Titans v Bulldogs
Cbus Super Stadium
The spirited Sharks may have done Bulldogs coach Des Hasler a favour on Monday night because as the shortest-priced favourites in a cliff-hanger weekend finale for the regular season, almost everyone expects Canterbury to come out on top.
That in itself should sound alarm bells all throughout Belmore.
It's not that the Titans don't have anything to play for; they just don't have anyone left to play for them.
Greg Bird has joined his fellow co-captain Nate Myles on the sideline courtesy of a one-week suspension stemming from last Sunday's shut-out against the Warriors while Maroons tearaway Dave Taylor has been named in the second row but remains in doubt with a calf strain.
Luke Bailey has been denied a farewell appearance due to a neck injury having announced on Monday that 2014 would be his final season of rugby league. Fellow founding forward Mark Minichiello is also on his way out – headed for two years in the English Super League – while Ashley Harrison will also figure in the tributes having chosen to retire earlier in the season, also due to a neck injury.
Gold Coast fans have not had the pleasure of cheering their team to victory since Round 6 and only found out on Tuesday afternoon that Neil Henry would be coaching their team for the next three years, but perhaps it is the Bulldogs under the most pressure.
Their only victories over the past seven weeks have come against the Eels and Wests Tigers and having been one of the best sides through the middle of the season now face the very scary prospect of missing the finals altogether if they don't dispose of the Titans.
If the Broncos and Warriors were to both win and the 'Dogs lost, they would get the rest of the year off, but a win – and losses by the Storm and Cowboys – and the boys from Belmore can secure a home final for Week One by finishing as high as fifth.
Josh Reynolds makes his return at five-eighth after serving a three-week suspension with Moses Mbye dropping back to a five-man bench. Harlan Alaalatoa has also been included on the bench following the one-week suspension handed down to Dale Finucane.
Taylor is the only new addition in the starting side although Brad Takairangi has been shifted back to the centres with David Mead named on the bench. Steve Michaels and Maurice Blair are also on the five-man bench with Cody Nelson having played his final game for the club before joining the Eels, ruled out with a hamstring injury.
Watch Out Titans: The last time Tim Lafai faced a defensive unit with very little to play for he made 15 – yes, 15! – tackle breaks against the Wests Tigers. Marking up on a player in David Mead who has played just four games in the centres in his entire career, Lafai will fancy his chances of doing some damage with his footwork and that big, powerful fend he possesses. Having struggled to earn a permanent place in the 'Dogs starting team over the past three seasons, Lafai has made 20 appearances in 2014 and his 98 tackle breaks ranks him sixth in the NRL in that category. He was near unstoppable against the Tigers two weeks ago and although Mead did an admirable job on Konrad Hurrell last week, it's another tough assignment facing him on Sunday.
Watch Out Bulldogs: How fitting that Paul Carter gets to finish his rookie NRL season against the team where he was unable to earn a first-grade call-up. Signed in the off-season as some back row back-up, only four Titans have made more appearances than Carter in 2014, his two misses due to a club-imposed suspension. Last week against the Warriors in a well-beaten team Carter disrupted the opposition defence with three offloads and his energy is critical to a Titans team down on numbers. His aggression sometimes spills over into penalties but you can bet he'll be eager to make a point against his former club-mates.
Plays To Watch: Des Hasler knows his team doesn't need to revert to niggling tactics to get over the top of the Titans; they just need to concentrate all their energies into smashing holes behind the Titans markers. Once they do that, there will be space on the edges for the likes of Tim Lafai, Josh Jackson and Tony Williams to create havoc. Key for Titans is to enjoy an even share of possession in the opening stages in order to build into the contest. Errors gifted the Warriors eight of the first nine sets of the game last Sunday and at 12-0 down and gassed from having to do so much tackling Gold Coast could barely find the energy to throw any effective punches in attack.
Where It Will Be Won: There is a deadly combination when you look at the statistics that suggest the Titans may spend much of the game on the back foot: No team has made more metres than the Bulldogs in 2014 while Gold Coast's defence concedes more metres than all but the Sharks. The Titans have missed more tackles than any other team while the Bulldogs' defence is the third best in the NRL for that stat. If the Titans don't man up in the middle against a powerful Canterbury pack, the big boppers might just run roughshod.
History: Played 10; Titans 5; Bulldogs 5. Given their respective finishing positions on the ladder the past two seasons it is surprising that the Titans have won their past two encounters with the Bulldogs yet they haven't defeated Canterbury on the Gold Coast since Round 3, 2009. With four of the meetings having been played in Brisbane as part of a double-header, the Bulldogs boast the most recent win at Robina, a 30-20 victory in Round 5, 2012.
What are the Odds: The most one-sided betting game of the round with Sportsbet. Around 95% of the money is on the Bulldogs ($1.34) head-to-head, with the Titans friendless at $3.15. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Henry Perenara; Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Anthony Eliott; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm
How We See It: In this topsy-turvy season we should expect the unexpected but there is simply too much on the line for the Bulldogs not to conjure a victory here one way or another. They looked sensational in the first 40 minutes against a hapless Tigers outfit a fortnight ago and if they can get through an emotional opening from the Titans may stumble upon the path of least resistance. Having watched their season spiral into oblivion the Titans have been looking for the finish line for a couple of weeks; let's see if the remaining troops can muster one last stand. Bulldogs by 16.
Story first appeared on NRL.com