Schick Hydro Preview: Wests Tigers v Gold Coast Titans
Campbelltown Sports Ground
To steal a line from Cold Chisel the Wests Tigers and Titans come into Round 23 having exceeded all 2016 expectations but are still "standing on the outside looking in".
The Tigers' status as a top-eight team lasted little more than 24 hours following the Panthers' comprehensive win on Monday night while the Titans' position in seventh soon became 10th on the back of wins by the Warriors, Tigers and Panthers in Round 22.
If they fail to make the finals no ill will be thought of two teams predicted to be wooden spoon possibilities yet now that the finals are so tantalisingly within reach not playing football in September would be seen internally as a failure.
The Tigers moved past the drama surrounding Robbie Farah and an injury to Luke Brooks to stun the Cowboys at Leichhardt Oval last Sunday and return to Campbelltown with three wins from their past four games at the venue.
Coach Jason Taylor has been able to name the same 17 that accounted for the Cowboys while the only change to the Titans team that went down 24-14 to the Warriors is the promotion of Jarryd Hayne to the starting team and co-captain Nathan Friend and Ryan Simpkins being added to a six-man bench.
Both the Tigers and Titans meet the Panthers in the next fortnight so this shapes as the game that will determine whether either side can nab one of those two final spots in the top eight and give their fans an unexpected post-season thrill.
Watch out Tigers: With their top eight finals hopes on the line the Titans need experienced heads to step forward and few are better equipped to handle a big occasion than Chris McQueen. A premiership winner and Origin representative, McQueen hasn't been posting big numbers but his influence has been growing in recent weeks. He has scored five tries in his past six games and came up with a crucial tackle to push Tui Lolohea back into the in-goal area last Sunday. The combination with centre Konrad Hurrell is developing and the attention Hurrell will attract could create space for McQueen to add to his try-scoring tally.
Watch out Titans: As they have shown in their past two games the Wests Tigers like to strike early and strike hard and the Titans have made something of a habit of conceding the first try. More than 50 per cent of the total tries scored by the Tigers this season have come in the opening 30 minutes of games and the Titans have conceded 30 tries over the same period. With such a young squad momentum early in games makes the Tigers a hard team to rein in so the Titans' defence – particularly on the edges – needs to be water-tight in the opening quarter otherwise the likes of Tedesco, Naiqama and Nofoaluma will have a field day.
Key match-up: Mitchell Moses v Jarryd Hayne. It's fair to say that when Mitchell Moses snuck a look at the Telstra Premiership draw a fortnight ago he wouldn't have been expecting to face off against a man who had been a 49er and a member of the Fiji rugby sevens team earlier this year. With his talented talisman Luke Brooks on the sidelines Moses took control against the premiers last Sunday and further emphasised that the kid with plenty of kudos merely needed time in order to excel. Time is not on the Titans' side which is why the promotion of Hayne to the starting team could serve as a blessing or a curse. He was sensational last Sunday for a guy who had not played an NRL game in almost two years and his presence will ease the pressure on Ashley Taylor but he hasn't had anywhere near the time required to develop the fluency needed in such a key position. Enthralling match-up between two genuine match-winners.
History: Played 16; Wests Tigers 7, Titans 9. The Titans were convincing 30-18 winners in Round 3 but on the back of three straight wins the Tigers are the team with momentum. They have won the two most recent clashes with the Titans at Campbelltown with Gold Coast's sole success at the ground coming in the first meeting with the Tigers in 2007, Mat Rogers scoring 12 points in the 16-14 win. Chris Lawrence and Dene Halatau are the only two players from that game named to play on Saturday.
What are the odds: Wests Tigers $1.90, Titans $1.90. Definitely the most even-betting game of the round and money is split virtually 50-50 in the head-to-head market. Both sides have been backed to win 1-12 so the money with Sportsbet suggests we're in for a tight one at Campbelltown. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger; Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Dave Ryan; Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jason Robinson; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 2.30pm.
How we see it: There's an unquestionable wave of momentum that the black and gold are riding into this one with the irrepressible energy of youth making them such a dangerous outfit. They haven't conceded more than 14 points in their past three starts and have the ability to strike from long range, with 10 tries starting inside their own half. The Titans' finals hopes rest on this game and they need to go with the Tigers early to be any chance. In a Saturday afternoon thriller it's the Tigers by four points.