The Gold Coast Titans took a major step towards securing a home semifinal with a 37-18 win over the North Queensland Cowboys at Skilled Park last night.
The win ensures the Titans remain inside the top four as they head into the final three rounds of the regular season, with their destiny now in their own hands in terms of gaining an all-important home match in week one of the finals.
Two wins out of their remaining three games should be enough to secure a play-off match on the Gold Coast, with the top four sides earning the right to host matches.
After going through a bad run where they won just two matches in eight games in June and July, the Titans have found some of their best form in recent weeks. They have produced wins over title contenders the Dragons as well as over teams in the midst of finals runs, like the Warriors and Eels.
With the Titans playing for finals position and the Cowboys out of the running, it appeared to be a formality as the home side cruised through the first 40 minutes looking like they were playing against a park side.
The Cowboys had no way of competing with the finals-bound Titans. The Titans' little men provided the key plays in the first spell as the home side cruised to a comfortable halftime lead.
Playmaker Scott Prince opened the scoring when he got on the outside of his defender close to the Cowboys line and slid across. Hooker Nathan Friend sold a dummy and brushed off a tackler to score the home side's second try after 32 minutes and five minutes before the break Prince showed a beautiful touch with a perfectly-timed grubber for Shaun Michaels to score.
As the halftime siren sounded, Prince banged over a field goal to put his side up 19-0.
A major controversy occurred when former Warriors centre Clinton Toopi accused Cowboys second-rower Scott Bolton of biting him. Toopi had effected a tackle and was penalised for not getting off Bolton but got up screaming that he'd been bitten.
Replays showed Bolton's mouth clamped around Toopi's thumb. The Kiwi was asked by referee Jason Robinson whether he wanted to make a formal complaint but Toopi declined. No doubt the citing commissioner will take a close look at the incident.
Ty Williams gave the Cowboys a glimmer of hope when he scored straight after halftime and, when he bagged a double shortly after, the home crowd must have started attacking their fingernails.
Serial offender Luke O'Donnell was sent to the sin bin after an altercation that saw the NSW enforcer and Friend exchange punches. O'Donnell heads to the UK Super League at the end of the season as the most suspended player in NRL history and will be sweating on the judicial officer's report.
Friend was sin-binned too and might be questionable for next week's match against the Roosters in Sydney after letting go a number of haymakers in O'Donnell's direction.
The Cowboys forwards began to get some ascendancy while Friend was off the park and livewire dummy half Anthony Watts dived over from short range to bring the visitors to within a point of the lead.
O'Donnell returned from the sin bin but limped off moments later with a leg injury just as Titans co-captain Luke Bailey crashed over to score. Second rower Mark Minichiello found his way over the line in the next set and the Titans had the game in the bag. Michaels collected his second try of the night just before fulltime to put an exclamation mark on the result.
The Titans will get a boost ahead of next weekend's match against the Roosters with NSW five-eighth Greg Bird expected to make his return from a torn hamstring.
They will still be waiting on Friend, however, the starting point of their entire offense.
With matches left against the lowly Sharks and the Wests Tigers in the final round on the Gold Coast, the Titans will be expected to host a home semifinal in week one of the finals.
Unlike many other sides, they are near full health and are finding form at the right time.
In last night's other match the Canberra Raiders beat the Canterbury Bulldogs 28-14 at ANZ Stadium to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Titans 37 (S. Michaels 2, L. Bailey, N. Friend, M. Minichiello, S. Prince tries; S. Prince 6 con, fg) Cowboys 18 (T. Williams 2, A. Watts tries; J. Williams 3 con)