Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Bulldogs v Panthers
The Bulldogs had a shot at finishing in the top four, but it disappeared when they lost two of their past three games. Now, they face the challenge of trying to ensure they at least get a home game among the bottom four teams playing the knockout matches in the first week of the finals.
The Bulldogs are in sixth place on 28 points, two points behind fifth-placed Cronulla and three ahead of seventh-placed Newcastle. They could well make the finals even without winning another game, considering they have a decent points for-and-against differential of plus-51, but need another win to make sure.
The Panthers are one of those clubs in the cluttered mid-section of the table, trying to clinch one of the last two spots in the finals. They are in 10th place, on 24 points and with a differential of minus-29. All five teams placed from eighth to 12th are on 24. The Panthers looked gone as finals contenders after they lost four in a row, but have breathed new life into an apparent corpse by winning their past two games.
The Bulldogs lost 28-20 to the Rabbitohs last weekend, and have lost second-rower Frank Pritchard to suspension on top of that. He joins injured forwards, Sam Kasiano and Greg Eastwood, and fullback Ben Barba on the unavailable list. That is testing the club's depth of quality players and it shows on their interchange bench. Before last weekend, they beat the Raiders 28-16 and lost 26-16 to the Titans.
The Panthers fashioned an unlikely 28-24 win over the Warriors in Auckland and then ended the Broncos' finals hopes by beating them 28-12 at home last weekend. They are still missing several injured forwards who would be in their 17-man squad if fit – Adam Docker, Matt Robinson and Nigel Plum – but they don't seem to be taking any notice of that at present. The return of Kiwi Test prop Sam McKendry has been a big plus for the Panthers in recent weeks. The Bulldogs have still got plenty of good players on deck, but the Panthers have got a reasonable shot at winning this one.
Tony Williams rises from the bench to take Pritchard's place in the starting side for the Bulldogs. Lachlan Burr is the new man on the bench. The Panthers have moved Grant up to start and Jeremy Latimore back to the bench, but are otherwise unchanged.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Did someone mention James Segeyaro? The bench hooker for the Panthers is one of those human dynamos whose name tired forwards hanging around the ruck must have near the top of their list of fears. Against the Broncos last week he played for 55 minutes and came up with nine runs for 99 metres, four line-breaks, two offloads and three tries. Enough said.
Watch Out Panthers: Josh Morris is one of those players you call a real footballer, someone who holds down a position and then when you desperately need someone to fill in elsewhere you can switch him there and he does a great job. Normally a centre, Morris is excelling at fullback for the Bulldogs in place of Barba. Even in last week's loss to the Rabbitohs, he still ran for 174 metres.
Plays To Watch: Josh Reynolds is one of the great tryscoring five-eighths of the modern game. He has eight this year for the Bulldogs, and nine line-breaks to go with that. He confuses the opposition because he is so good at the offload as well – he has 27 of those. They hesitate as to what he is going to do, which is when he usually takes off and scores.
Tim Grant is known for eating up the metres, but when you least expect it he has a sneaky offload in him as well. The Panthers’ prop has come up with seven of them this season, and, given the fact he draws multiple defenders because he is so hard to stop, when he does get the ball away it usually puts the defence under pressure.
Key Match-Up: Grant and McKendry against Bulldogs pair Aiden Tolman and James Graham in the front row. Given that both teams are missing several forwards, how this game goes is going to depend a lot on what the big men do up front – and who gets on top there. It will be a thunderous battle.
Where It Will Be Won: Both teams have proved that if their halves can get a bit of space, they have the ability to get the ball moving quickly enough along the backline for the wide men to get on the outside of defenders. Bulldogs wingers Sam Perrett and Mitch Brown have scored 17 and 11 tries respectively this season, and Panthers winger David Simmons is the competition's leading tryscorer, with 19. One of them could have a huge say in the result here.
The History: Played: 82; Bulldogs 47, Panthers 32, drawn 3. The Panthers have won three of the past four clashes overall and three of the past four at this venue.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Shayne Hayne & Justin Morgan.
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Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 5.30pm.
The Way We See It: This is a danger game for the Bulldogs, but they did make the grand final last season and it is in games like this, where there is a lot on the line, when you would expect players like Reynolds, Morris and Michael Ennis to come to the fore. The Panthers are bound to have a red-hot go, but are likely to fall a bit short in the end. Bulldogs by six points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.