Titans v Dragons
Cbus Super Stadium
Two teams converge mid-season and I, I took the team less troubled by... injuries and suspension.
With apologies to poet Robert Frost for the desecration of his fine work, the meeting of the Titans and Dragons at Cbus Super Stadium on Sunday shapes as the clash that may very well define their respective seasons.
Gold Coast added to their five-game losing streak with a brave but ultimately futile loss to the Storm on Monday night while the Dragons delivered an improved showing in going down to the table-topping Panthers having launched a new season of 'The Benji Show' in their 30-0 smash-up of the Sharks a week prior.
It was a fortnight that kept the Dragons' slim finals hopes alive under new coach Paul McGregor but with games against the Storm, Cowboys and Sea Eagles over the next month, anything but a win on the Gold Coast will spell the end of their season.
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There appear to be no second chances for the Titans given the statements that were made by the coach and senior players in the wake of Monday night's four-point loss to the Storm. After a 5-1 start to the season their mid-year haemorrhaging continues and unless they can arrest the slide on Sunday, their finals chances will be placed on life support and left to the number crunchers.
Decimated by injuries, suspension and Origin commitments against the Storm, the Titans welcome back Greg Bird, Nate Myles and Dave Taylor while Daniel Mortimer could be a shock inclusion at halfback after completing a mid-week transfer from the Roosters to the Titans that will see him on the Gold Coast until at least the end of the 2016 season.
The performance of James Roberts in his Titans debut against the Storm added some penetration to an attack that has found finding their way through defensive lines confounding and a long-term combination with Taylor on the Titans' right edge is a mouth-watering prospect for the future.
The Dragons are also getting to know a mid-year addition with Benji Marshall developing in his role at halfback and finding the right balance with five-eighth Gareth Widdop, who set the competition alight over the first month.
Widdop was perhaps guilty of going back into his shell in Marshall's second outing in his second coming with the former Kiwi captain dominating possessions by 2-1 against the Rabbitohs, a share that has balanced up to virtually 50-50 in the past two weeks.
Both teams have ridden the rugby league roller-coaster already in 2014; the loser of Sunday's clash could find themselves on a downhill road to nowhere.
Watch Out Titans: There's nothing a confidence player loves more than scoring tries and being invited back into the inner sanctum of rugby league's pinnacle event and Josh Dugan has gone from under-performing fullback to State of Origin centre in the space of a month. A player who thrives on the big occasion, Dugan's late start to the 2014 season seemed to not only trouble his injured knee but also his confidence. However a shift to the centres under McGregor's stewardship seems to have ignited something within him. His hat-trick against the Sharks put him back into the Origin frame with two line-breaks, four tackle-breaks and two offloads from just 17 possessions.
Watch Out Dragons: Perhaps so much should not be expected of one so young but in his first NRL game since he scored a double for Penrith in Round 20 last season, 21-year-old James Roberts showed Titans fans on Monday night just why the club was prepared to take a punt on him. Sacked by two NRL clubs previously, Roberts possesses blistering speed and under-rated power and looked the man most likely to create something out of nothing against the Storm. He got his first touch in the third minute, scored a try in the 57th minute that gave his side the lead, made six tackle breaks and will be a magnet for attacking opportunities from now on. The loss of Beau Henry in the eighth minute against Melbourne meant that there was no recognised half on Roberts' side of the field and chances were limited; the Dragons won't be so fortunate.
Plays To Watch: With Albert Kelly no chance of playing and Daniel Mortimer's inclusion dependent on how quickly he can be sized up for the No.7 jersey, Maurice Blair will once again shoulder much of the kicking responsibility having proved against the Storm that he possesses a dangerous left boot close to the line. Both of the Titans' first two tries came from Blair grubber kicks close to the line, a tactic that can be almost indefensible given the unpredictability of a bouncing Steeden. With Widdop and now Marshall as pivot points the Dragons are capable of executing intricate set pieces on both sides of the ruck, often stretching the defence from one side to the other. Watch for Mitch Rein to pop out of dummy-half on a run-around move to give Widdop in particular an overlap on the left edge.
Where It Will Be Won: Execution of last play options will be vital to two teams whose ability to score points is better only than cellar-dwellers Newcastle and Cronulla and who rank in the bottom five teams for line break assists (Titans 16th, Dragons 12th). With Widdop and Marshall at their disposal it's an area in which the Dragons should feel confident but it remains obvious that Marshall's transition back into the NRL is far from complete. The Dragons have forced their opposition into three more line dropouts than the Titans thus far in 2014 (20 to 17) and will need that area of their game to be spot-on to break down a resilient Titans defence.
The History: Played 12; Titans 4, Dragons 8. Mathematicians fond of numerical patterns will already know that for the past eight clashes between these teams dating back to Round 2, 2009, neither side has been able to string consecutive wins together. And given the Titans' 15-14 win in Round 9, 2013, Dragons fans on the Gold Coast can get to Cbus Super Stadium feeling good about their side's chances. Titans supporters need not be too disheartened; eight of the past 12 matches played between the Titans and Dragons have been decided by seven points or less.
What Are The Odds: Four times the money placed on the Dragons with Sportsbet.com.au in this one and they’ve come in to $2.20 as a result. Titans were $1.51 out to $1.68 following their loss to Melbourne on Monday night. Not a big betting game at this stage.
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger; Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Jeff Younis; Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm.
The Way We See It: Desperate times call for desperate measures but this game shapes as more of a battle of who blinks first. Now that we are in the back-half of the season it is tempting to start chasing not only tries and goals but competition points with adventurous tactics that invariably come with low percentage success rates. It's the type of situation tailor made for a 'Coal Train' or Benji flash of brilliance but the coolness of their team's five-eighths shapes as the real key. Given the class of Widdop and influence of Dugan, the Dragons look to possess the necessary temperament in their time of need. Dragons by six points.