Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Bulldogs v Panthers
Friday, 7.30pm (AEST)
First, the bad news: based on their past fortnight, neither of these potential brides are deserving enough to walk favourites Manly down the ANZ premiership aisle come the first Sunday in October.
Now, the good news: based on the initial 18 rounds of champagne football both these teams showered upon their fans, they've nonetheless earned the right to still be considered trophy material.
But wait, there's more bad news to hand: based on the closeness of the competition, another loss could condemn either team to a fall down the NRL totem pole faster than the time it takes for Des Hasler's headset to reach glass.
But there's also more good news: the NRL's wedding day is still 10 weeks away, so there's enough time to stop any potential wedding crashers from interfering with grand final day.
The Bulldogs couldn't find the try line with a magnifying glass in a 20-12 defeat against the Cowboys last week, wasting countless opportunities against a team that has more road issues that an Australian GPS made in China.
Penrith, meanwhile, gave plenty of ammunition to their non-believers with a paltry showing against cellar-dwellers Cronulla last Saturday, failing to show any urgency in an 18-16 upset in Bathurst.
Compounding Penrith's loss was a season-ending injury to skipper Peter Wallace, whose shoes will now be filled by a kid who goes by the name Will "The Men in Black" Smith.
Experienced wingmen Josh Mansour and David Simmons return for inexperienced duo Kevin Naiqama and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, while hit man Adam Docker comes in for Isaah Yeo.
In contrast to the Panthers losing a former NSW playmaker, the Bulldogs get one back in the form of Josh 'Shoulders' Reynolds, back from a four-week layoff for putting Will Chambers to sleep illegally in the NRL's showpiece. Big man David Klemmer is back for the big show too.
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Watch Out Bulldogs: The Bulldogs' bevy of big men scream "Run off me", but it's Penrith's little men who whisper "Run at me". The Panthers get two of their most ardent metre-eaters in Mansour (178m per game) and Simmons (107m) back on deck this week. Their willingness to cart the ball up early in the count puts their team on the front foot most sets and gets Soward on the front foot at the end of it.
Watch Out Panthers: Maybe it was the week spent in the wide open spaces of central-western NSW, but Penrith's middle in Bathurst was more open than a 7-Eleven store last week. All in all, they conceded more line breaks, offloads and missed more tackles against the worst attacking side in the NRL. This doesn't bode well against a team that boasts more halfbacks than it does props. Sam Kasiano, Tim Browne (injured), Tony Williams and Greg Eastwood all have offload statistics that are in the double figures.
Plays To Watch: Rookie five-eighth Will Smith isn't afraid to have a go himself if half a gap opens up, but most of the time the Knights junior will be the link between the ruck and fullback Matt Moylan on their lateral sweeping plays.
At the opposite end, the return of Reynolds shifts ball-playing pair Josh Jackson and Tony Williams back on the fringes, where Hodkinson likes to hit them with short face-balls, just like he did with Jackson for a try against the Cowboys last week. Keep an eye on whether they can isolate the likes of Smith and Soward on their own goal line.
Where It Will Be Won: In the final 20 minutes. Put it this way: The numbers say that if games were played for an hour, Penrith would undoubtedly be King. The Panthers have no problem outscoring their opponents in each of the first three quarters of a game. It's the crunch time, or what is more commonly known as the money time... the winning time... when they've had all sorts of issues, losing 12 of 18 in the final quarter of matches. The Bulldogs? Well, let's just say they don't call Trent Hodkinson 'Mr Cool' because he might have a slick pair of Ray Bans.
The History: Played 94; Canterbury-Bankstown 54, Penrith 36, drawn 4. This particular match-up has been more one-sided than Parramatta Road in peak hour over the past decade, with the Bulldogs tasting victory just five times in 15 games against the mountain men. The Bulldogs had in fact won their past two before running into Matt 'The Heartbreaker' Moylan back in Round 3, a jolt you might recall spurred them onto a seven-game winning streak. But if you're a genuine numbers man and looking for a long-term commitment, then here's a doosie for you: Penrith have won just one of their past seven – and just three of their past 12 – at ANZ.
What Are The Odds:
There’s nothing in this according to Sportsbet punters – just as many bets taken on the Panthers ($2.75) as the Bulldogs ($1.45). With the line set at 6.5, punters are choosing to go with Penrith receiving the start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Dave Munro; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The Panthers are in the midst of a lean trot, are without their on-field general in Peter Wallace, and take on a Bulldogs side that have regained the player with the loudest bark in the country. Doggies by 10 points.