Titans v Broncos preview

Titans v Broncos
Skilled Park 
Friday, 7.35pm (Qld)

What has happened to rugby league in Queensland? Is it operating in a parallel universe? Somehow the Titans – strugglers the past two seasons – are now the Sunshine State’s No.1 team… and this week they’re chasing four straight victories for the first time since 2009 when they meet their usual ‘big brother’ the Broncos.

That’s right – the Broncos and Cowboys are trailing the Gold Coast on the NRL premiership ladder, and the Titans’ gap on their local siblings could be extended if the Broncos don’t put up one heck of a fight on Friday night. 

Brisbane have, however, showed signs of life at Red Hill, with last week’s courageous performance against the Melbourne Storm (a 32-26 loss) indicative of the self-belief and talent that exists at the club – even though they’ve won just one match this season, against the Dragons in Round 2. Could last week’s gutsy performance kick-start their season and catapult them back into the winners’ circle?

The Titans are the NRL’s most improved team so far this season following victories against the Panthers, Sea Eagles and Raiders, and a close loss to the emotion-charged Sharks in Round 1. All signs are good for the Gold Coast’s fans, particularly following an off-season when their star playmaker Scott Prince headed to the Broncos and they were left pondering the direction of the club.

Titans coach John Cartwright has named an extended 19-man squad in the build-up to Friday night’s blockbuster. Lock Ashley Harrison (concussion) and centre Brad Takairangi (hamstring) have both been named to return from injury after missing last weekend’s 28-10 win over the Panthers at Centrebet Stadium. Utility Luke O’Dwyer and centre Steve Michaels have again been included as cover on an extended six-man bench after helping the team to the win against Penrith.

The Broncos, meanwhile, have produced a couple of shocks. While Justin Hodges was always going to return from injury, the names ‘Sam Thaiday’ and ‘Josh Hoffman’ were not expected to be seen on team sheets this early. Thaiday will fight a contrary conduct charge at the judiciary in Sydney on Wednesday night, and he’ll play if he wins. Hoffman, meanwhile, was expected to be out for at least a few weeks, but his ankle complaint has settled down quickly. David Stagg’s return from a medial ligament injury he suffered last week is still indefinite, as is winger Jharal Yow Yeh’s comeback.

Watch Out Titans: The Broncos, it would seem, are just getting warmed up. Last week’s performance against the premiers Melbourne was their best of 2013, and while they didn’t win they showed the courage and skills that’ll challenge most teams in the competition. Against the Storm – regarded as the NRL’s best defending unit – Brisbane scored their highest number of points this season (26), while dominating line-breaks (6-4), completions (81 per cent compared with 77 per cent) and tallying fewer missed tackles (19 to 25). All signs are pointing to an improved performance once again this week.

Watch Out Broncos: The Titans are on the rise – and they’re proving particularly tough at home so far in 2013. After a poor showing at Skilled Park in 2012 when the home side won just four of 12 matches, the Gold Coast are determined to convert their Robina base into a fortress – and they’ve started this season in the best possible fashion by smashing the Raiders and pipping the Sea Eagles. Will they bruise the Broncos this week? Don’t expect the home side to concede many points – opposition teams have scored an average of just seven points a game at Skilled Park in 2013.

Plays To Watch: The Titans looking to pop a pass – they rank equal top for offloads with 14.5 per match; Broncos fullback Corey Norman chiming into the backline after shifts from Scott Prince and Peter Wallace; Jamal Idris and David Mead charging full speed on the right-hand side of the field off the passing of Albert Kelly – they caused havoc last weekend against Penrith; Brisbane moving the ball right to left – their left side scored each of their five tries last weekend against Melbourne.

Key Match-Up: It’s quite literally master v apprentice here – former Titans hero Scott Prince up against the man he mentored last season, Aidan Sezer. 

Prince wanted to stay at the Gold Coast but when the Broncos offered him a two-year deal they were prepared to let him go. Now the Titans’ playmaking responsibilities rest with Sezer and livewire Albert Kelly – a combination most experts wrote off at the start of the season – and that 6 and 7 combo has helped the Gold Coast to equal third on the competition ladder.

Sezer’s Titans have won three from four and Prince’s Broncos have won just one from four – expect the former Queensland and Australian halfback to raise his game a notch or two here. 

Where It Will Be Won: Big games are won in the forwards, and it’ll prove no different here. So far this season, both teams’ runs of form can be attributed to their forward packs and their ability to march through the centre of the field and provide attacking room for their playmakers and outside backs. 

So far this season, the Titans have proven impressive metre-eaters, gaining an average of 1473 metres per match (second in the NRL), conceding just 1301.5 (seventh) in the process. The Broncos, meanwhile, have poorer records on both fronts – and it’s a primary reason for their dismal start to the year. They’ve gained an average of just 1265.5 metres per match (12th in the NRL), conceding 1372.8. When you work out the maths, it’s a difference of almost 210 metres per game between these two sides – and a hell of a lot more attacking opportunities for the Titans! 

If the Broncos are steamrolled as the Gold Coast forwards march downfield, they’ll be driving back to Brisbane having suffered another defeat.

The History: Played 13; Broncos 9, Titans 4. The Titans won the last time these sides met but before that the Broncos strung together a run of six meetings dating back to 2009. The record is two games apiece at Skilled Park.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Justin Morgan.

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

The Way We See It: This could well prove the match of the round – little brother Gold Coast up against the might of the Broncos. We tip Brisbane – on the back of an influential performance by former Titan Scott Prince – by seven points in a low-scoring affair. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats