Schick Hydro Preview: Warriors v Gold Coast Titans
Mt Smart Stadium
Saturday, 5.00pm (NZT)
After 15 games all that separates the Warriors and Titans on the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder is 11 differential points, suggesting Saturday's clash between them in Auckland could be a thriller.
Last week the Warriors went within a whisker of becoming the first team to beat the Sharks since Round 3, eventually suffering a heart-breaking 19-18 loss seven minutes into golden point.
For Round 17 coach Andrew McFadden has dropped Jonathan Wright after including the veteran as a late call-up last week, with Tuimoala Lolohea assuming his spot on the right wing.
David Fusitu'a remains at fullback, while Nathaniel Roache returns to the bench after playing for the Junior Warriors last week.
The Titans also fell short last week, going down 30-22 to Canberra at home and lamenting a key error, which saw them concede an 85-metre intercept instead of scoring a try themselves midway through the second half.
Co-captain William Zillman returns at fullback after time off with a foot injury, which sees Josh Hoffman move back to left centre.
Chris McQueen takes the place of right centre Nathan Davis, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury last week, and Leivaha Pulu starts in the second row.
The match will be Simon Mannering’s 250th game for the Warriors, with fans able to join in on the celebrations by grabbing a free giant Simon Mannering head at the gates.
Watch out Warriors: Flat patches continue to be an issue in close encounters for the Warriors, and against the Sharks last Saturday night it cost them the chance to go into half-time with momentum and the lead. In the 10 minutes either side of the break the Warriors leaked 18 points, which was enough to get Cronulla to golden point, and eventually to victory via a field goal.
The Titans may have left the field without the two points last week, but there was plenty about their performance which should worry their upcoming opponents. The Gold Coast completed at 85 per cent and made only five errors all game, the type of stats which usually belong to the team on the winning side of the scoreboard.
Watch out Titans: The Titans average the third most missed tackles in the competition right now, with 32 per game. This week they face a Warriors side who thrive off loose tackling technique from their opponents, and last week it was taking advantage of missed tackles which allowed them to score a couple of crucial tries against Cronulla.
The Warriors footed it with the NRL's best team for 87 minutes in Round 16, suggesting their mid-year form revival has some substance behind it. The Kiwi outfit completed the same numbers of sets as the Sharks and ran for more metres, and will be tough to beat any time they bring that level of play.
Key match-up: Ben Matulino v Ryan James. The two front-row leaders of their respective teams, and even though James will start while Matulino comes off the bench, this clash will go a long way to deciding which team wins the middle. James leads the way statistically, averaging 38 tackles, 16.8 runs and 132.7 metres per match. Despite not starting most weeks, Matulino is averaging 28 tackles, 14.3 runs and 122 metres and is the most consistent bookend the Warriors have.
The history: Played 18; Warriors 11, Titans 7. The Titans tasted victory in one of their two head-to-head clashes with the Warriors last year, but that was the first time they had beaten the Kiwi side since 2010. Games between these two tend to be high scoring, with the last seven all having 40 or more combined points scored.
What are the odds: The Warriors are rock solid in betting, with Sportsbet reporting twice the money invested on the home side compared to the Titans. Punters willing to back the Gold Coast are doing so via handicap betting, where the Titans are receiving a handy start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assistant Referee: Chris James. Touch Judges: Ricky MacFarlane and Shane Rehm. Review Officials: Bryan Norrie and Jared Maxwell. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live coverage from 2.30pm (AEST).
How we see it: This is a key fixture for both teams as they step up their bids for a top eight finish, and it should be a closely-fought encounter headlined by a brutal battle in the middle between two quality forward packs. The Kiwi side are in the better form right now though, and should get the job done on Saturday. Warriors by eight.