Gold Coast Titans v South Sydney Rabbitohs
It’s been quite a run of late for the Gold Coast Titans. Four points outside the top eight as recently as a fortnight ago, John Cartwright’s men have strung together three wins for the first time since 2010 to sneak up into eighth spot and give themselves a great chance of claiming a finals berth that has looked so unlikely for much of the season.
But with a logjam of teams also desperate to claim their place in September, the Gold Coast couldn’t have asked for a tougher test than the rampaging Rabbitohs this Sunday afternoon.
Having already cemented their finals berth after winning their past five games, Souths have firmed into $4.50 second favourites to go all the way in 2012 with their star-studded line-up finally living up to their reputation.
Most impressive have been comprehensive victories over St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers in their past two games – the first without hooker Issac Luke and the second with both Luke and superstar fullback Greg Inglis sidelined.
Rather than capitulate minus two key position players, the Rabbitohs have excelled with veteran Nathan Merritt and young hooker Nathan Peats filling the void with ease.
Needless to say, the Gold Coast still have plenty to contend with at Skilled Park this Sunday with the likes of John Sutton and Dave ‘Coal Train’ Taylor in career-best form.
However, the Titans should also see this as an opportunity not only to knock over a big gun but to gain a huge edge over their primary rivals for eighth spot, Newcastle, who face competition front-runners Canterbury the night before.
After a rough start to the year both on and off the field, the Titans have welcomed back a number of key players from injury in recent weeks including prop Luke Bailey and back-rower Nate Myles.
They have also been bolstered by the brilliant form of captain Scott Prince and fullback William Zillman, the latter having notched some remarkable stats during his side’s winning run.
Expect them to throw plenty back at Souths during their Close The Gap clash on Sunday.
The Titans have lost Greg Bird to injury again, with the NSW Origin forward suffering a minor hamstring strain; however they welcome back Maroons veteran Ashley Harrison who slots straight back into the No.13 jersey.
Souths will field the same 17 that downed Wests Tigers last week with Shaune Corrigan and Scott Geddes added to an extended bench.
Notably, the Rabbitohs have won nine of their past 11 daytime fixtures while the Gold Coast has dropped five of their past six day games on home soil. And it looms as a particularly special day for the club – not only because they can make it six wins in a row for the first time in 18 years! Veteran Bunnies Nathan Merritt and John Sutton, with 174 games apiece, have now moved past Bernie Purcell as the 10th-most-capped players in the club’s history. They are closing in on Les Cowie (176), Mario Fenech (181) and Michael Andrews (182).
Watch Out Titans: Can the Gold Coast stop Dave Taylor? The barnstorming back-rower has hit back strongly from his State of Origin dumping last month with a series of devastating performances for the Rabbitohs including a game-high 203 metres against Wests Tigers last week.
Danger Sign: Many expected Souths to struggle in the absence of suspended hooker Issac Luke but with Nathan Peats at the helm they have lost very little from dummy-half.
Peats actually scored the Rabbitohs’ first two tries against Wests Tigers from dummy-half last weekend. One of the most-prolific dummy-half sides with an average 24 runs per game this season, they have averaged 20 runs in Luke’s absence over the past fortnight and will continue to test the Titans’ marker defence this Sunday. For the record, Souths lead the NRL for both tries scored (12) and line-breaks assists (10) from dummy-half this season.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The short kick has worked wonders for the Titans in 2012; they are the masters of getting to the ball first from an attacking kick. The Titans rank first in the NRL for ‘kick backs’ this season at 30 per cent, having reached the short or cross-field kick before the opposition defence on 61 different occasions in 2012.
Danger Sign: The Rabbitohs have been rightly lauded for their solid defence in recent weeks but they have struggled to defend their own line this season. In fact, they rank 14th when it comes to holding sides out from close range with 41 tries conceded from between their try-line and the 10-metre line. Only Canberra and Parramatta have conceded more.
William Zillman v Nathan Merritt: Rival whippets William Zillman and Nathan Merritt will create plenty of excitement for their respective sides this Sunday, having already offered plenty for the highlights reels in recent weeks. Zillman has been a star of the Gold Coast’s resurgence – twice running for more than 200 metres in the past three weeks – while Merritt impressed filling in for Greg Inglis at fullback last week with a try and 160 metres to his name. He has scored six tries in his past three games.
Where It Will Be Won: On the edges, where big Dave Taylor will again look to steamroll his side to victory. He has been well-supported by fellow back-rower Chris McQueen in recent weeks; however the pair face a stern test against one of the best back rows in the game with the Gold Coast boasting Mark Minichiello, Nate Myles and Ashley Harrison.
The History: Played 7; Titans 4, Rabbitohs 3. The Titans won the only game played between these two at Skilled Park (22-14 in 2009). Six of their seven clashes have been decided by single figures – Souths’ 31-8 win the last time they met being the exception.
The Last Time They Met: Souths cruised to a comfortable 31-8 victory at ANZ Stadium in Round 15 last year, with Dave Taylor starring just a few days after Queensland’s loss to NSW in game two of the State of Origin series.
Taylor’s performance that night looms as a warning to the Titans, who were missing lock Greg Bird just as they are again this week, with the big man involved early as he pulled in a Chris Sandow cross-field kick before passing to James Roberts to score.
Souths made it 12-0 after 22 minutes when Eddy Pettybourne barged over from dummy-half to score and a Sandow penalty goal soon after gave them a handy 14-0 lead at the break.
The Gold Coast hauled their way back into the game after halftime, with David Mead first to a Preston Campbell bomb and Tomane scoring in near-identical fashion just a few minutes later. But with neither conversion successful, Sandow took the opportunity to extend Souths’ lead to seven with 12 minutes remaining before Taylor burst through four defenders to set up Nathan Merritt out wide. Two more tries to Issac Luke and Greg Inglis ensured an easy win for the home side.
The Titans were hurt by missing a whopping 55 tackles while Taylor (192 metres and 10 tackle-breaks) and Rhys Wesser (192 metres and eight tackle-breaks) ran riot against them.
Luke Bailey tried hard for the visitors with 106 metres and 24 tackles.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris Butler; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.
The Way We See It: Promises to be a Sunday afternoon special with plenty of points on offer in the forecast sunny conditions. The Titans have every chance here and it wouldn’t surprise to see them steal the win; however Souths have built up plenty of momentum, are full of confidence and deserve favouritism against the lower-ranked side. We can see them sneaking home on the back of their plethora of attacking options. Rabbitohs by six points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats