The Cowboys are in big trouble. They have lost three in a row for the second time this season and have just four wins to go with seven losses. Plus, they are without State of Origin stars Johnathan Thurston, James Tamou, Matt Scott and Brent Tate, and injured pair Matt Bowen and Gavin Cooper. The Titans have been hurt by Origin as well, with Nate Myles, Ashley Harrison and Greg Bird all unavailable, but at least they get Dave Taylor back from injury to help plug the hole in the forwards.
Two rounds back the Cowboys looked like they were finding their way back from an indifferent start to the season even though they lost 12-8 to the Roosters. It was a high-quality game and the Cowboys were valiant in defeat. But last weekend they went to Sydney and lost 22-20 to a Wests Tigers side that has struggled all season. The inconsistency of the Cowboys is alarming and with the season not even halfway through yet they are already seriously harming their chances of making the finals.
The Titans have been a bit up and down themselves this season, but have looked significantly better overall than their opponents here. After a run of three losses in four games had left them with a win-loss record of 4-4, they battled hard to beat the Dragons 15-14. A heavy loss to the Broncos followed, but last weekend the Titans did a job on the Eels in Mudgee, winning 42-4. There are still key elements of their game the Titans need to fix, but they are generally working hard.
For the Cowboys, Clint Greenshields comes in for Bowen at fullback. Antonio Winterstein moves from wing to take centre Tate’s place, and Kalifa Faifai Loa is the new winger. Michael Morgan replaces Thurston at five-eighth. Glenn Hall rises from the bench to take second-rower Cooper’s spot, and Ashton Sims does the same for Matt Scott. Tamou is gone from the bench, where there are five new faces – Joel Riethmuller, Ricky Thorby, Jason Taumalolo, Ethan Lowe and Blake Leary – joining Ray Thompson.
In the Titans’ side, Luke O’Dwyer and Taylor return to take the places of lock Harrison and second-rower Myles. Mark Minichiello rises from the bench to replace second-rower Bird. Jamie Dowling is added to the bench.
Watch Out Titans: This is only the fourth game halfback Robert Lui has played this season, but the Cowboys need him to find something approaching his best form with Thurston away on Origin duty. He’ll be trying things, and if he can make something happen early and draw confidence from that he is capable of giving the Titans a headache.
Watch Out Cowboys: Titans centre Jamal Idris is starting to make the sort of impact a man of his size is meant to make. Idris has scored four tries this season – all in his past five games. All five of his line-breaks have also come in his past five games. And of his 24 offloads, 15 have come in his past five games. The big fellow is going to take some stopping.
Players to watch: Fullback William Zillman and winger Kevin Gordon are all about speed, either out of the backfield as they return kicks or linking up in support. Against the Eels last weekend, Zillman ran for 187 metres and made two line-breaks. Gordon racked up 190 metres and three line-breaks.
Cowboys forward Tariq Sims has run for a total of just 87 metres in the past two rounds. He’s got to do way better than that. Surely he’s going to cut loose with some big charges on the edge of the ruck soon?
Key match-ups: Zillman opposite Greenshields is a key battle. Greenshields, who has played just one first-grade game this season and is filling in for Bowen, has got to make the most of trying to get the Cowboys good field position when he runs the ball back from kicks. You know Zillman will. When there are so many stars out on either side, those players who are going to touch the ball most become even more important. The contributions of the hookers – Matt Srama (Titans) and Rory Kostjasyn (Cowboys) will have a big impact on the result.
Where it will be won: If the Titans can control the ball reasonably well, they are going to make life hard for the Cowboys, because even with all of the players out the Titans still have several potential match-winners in their side. The Cowboys are outnumbered in that area, and need to be more disciplined than at any previous stage of this season if they hope to win.
The history: Played 11; Titans 6, Cowboys 5. Playing at home, the Titans average more points (27.8) against the Cowboys than they do any other team.
Match officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Jason Robinson & Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
The Way We See It: On the road and torn apart by Origin and injury, the Cowboys face a huge task. They just don’t have the depth to cover adequately for the players who are missing. The Titans have their players in the key positions intact, and won’t get many better opportunities to win at home this season. Titans by 14 points.
*Statistics: NRL stats