal last week, partnering Beau Champion who is fit after being forced from the field after just five minutes against the Panthers. Idris’ substitute Steve Michaels hits the pine.
But in a huge blow, second-rower Greg Bird remains on the casualty list after picking up a pectoral strain in their last-start victory. Nate Myles assumes his starting role, with Michael Henderson joining the interchange bench. (Luke Bailey remains sidelined with a rib injury and is still two weeks away from returning.)
St George Illawarra will wear a special Pink V jersey to mark this week’s Women in League Round.
Watch Out Dragons: The Dragons’ structured defence might deserve a pat on the back after averaging the third-fewest missed tackles in the comp to date (26.8) but their handling of opposition attacking kicks has been woeful in 2012. The Dragons have leaked 16 tries to kicks – the third-most in the comp – and Scott Prince will be licking his lips at the prospect of more joy here. The Titans have scored 10 tries off the boot.
Give David Mead half a chance and he’ll blow you away – the Titans’ right-side winger is his side’s most damaging attacker, with seven line-breaks and six tries so far.
Hot-and-cold contributor Nate Myles looks to be hot at the moment – he made 153 metres from 17 hit-ups backing up after Origin last week and is averaging 115 overall with 34 tackles a game. He’ll be focused on a win after six straight personal losses to the Red V over the past three years.
The Titans will welcome Jamal Idris’ impact out wide – he has made six line-breaks and six line-break assists in his interrupted season.
Danger Sign: Any time the Titans get 20-50 metres out from the Dragons’ line with tackles up their sleeves. The Gold Coast have scored 10 tries in this zone compared to just four from 10-20 metres out. Clearly they like room to move. It’s also the zone where Jamal Idris is most dangerous.
Watch Out Titans: The Dragons made their most line-breaks in a match (six) last week against the Bulldogs, including four in the second 40 minutes. They may languish alongside the Knights at the bottom of the NRL pile for line-breaks (3.5 per match) and occupy rock bottom for overall points scored (15 per match) but they proved against the ’Dogs that they can smoulder in attack when they don’t think too hard about what they are doing. That could be the key to unlocking the rest of their season.
Jamie Soward finally broke the shackles and was rewarded with three try assists last week, taking his year’s tally to eight. He’ll terrorise the Titans’ outside backs if he continues to play off the cuff. Plus he’s bound to add to his solitary line-break sooner rather than later.
Jason Nightingale is offering great service out wide, making 121 metres a game with 51 tackle busts so far. He’s a provider for others, too, leading the way for try assists by a winger (five).
Danger Sign: Fullback Brett Morris offloading in broken-field play and interchange forward Trent Merrin promoting the Steeden at the defensive line. These two vital attacking cogs are tied fifth in the comp for offloads, each tallying 25 to date. The Titans concede the fifth-most offloads in the NRL.
Ben Hornby v Scott Prince: Two wily, involved halfbacks – veteran Hornby makes the third-most touches by a halfback, with Prince a close fourth – whose direction as playmaker will be paramount.
Hornby is the second-most prolific runner in the No.7 jersey (behind Shark Jeff Robson) based on touches, probing for an opportunity in the opposition defence every 6.3 receives.
The Dragons are at their most dangerous when they add penetration through the middle third to their well-known sideline shifts. Hornby can provide that spark, half-dummying and jinking at the line before offloading to running supports. He ranks fourth for line-break assists (nine). Also, his next line-break will be the 100th in his career.
Meanwhile the Titans rely heavily on Prince: he ranks second behind Cooper Cronk for try assists by a halfback (with 15, including three last week), and third for line-break assists (10). He will be a counter-attacking threat as the Dragons sweep left too – Prince leads the NRL for intercepts (with three) and created a try assist for David Mead in just this fashion against the Panthers. The Dragons will need to be alert to Prince’s grubbers into the in-goal – not just for the scoring threat they pose but also the pressure that a repeat set will build. The Dragons are the third-worst team at defusing grubbers (just 71 per cent).
Where It Will Be Won: Keeping errors to a minimum. Along with the Eels and Cowboys the Titans are spilling the football the most often in 2012 (11.3 errors per match) while the Dragons are making the sixth-most mistakes (11.8). Both sides complete their sets a below-average 72 per cent.
Also, territory early on will be crucial. The Dragons have really lost their way since Michael Weyman’s season-ending injury six weeks ago. Since his demise against the Panthers the Dragons have compiled the fifth-fewest metres in the opening 20 minutes of their matches (308 metres) – a far cry from their league-leading efforts over the past three years when they pounded out 357 metres in opening quarters.
The History: Played 10; Dragons 7, Titans 3. The Dragons boast a 3-zip advantage in Wollongong, although the Titans won the past two away clashes played between the sides (at WIN Jubilee Stadium).
The Last Time They Met: The Titans defeated the Dragons 28-14 at WIN Jubilee Oval in Round 14 last year.
A second-half blitz by the Titans overwhelmed the under-strength Dragons, who were missing a host of stars in the lead-up to the second game of the 2011 Origin series.
The visitors led 4-nil with just three minutes on the clock before two tries to the Dragons – including one to centre Alex McKinnon in his NRL debut – saw the home side take an 8-4 lead to halftime.
However, a hat-trick of tries to open the scoring in the second half put the Titans in the box seat. Captain Scott Prince commenced their assault when he grubber-kicked into the Dragons’ in-goal and won the race for the ball to score a confidence-boosting try in the 45th minute. Minutes later Mark Minichiello was given the green light for a try despite suggestions of his second-man involvement in a strip of the ball on Dragons rookie McKinnon 10 metres out. When David Mead crossed on the right edge in the 56th minute the Titans led 20-8.
McKinnon salvaged some pride for the Red V when he burst through the defence off a Nathan Fien pass to bag his second try of the night, before Matt Srama crossed off a belated Ben Ridge offload to extend the visitors’ lead to 26-14 with 12 minutes remaining. A penalty goal to Scott Prince rounded out the scoring.
Completions were the key to the Titans’ victory: they completed their sets at an impressive 85 per cent compared to their opponents’ 72 per cent. However, the scoreboard bellied their defensive effort: the Gold Coast missed 41 tackles, with the Dragons dropping off just 33.
Prince was man of the match, with a try and two try assists.
Alex McKinnon had a huge debut in the big league, scoring two tries and making three line-breaks, while Michael Weyman made a game-high 48 tackles as well as 12 hit-ups.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Paul Mellor.
The Way We See It: This is it for the Dragons. If they can’t get the chocolates against the Titans in front of their home crowd and with all troops on deck, then the chances of their launching a long sequence of victories (they probably need to win seven of their remaining 10) to claw their way back into semi-finals contention look slim. The Gold Coast are playing with confidence but cracking the Dragons’ defence is going to prove a tougher nut than the woeful Panthers last week. Based solely on their final 30 minutes against the Bulldogs we’ll side with the Dragons by eight points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats