IT is a game from which 2014 form suggests it is hard to predict a winner. The Cowboys are one-from-three and desperate to avoid a third straight loss while the iSelect Titans have won two games away but are determined to avenge their 42-12 loss to Wests Tigers in their only home game of the season.
However, there are some simple facts that give an indication it is going to be a tough forward stoush, with the Titans having no misapprehension that they are coming up against one of the most talented and physical teams in the NRL.
The North Queenslanders have two current Test front-rowers in Matt Scott and James Tamou, the world’s best backline playmaker in Johnathan Thurston, two dynamic back-rowers in Jason Taumalolo and Tariq Sims, an evergreen competitor in Gavin Cooper then a backline that boasts another current international in Brent Tate and some exciting ball-runners.
“On paper they are one of the best teams in the competition,” said Titans coach John Cartwright. “They have the two Test front-rowers, the best player in the world, two back-rowers who are as good as anyone and lots of experience out wide.
“Most of their play is around Thurston and he gravitates to the ball, so you try to shut down his options but the fact is they are strong all over the park - good go forward, good hole-runners and a schemer like him.
“They’ve lost two in a row, so they’ll be more aware but we want to win two in a row as well, so we’re both desperate.”
Co-skipper Greg Bird was also just as direct about the Titans’ task.
“We’re coming up against the benchmark forward pack of the competition,” said Birdy who knows how important it is to regain credibility at home with a willing performance. “Every team is another team wanting to take two points from us at our home ground. We were disappointing last time we came out here so we just want to make amends for that and put on a good show.
“They’re a really strong team with one of the strongest forward packs led by the best halfback in the world. We’re going to have our work cut out but we have put in a lot of work and a lot of video sessions on these guys and I am confident we can come away with a win.
“There are a lot of people who might second guess about coming to the game but we are out to make amends [for the flat effort against the Tigers].
“We want to turn this place into a cauldron; we said we would before round one but it wasn’t to be but now we have an opportunity against probably one of the benchmark teams.”
There has been an expected preoccupation by the media about Titans assistant coach Neil Henry confronting his former club that he took to the finals the previous three seasons but while he can provide a personal insight, shutting down key man Thurston and the front row led momentum downfield is as much about attitude, minimising errors and defensive communication than any special insights.
As Cartwright revealed: “”Everybody thinks there is a magic solution or formula but there’s not. Our focus has been preparing as normal and getting our game right.”
And what the Titans tonight have to get right is showing patience and composure in attack, particularly close to the opposing try-line, and throwing more precise attacking options at the defensive line to the Cowboys.
The inclusion of five-eighth Aidan Sezer, who returns from injury after missing the win in Canberra last Sunday, will help although consistent, although pacey fullback Will Zillman – who links so well with halfback Albert Kelly on the right - is missing, replaced by winger David Mead with Anthony Don coming onto the wing.
The make-up of the forward pack will not be disclosed until an hour before kick-off with one player to come off the five-man bench that includes Matthew White, Luke Bailey, Mark Minichiello, Ryan James and Paul Carter.
Certainly the forward battle will be absorbing with Kangaroo teammates Scott and Tamou (Cowboys) and Bird and Nate Myles (Titans) the key leaders with plenty of representative quality around them with Luke Bailey (Australia and NSW), Ash Harrison and Dave Taylor (Queensland), Mark Minichiello (City), Luke Douglas and Ryan James (Country Origin and Prime Minister’s XIII) plus Tariq Sims (Country Origin, Fiji) and Cooper (Prime Minister’s XIII) playing for the Cowboys– not including recent World Cup representatives.
Although they have lost their past two games the Cowboys went down by only four points both times (16-12 v Broncos and 20-16 v Cowboys) and came from behind to beat the Raiders 28-22 in the first round.
The Titans have won four of the six clashes between the team teams at Robina, but the overall win/loss tally against North Queensland is only 7-6.
TITANS: D Mead, K. Gordon, B Tighe, B Takairangi, A Don (No. 20), A Sezer, A Kelly, L Douglas, B Falloon, N Myles (capt), G Bird (Capt), A Harrison. Interchange (from) M White, L Bailey, M Minichiello, P Carter, R James.
COWBOYS: M Morgan, K Feldt, B Tate, K Linnett, A Winterstein, J Thurston (capt), R Lui, M Scott (capt), R Kostjaysn, J Tamou, G Cooper, J Taumalolo, T Sims. Interchange: R Thompson, G Hall, A Sims, S Bolton.
Referees: Adam Devcich and Chris James.