Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Eels v Panthers
Saturday, 5.30pm (AEDT)
It's incredibly difficult to label any clash in March as a must-win, but there's a sense of urgency surrounding this Battle of the West that makes Saturday night significant for both teams.
While the local derby has been more of a 'friendly' than a rivalry in recent seasons – two new opposition code teams in the western Sydney's sporting landscape will do that – we assure you, there's a lot more than pride at stake when Parramatta and Penrith clash at Pirtek Stadium this weekend.
For the Eels, their last-minute 22-18 loss to Manly was so heartbreaking that it drove centre Willie Tonga to tears in the sheds. Co-captain Jarryd Hayne was so vocal about the officiating that he went within a whisker of copping a $10,000 fine, while coach Brad Arthur looked a frustrated man as he was heard uttering "close enough is not good enough" after the game.
On top of the 54-4 pasting they copped from the other grand finalists last year in the Roosters a fortnight ago, the wooden spooners head into this game still struggling to convince their flustered fan base that their team can literally kick any goals this year.
To that end, forgotten halfback Chris Sandow is in line to make his first appearance of 2014 in place of Luke Kelly, while Arthur has also dumped winger Vai Toutai for Ken Sio.
Arthur will hope the changes bring the required result, because a third straight loss – especially to their headline-grabbing neighbours – and the faithful might quickly turn into the merely hopeful.
In contrast, the Panthers were on the other end of a last-minute result, defeating the Bulldogs 18-16 after the buzzer on a clutch sideline conversion from boom fullback Matt Moylan that sent a healthy crowd into rapture.
There was a '50s and '60s theme on the day but the team had nothing 'old school' about it as new buys Jamie Soward, Kevin Naiqama, Jamal Idris and Elijah Taylor all continued to impress their home fans.
Soward in particular went a long way to proving his marquee status, laying on all three tries, including the decisive three-man cut-out pass in the game's waning moments for Naiqama that set up Moylan's match-winning attempt.
For now, this new-look Panthers side is placed in the top four. But in their quest for relevance, a victory over a disheartened neighbour will be crucial in proving their status as an elite team in 2014.
Co-captain and halfback Peter Wallace returns from his groin injury, re-uniting with Soward in what will only be their second game together at the club.
Watch Out Eels: Bulldogs coach Des Hasler was particularly frustrated by Penrith's ability to control the ruck, and most of that has to do with 'bash brothers' Nigel Plum and Adam Docker continually putting runners on their backs – without much help needed. Not many predicted that either player would start for Penrith's stacked forward pack this year, but with the new rules designed to create faster play-the-balls, Ivan Cleary's fearsome duo are ensuring their teammates win the crucial battle in the middle.
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Watch Out Panthers: Of all the young, unknown forwards Arthur is unleashing in 2014, second-rower Manu Ma'u looms as the most dangerous over the first three rounds of the season. Having recently put pen to paper on a new two-year deal, the former Auckland Vulcan leads the forwards in tackle breaks and metres. Against Manly last Sunday, Ma'u ran more than 150m in hit-ups alone.
Plays To Watch: Jamie Soward admitted he had seen tape of Bulldogs winger Corey Thompson in Round 2 and targeted the under-sized winger with cross-field bombs to high flyer David Simmons, resulting in two tries on Penrith's right edge. And with Manly's three tries coming as a direct result of Parramatta's rushing defence on the flanks, both Soward and the sweeping Matt Moylan will be sweating on any opportunities to set up their two wingers in and behind the defence.
On the other side, the Sea Eagles may have won the game, but Parramatta were the better side last Sunday, making more line breaks and forcing more missed tackles than their highly fancied opposition. Most of the damage came from Parramatta's dynamic left edge, with rejuvenated centre Willie Tonga and popular winger Semi Radradra combining for two tries, four line breaks, three line break assists and almost 340 metres. Similar to Moylan, look for fullback Jarryd Hayne to create plenty of opportunities on that left-side sweep.
On another note, four of the past five games have been decided by an odd number (seven points in Rd 18, 2013; one point in Rd 16, 2012; 33 points in Rd 4, 2012; and one point in Rd 19, 2011). With Soward and Chris Sandow in play, don't be surprised if a field goal is kicked on Saturday night.
Where It Will Be Won: The first 20 minutes will tell us how much the last-minute loss will have affected Parramatta's inexperienced players. If they're not mentally ready for a Panthers side that has done all their damage in the first half of their wins, then the result can be decided early.
The History: Played 102; Parramatta 59, Penrith 42, drawn 1. It's been all Penrith the past three years with the mountain men winning five of their past six, including a sweep of last year's home-and-home series. The Panthers romped home 44-12 in Matt Moylan's Round 7 debut before David Simmons recorded one of his seven doubles in a tight 17-10 affair at Parramatta in Round 18.
What Are The Odds: The market suggests this will be tight with the Panthers $1.70 and the Eels $2.08 with Sportsbet.com.au, but punters disagree. It's all one-way traffic with virtually all of the money bet so far going on Penrith.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Henry Perenara; Touch Judges – Luke Potter & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Steve Folkes.
Televised: FoxSports 1 – Live 5.30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: The inclusion of Sandow is a shrewd one for Arthur, because he'll revitalise a team that put in a lot of effort for nothing at Brookvale. It'll be close, but the Panthers have had a lot of experience over the past fortnight in close games. Panthers by seven points.
*Statistics: Champion Data.
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