Panthers v Broncos
Another massive game in terms of the battle for the last couple of places in the top eight. These two teams can't both make it, so this is as close to a finals game as you can get outside of the finals. It looks like a minimum of 28 points will be required to get there, and if the Broncos lose this game the best they can finish on will be 27. If the Raiders lose, the best they can finish on is 26.
Neither team is in the top eight at this stage. The Panthers are 12th on 22 points, from nine wins and 12 losses. After three straight losses it appeared their season was at death's door, but they pulled it away from there by recording a surprise 28-24 win over the Warriors on the road last weekend. Points for-and-against differentials are critical in the battle for finals spots, and the Panthers' differential of minus-45 isn't bad enough at this stage to eliminate them from the race. Three straight wins could obviously improve it considerably as well.
The Broncos are 10th on 23 points, from nine wins, 12 losses and a draw. The Panthers are two points outside of the top and the Broncos one point. The Broncos have a differential of minus-24, but that would only come into play for positions if they happened to finish level on points with the currently seventh-placed Knights, who have a differential of plus-70. These are the equations by which these mid-table teams live or die.
The Broncos certainly have the better form. They have won three and drawn one of their past four, the wins coming against the Cowboys (18-16), Dragons (26-24) and Eels (22-12) and the draw against the Knights (18-18). But the Panthers would have been lifted enormously by their win over the Warriors. Suddenly, they are a chance again, and they can pump themselves up for a huge effort in front of, hopefully, a big home crowd. It all should make for a great contest.
In team changes the Panthers have elevated Tim Grant from the bench to start at prop, with Jeremy Latimore dropping back. Matt Moylan is added to what is a five-man bench. The Broncos have an unchanged starting side and have added Scott Anderson to what is a five-man bench.
Watch Out Panthers: Ben Hunt has risen to meet the challenge of being a starter in the halves for the Broncos during their four-game unbeaten stretch. He has added some spark, which they badly needed. Hunt can run the ball, but he can also get passes away in tackles, which means he's the type of player who can draw multiple defenders and create space for his outside supports that way.
Watch Out Broncos: Panthers prop Grant is desperate to get something out of this season. His chances of playing for NSW in the State of Origin series were ruined when he sustained a broken hand at the worst possible time, but now the finals are back within reach. Grant powered against the Warriors, running 19 times for 185 metres in his 53 minutes. He'll be a major force again here.
Plays To Watch: David Simmons is on fire on the right wing for the Panthers. No-one ever thought he'd be blazing a trail on the competition's leading try-scorers' list, but he is. He's on top, with 19. And since an increase in confidence inevitably comes with consistently strong performances, Simmons believes he can finish things off like never before. His positional play off the pass is excellent, and he has repeatedly scored off kicks as well. Against the Warriors, he scored one of those tremendously acrobatic tries that have become the calling card of the best wingers.
Jack Reed is a real go-getter in the centres for the Broncos. Since returning from injury he has played three games and added two tries, two line-breaks and one offload. He punches hard through the defensive line, something he has presumably learned from teammate Justin Hodges.
Key Match-Up: When it's desperate stakes like this game is, it's likely to be tough and grinding up front, which means there is likely to be a premium on attacking opportunities. Under those circumstances, you need your fullback to be able to get the ball back into a good position when returning kicks. You don't want to be under the constant pressure of playing off your own line. Josh Hoffman ran for 183 metres, made a line-break and scored a try in the win over the Eels. Lachlan Coote has only had two games back for the Panthers after a long injury lay-off, first off the bench against the Cowboys and then starting at fullback against the Warriors. He's still feeling his way back into it, but we know what he can do at or near his best. He's going to have to generate some of that here.
Where It Will Be Won: Up front – it's a cliche, but it couldn't be truer than in this game, with so much on the line. You've got players like Grant, Sam McKendry and Sika Manu out there for the Panthers, and Ben Hannant, Josh McGuire and Sam Thaiday for the Broncos. It's going to be a rumble at the foot of the mountains.
The History: Played45; Broncos 29, Panthers 15, drawn 1. The Broncos have won six and drawn one of the past 10 clashes, including wins in two of the past three. The Broncos have also won two and drawn one of the past four at this venue.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.
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Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: This is a really tough one. The Panthers will battle hard, but the continued absence of several injured forwards – Nigel Plum, Adam Docker and Matt Robinson – might just bring them undone when it gets down to the nitty-gritty in the second half of a game like this. The Broncos will keep coming at them, and with Hoffman playing well out of the backfield on top of that they could wear the Panthers down in late. Broncos by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats