Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Panthers v Broncos
Monday, 7pm (AEST)
After two weeks on the road Penrith will be aiming to record their eighth win in nine games at home when they host Brisbane on Monday night.
The Panthers were clinical in a 26-10 victory over the Wests Tigers last week, and in doing so edged ahead of Manly to lead the competition on for-and-against. Together with the Bulldogs, the trio sit atop the ladder on 24 points, meaning the 2014 surprise packets need to keep winning to keep pace for a top-four finish.
The Broncos, meanwhile, have had an entire two weeks to stew over a 24-22 home defeat to the lowly Sharks in a game they led 22-0 after 42 minutes. It was back-to-back losses for the improved Queenslanders; while last week's bye gave them an opportunity to recalibrate, there is now pressure to stay ahead of the six other teams in the middle of the table on 20 points.
Penrith have been fronted with their first major obstacle of the year – surviving the next six weeks without halfback and general Peter Wallace after injuring his knee last Sunday.
Ball-playing back-rower Tyrone Peachey slotted into the halves when his skipper went down, and has been given first crack to keep the Panthers afloat without their chief orchestrator.
In comparison, the visitors will wait with baited breath on the return of Origin quartet Josh McGuire, Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker and Justin Hodges. Should they all back up, coach Anthony Griffin will be able to throw a full-strength line-up at the Panthers in the hope of keeping their spot in the top eight.
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Watch Out Panthers: Broncos firebrand Josh McGuire will be out to continue a run of seven straight games of at least 114 metres gained for his team. In fact, only twice this year has the maturing prop failed to crack the century mark, and in doing so has become his team's go-to man in a star-studded forward pack. After a week spent in camp with the Maroons, expect McGuire to try and find a – dare we say it – Gallen-like level to his game in the final third of the season, which certainly isn't out of the question.
Watch Out Broncos: In the two games since Panthers weapon Jamal Idris has returned from a personal leave of absence, the former NSW centre has given his team 273 metres, 16 tackle breaks, three offloads, a line break, a line break assist, a try assist and a try – his first for his new club. If there are troubles off the field for the big fella, then he's certainly not letting it affect his form on the field. Brisbane will need to be wary of the Panthers servicing Idris with some early ball, isolating him with defenders or running straight at the little men out wide.
Plays To Watch: We've written this before and we'll write it again. Penrith's right-side shift was the source of three of their five tries last week, and the final pass in each of them came from touch football king Matt Moylan. Not unlike the sweeping movement that the 2010 Dragons pinned their premiership on, the ball movement out the back to their fullback is undoubtedly their pet play.
Similarly for the Broncos, halfback Ben Hunt picked apart a frail Sharks right edge when he twice put blokes over the line two weeks ago. And when he went to the other side of the field, he used a slick right-foot step to find some plodding big men to set up prop David Hala for a try under the posts. It's 'Halfback 101' at the moment for the little maestro: just watch him pick out flat-footed defenders when he's waiting for the ball at first receiver, and then tear them to shreds.
Where It Will Be Won: With Penrith down to just one primary kicker and Brisbane relying on Hunt for most of their direction, kick pressure will be an absolute priority for both teams in order to retrieve the ball in good field position and set up their attacking forays. Look for defensive shooters like James Segeyaro and Andrew McCullough to apply plenty of pressure and legal hits on the fifth tackle.
What Are The Odds:
Penrith are pronounced favourites with Sportsbet.com.au ($1.55); however the generous price of the Broncos ($2.48) is proving to be an attractive proposition to punters, with nearly all the money going on them to cause the upset. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
The History: Played 50; Penrith 18, Brisbane 30, drawn 2. Moving on, nothing to see here folks... The two sides have split their past six, while their past five at the old Penrith Park reads two wins apiece and one draw. In their last clash, Segeyaro came off the bench to score a hat-trick in a 28-12 win – their final home game of 2013.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Morris & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Brett Suttor & Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: There really isn't much in this one. The loss of Wallace leaves a hole for the Panthers, but they've lost just one game all year at home. The visitors have four players to back up from Origin, but five days gives them ample time to recover, not to mention the fact that the rest of their teammates won't have played in 14 days. So when it's as close a call as this, you go with the home team by four. If you're a Panthers fan, it's one you shouldn't miss.