Titans v Eels preview

Gold Coast Titans v Parramatta Eels
Skilled Park
Sunday 2pm

The Gold Coast have enjoyed quite a resurgence over the back half of the season, but after a slow start to the year and a poor second half showing that saw them throw away a 10-point lead against Melbourne last week, the equation for the Titans is now very simple: keep winning and they sneak into the finals – lose one more game and they’re gone.

With Parramatta and Penrith to come over the next fortnight, Titans fans will no doubt be looking at their Round 26 clash with Manly as the defining game but there comes an inherent danger in looking too far ahead in this competition.

The first step for the Gold Coast will be to down the Eels – a task that hasn’t proved too difficult for much of the season but looks much tougher now with Parramatta starting to find some form. Having won just three games over the first 19 rounds of the season up until the departure of former coach Stephen Kearney, the Eels have since won three of their past four and have plenty of motivation to continue their late surge: not only are they now a real chance of avoiding the wooden spoon, they are also determined to send retiring veterans Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt out on a high note.

Key to Parramatta’s results of late has been a simple change in their attacking ethos. No longer are they shackled to the no-frills structure that never quite gelled with current squad, caretaker coach Brad Arthur instead giving them a licence to throw the ball around when the opportunity presents itself.

The result has been 118 points scored in their past four games, including 42 against Brisbane in Round 21.

Still, defence remains a concern for the visitors and the Gold Coast should have the firepower to claim the two points this Sunday.

The Titans’ finals hopes have been hurt by two narrow losses to South Sydney and Melbourne but they could easily have won both. Prior to those games, they had won three in a row with the return of a number of key players from injury – Luke Bailey, Ashley Harrison, Greg Bird and Nate Myles – playing a key role in their resurgence.

They have since lost Bailey again with a season-ending Achilles heel rupture but are hopeful of having Bird, Harrison and William Zillman on deck this week with all battling their own injury concerns but named in the side to face the Eels. Zillman missed last week’s clash with Melbourne with a sternum injury.

Myles has been named in the front row this week in Bailey’s absence, with Ben Ridge starting in the back row. The return of Zillman sees David Mead return to the wing, Steve Michaels move into the centres and Luke O’Dwyer drop back to the bench.

Justin Horo moves into the starting line-up for Parramatta for Matt Ryan with Taniela Lasalo and Patrick O’Hanlon added to an 18-man bench.

The Titans will have their work cut out for them if they are to win in Bailey’s absence, having won just 12 of 34 games without him.

Watch Out Titans: Rookie Eels fullback Jake Mullaney has been highly impressive since in his four games this season. The loss of Jarryd Hayne is usually considered a disaster out Parramatta way but Mullaney will pose plenty of threat himself to the Titans defence this week, having averaged 134 metres, scored three tries and made five line-breaks during his brief time in the top grade.

Danger Sign: If there is one area that the Eels are masters at it is winning a quick play-the-ball. In fact, they rank alongside North Queensland as the best in the business this season with 16.2 per cent of their play-the-balls qualifying as fast. Given that Parramatta’s attack is starting to flow it is vital that the Titans work hard in the tackle.

Watch Out Eels: Parramatta’s long kicking game will be put to the test this weekend because no side is as effective when it comes to bringing the football back than the Gold Coast. Their back three ranks first in the NRL this season for average metres per run (with 12.2) and third for average metres per match with 124.8 (behind the Dragons and Brisbane).

Danger Sign: The Eels will need to improve on their edge defence this week if they hope to upset the Titans and continue their winning form. The NRL cellar-dwellers have been woeful defending out wide this season with their right side having conceded 38 tries and their left a whopping 52 in 2012. It’s worth noting that while they have scored 118 points in the past four weeks, they’ve also conceded 105 (51 of them against Wests Tigers).

Scott Prince v Chris Sandow: An entertaining dual of the halves pits veteran playmaker Prince against the enigmatic Sandow. Prince’s superb form this season has played a huge role in his side’s resurgence, while Sandow has finally started to exhibit his attacking skills in recent weeks after a slow start to the year.

Where It Will Be Won: With defence out wide. Both of these sides can score points and they will ask plenty of questions of one another – but can they hold out their opponents? Whoever holds firm most often when defending their line will go a long way towards winning the two points.

The History: Played 7; Titans 4, Eels 3. The Titans lead 2-1 in clashes at Skilled Park but more telling is the fact that Parramatta have won just four of 11 games ever played on the Gold Coast.

The Last Time They Met: Parramatta scored a crucial 32-12 win in the final game of Round 26 to leapfrog the Gold Coast and consign John Cartwright’s men to the wooden spoon.

Determined to end their disappointing 2011 season on a high, the Eels shot out of the blocks with winger Ken Sio scoring on debut after just eight minutes following a brilliant backline move on the right edge.

Three minutes later they were in again, this time going the length of the field after a Preston Campbell grubber ricocheted into the arms of Jarryd Hayne who raced down the left touchline.

And it was a point a minute in the 17th minute when Hayne’s grubber ricocheted off the uprights and the ball was shuffled out to Ryan Morgan to cross. Morgan added a second after 30 minutes to top off a memorable half of football for Parramatta who went to the break leading 22-0.

The second half was only four minutes old when Ben Smith added to Parramatta’s tally – the veteran back-rower swooping on a cross-field chip from Hayne to score. Smith then became the second Eels player to make it a double for the night when he scored a near identical try from another Hayne kick to push the score out to 32-0 with 30 minutes remaining.

At that stage it looked like becoming a cricket score, but to the Titans’ credit they managed to hold the Eels out for the rest of the game and scored two consolation tries themselves – the first after Ben Ridge sliced through to send Luke O’Dwyer over and the second a scrappy effort from David Mead as the fulltime siren sounded.

The Titans were always going to struggle, given their poor 59 per cent completion rate, with Parramatta completing at a far superior 83 per cent. As a consequence the Eels ran for 1757 metres to the Gold Coast’s 1365 and made just 294 tackles to the home side’s 412.

Hayne was typically brilliant for Parramatta, running for 295 metres and producing five try assists. Anthony Laffranchi made 51 tackles in his final game for the Titans.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.

The Way We See It: This is a danger game for the Gold Coast, who can’t afford a single slip-up but must surely be looking ahead to Manly in Round 26 as the game that will make or break their season. Still, on home soil they should have enough firepower to take advantage of the Eels’ wobbly defence. We see them getting home in a high-scoring affair. Titans by eight points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats