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Sydney Roosters v Gold Coast Titans
Allianz Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Could the Titans be the bolters for the 2012 premiership? Certainly many are making a case for them to follow in the footsteps of recent-season late-bloomers Parramatta, the Roosters and Warriors and push all the way to the decider following their rousing back-to-back wins over the Raiders and Broncos.

Victory over heavyweights Brisbane last Friday elevated the Gold Coast to 10th on the ladder, the second-highest ranked of five sides on 20 competition points – and just one win away from the eighth-placed Wests Tigers.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround from John Cartwright’s charges after they lost seven of their opening nine games to register their worst start to an NRL season since joining the league in 2007. However, they cannot afford a lapse against the struggling Roosters given they have brutal match-ups with the Rabbitohs and Storm over the next fortnight.

Meanwhile the Roosters’ alarming lack of intensity over the past two months was evident yet again last Sunday when they succumbed 28-16 to Penrith. The defeat was their seventh from their past nine starts, with a win over the Wests Tigers and a draw with the Sharks their only joy since Round 9. Languishing in 14th place on the ladder they are now out of the playoffs picture, with inflicting pain on remaining semi-finals candidates their sole motivation before their end-of-season trip.

Brian Smith has tweaked the Roosters’ backline this week, with Tautau Moga returning on one wing and Kiwi Schoolboys rookie Roger Tuivasa-Sheck replacing Adam Henry on the other. BJ Leilua shifts to centre, with Mitchell Aubusson hitting the bench.

In the forwards, Frank-Paul Nuuausala will start at prop, with Tinirau Arona to lock the scrum. Martin Kennedy, who had his nose broken by Travis Burns’ high shot last week, has been named on an extended bench, with Lama Tasi the new face.

Meanwhile Titans coach John Cartwright welcomes back hard man Greg Bird, who slots into the second row with Nate Myles reverting to lock and Luke O’Dwyer bumped to the bench. Their new faces on the interchange are Ben Ridge and Michael Henderson.

Recent history show a win here is vital if the Titans are to progress beyond Round 26 – after 20 rounds last season no team outside the top eight was able to force their way into the finals.  

Watch Out Roosters: Fullback William Zillman is in irresistible form, having crafted a combination with halfback Scott Prince that resembles dynamic Melbourne duo Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk. After decimating the Raiders with 240 metres, 17 tackle busts and five line-breaks a fortnight ago Zillman backed up with 212 metres, three line-breaks and 12 tackle-breaks against Brisbane. His scything turn-around counter-attack play off a Prince pass yielded the Titans their first points last week – given the Roosters have conceded the second-most tries from turnovers the tricolours will need to stay focused on their kick chases. Meanwhile the Roosters are the only team in the NRL yet to score from a turnover.

If the Roosters let the Titans make headway up the guts early they could struggle to stay in the contest. The Titans average the fifth-most metres each week, while the Roosters struggle for field position with just the second fewest. Titans forwards to look out for include Greg Bird (132 metres – most by any second-rower), Nate Myles (116 metres), Luke Douglas (103 metres) and Luke Bailey (100 metres – and 169 last week).

Centre Jamal Idris (six line-breaks, five line-break assists) and winger David Mead (eight tries) are forming a dangerous combination on the right side of the field. BJ Leilua and Tautau Moga beware!

Danger Sign: The Titans may have scored a measly 11 tries off the boot but you can expect Scott Prince to target the flanks with some high balls this week given the Roosters defuse cross-field bombs poorly (only 45 per cent), contributing to their 19 tries conceded to kicks (second most).

Watch Out Titans: The Titans’ ‘A’ and ‘B’ defenders need to be switched on given the Roosters’ dummy-halves have stolen six line-break assists so far (second most). And they need to ensure they have two markers at all times – Shaun Kenny-Dowall pounced for a try the last time they met when a miscommunication saw them present just one marker 10 metres out from their try-line.

Boyd Cordner has been a find for the Roosers in 2012. Not only has he stiffened their defence (more than 30 tackles in each of his past four games) but along with Aiden Guerra they have proven adept at finding the try-line (combining for nine tries). Cordner is coming off the back of a personal record for metres in a match, making 121 against the Panthers last week. He’ll be up on confidence and switched on.

Danger Sign: With nothing to lose the Roosters may throw caution to the wind and attempt to blow the Titans off the park with serious razzle-dazzle. Already they lead all teams for tackle busts (36 a game) and make the fourth-most offloads each week (12.1). Their backline is the key, with powerful runners BJ Leilua (79 tackle-breaks), Anthony Minichiello (58) and Shaun Kenny-Dowall (52) certain to threaten. If the passes stick they could easily rack up a score in front of their home crowd.      

Mitchell Pearce v Scott Prince: A cracking battle between two outstanding halfbacks. Pearce has come under plenty of fire of late from critics who question his ability to size up correct attacking options but there’s no doubting his ability to keep the ball alive – his 23 offloads are the most by any No.7. Meanwhile Prince ranks second to Cooper Cronk for try assists by a halfback (with 15); incredibly the Titans have not needed his creative input in their current two-game winning streak – what will happen if he cuts loose here? However, his kicking game over the past few weeks has been awesome – he booted 674 metres to keep the Broncos at bay last week, registering the fourth-most kick metres of his 272-game career.

Where It Will Be Won: Keeping mistakes to a minimum. The Roosters make the most errors every week (averaging 11.6), the Titans the next most (11.5). However, over the past fortnight the Titans have made just six errors in each of their wins over the Raiders and Brisbane. Whichever team limits their dropped balls and is able to sustain pressure will gain a huge advantage.

The History: Played 9; Titans 5, Roosters 4. The Titans have won five of the past eight clashes. Victory has alternated between each side over the past six outings, leaving the Titans due for the win here if that trend were to continue. Six of their clashes have been decided by single figures.

The Last Time They Met: The Titans plummeted to the bottom of the NRL ladder when defeated 18-12 by the Roosters at Skilled Park in Round 6 – incurring their fifth defeat in a row to mark their worst ever start to a season.

It certainly wasn’t pretty on both sides of the arena: in a mistake-strewn encounter the Roosters managed to overcome a woeful 55 per cent completions rate and 18 errors to grab the win. By comparison the Titans were only marginally better, with 62 per cent completions and 17 errors.

The Roosters were first to post points in the 14th minute when centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall caught the Titans’ marker defenders napping out of dummy-half, breaking through some flimsy tackle attempts in a 10-metre rush to the try-line.

The Gold Coast struck back eight minutes later when winger David Mead crossed for the first of his two tries on the right edge. That saw the sides head to halftime with a 6-all scoreline; however the deadlock was broken 12 minutes after the resumption of play when Kenny-Dowall crossed for his second try, latching onto a deft Braith Anasta grubber kick into the in-goal down the right fringe.

Just two minutes after the restart of play the Titans’ chances of victory looked shot when Anthony Minichiello scored under the posts off a smart inside pass from Mitchell Pearce for an 18-6 lead with 24 minutes remaining.

Mead’s second try off a William Zillman pass gave the home fans a glimmer of hope with seven minutes remaining, however that was where their challenge ended.

The Roosters were best served by halves Anasta and Pearce as well as fullback Minichiello who provided a game-high 24 runs.

Ashley Harrison (18 runs and a line bust) and David Mead (three line-breaks and two tries) tried hard for the Titans.   

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: After squandering their chances against the Warriors with a dismal 55 per cent completion rate in Round 18 the Titans have really respected the Steeden over the past fortnight, completing their sets in excess of 80 per cent each match. That’s what’s required to be successful at the business end of the season. Given the Roosters have been hit-and-miss for the majority of 2012 it’s tough to get warm about the home team’s chances. The visitors have too much to play for and it should be reflected in their attitude.  Titans by eight points.

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

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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