Titans v Cowboys
Cbus Super Stadium
Monday 6.30pm (EST)
This shapes as a classic encounter between two teams both currently suffering an identity crisis.
The Titans have book-ended a horrible performance against the Tigers where everyone seemed to be working from their own individual game-plan with two gritty victories built on unrelenting defence with some dashes of individual brilliance.
The Cowboys, under new coach Paul Green, seem so intent on not making any errors in the opening 20 minutes of games that they seem to have forgotten to play football and have given up leads of 16, six and eight points in their opening three games of the season.
So are the Titans going to build their premiership push on their hardened forwards or rely on the skills of Albert Kelly and Dave Taylor to dig them out of trouble? Will the Cowboys revert to their free-flowing style of footy or will Green's more structured approach ensure they are contenders in 2014 and not pretenders once again?
Monday night will tell us a lot as the Titans endeavour to prove that they can be a consistent footy team on a week-to-week basis while you can expect the Cowboys to jump out of the blocks like bridled brumbies finally being set free.
The Titans have been dealt a blow with fullback William Zillman facing at least two weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring tear, while the longer turnaround will give five-eighth Aidan Sezer extra time to recover from a quad strain that saw him miss the 24-12 win over the Raiders.
Green's promotion of Rory Kostjasyn to the starting side at hooker last weekend showed he is obviously looking for more impact around the ruck area and it will be interesting to see how he balances his hooker rotation on Monday.
This is a big game for both these teams for different reasons – but whoever wins will feel a lot better about their prospects for the remainder of the season.
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Watch Out Cowboys: Albert Kelly's scintillating tries may be getting all of the attention but the all-round performances of co-captain Greg Bird go a long way to dragging the Titans into any game they are playing.
Last Sunday in Canberra he ran for 138 metres, made 27 tackles, poked his nose through the defensive line with almost every carry and kicked four goals from six attempts for good measure.
Only Dane Tilse, Joey Leilua and Corey Parker have more than Bird's six offloads, he has a try assist and a line break assist to his name and his 47 total runs ranks 14th in the NRL.
With 12 missed tackles in four games Paul Green may fancy sending some heavy-duty traffic Bird's way but the more he is involved in the game, the better the Titans seem to go.
Watch Out Titans: Keeping an eye on Johnathan Thurston is lesson one in the manual of how to approach a game against the Cowboys, but a Johnathan Thurston who has suffered two consecutive defeats? Now that's a downright scary proposition.
Like Greg Bird, Thurston finds a way to will his side to victories when they may otherwise have no right to do so and after a pre-season that included the Auckland Nines triumph, expectations are that North Queensland are a top-four quality team.
That has not been evident in the opening three weeks but you can bet Thurston will be intently focused on restoring that expectation with a big game against the Titans, just down the road from where he grew up.
Although Robert Lui is trying to share the playmaking load 'JT' remains very much the go-to man, as his three try assists and five line break assists testify. His burgeoning combination with the rampaging Jason Taumalolo is fast becoming a Cowboys pet play but he is not afraid to quickly switch sides to link up with old mate Gavin Cooper on the right if the opportunity presents itself.
The best player in the world will have an influence on this game; it's up to the Titans forwards to determine how much.
Plays To Watch: You can hardly call it a 'play' but there may not be a team in the NRL with two hookers more enamoured with a try from dummy-half than the Titans' Beau Falloon and Paul Carter.
Until Albert Kelly's two pieces of individual brilliance in the final three minutes burrowing over from close range was the only way that the Titans were able to breach the Raiders' defence and there's absolutely no doubt in the world that if the markers are looking a little disorganised close to the line, either Falloon or Carter will have a crack.
The addition of Michael Morgan at fullback has given Thurston another trusted playmaking option, particularly on sweeping plays across the left-hand side of the field. With the likes of Taumalolo and Scott Bolton running aggressive lines that hold up the defence, Thurston is able to shift out the back to Morgan who has the option of going short to centre Kane Linnett or long to winger Antonio Winterstein. Done at pace, it's very difficult to contain.
Where It Will Be Won: The party line from most coaches is that games are won in the middle but this one shapes as a clash that will be decided by the men on the edges. Both teams possess powerful runners of the footy who run aggressive lines and can hit a hole that their respective playmakers spot in the defensive wall.
If Aidan Sezer is unable to take his place for the Titans, that extra polish in the Cowboys halves may be crucial in turning half chances into try-scoring opportunities.
The Titans have missed 99 tackles compared to the Cowboys' 66 thus far in 2014; if that average of 33 missed tackles per game continues, expect Thurston to pile on the points.
The History: Played 13; Titans 7, Cowboys 6. The Titans have had slightly the better of these clashes and have won three of the past four, including the past two at Cbus Super Stadium. The Cowboys have won three games from seven previous visits to Robina, their best result coming back in 2009 when they ran out 34-18 winners. The two clashes last year were shared, the Titans winning 31-12 at home and the Cowboys taking their Townsville rematch 22-10.
What Are The Odds: If you like the Cowboys at $1.62, you will be best to get on sooner rather than later with the amount of early money for them at Sportsbet.com.au indicating their price could come in by the start of the game.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Touch Judges – Chris Butler & Jon Stone; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 6.30pm (EST).
The Way We See It: The Titans have displayed an ability to get down and dirty and they will have appreciated the extra day to recover from a game in which they had to absorb 40 completed Raiders sets. For the Cowboys, the wait to bounce back from a shock defeat at the hands of the Warriors will seem like an eternity and – as the Titans did a week earlier – they'll be desperate to atone. A Gold Coast Monday night in March should deliver ideal conditions but a late Cowboys try laid on by Thurston may just break local hearts. Cowboys by 2 points.
• Statistics: Champion Data.
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