Panthers v Bulldogs
Saturday, 4.30pm (AEDT)
Well, at least we know they know how to kick a team when they're down.
Saturday afternoon combatants Canterbury-Bankstown and Penrith completed nasty beat downs on depleted opponents over the opening fortnight of the season, but have come up empty-handed when facing relatively full-strength sides.
It must be said, however, that the Panthers were much more impressive in their heartbreaker against Melbourne than the Bulldogs were in their loss to the Broncos.
Unlike previous seasons, Penrith – who bashed a 'spineless' Knights team in Round 1, showed some serious spine of their own on the road against a Storm side that had everything to celebrate –Cameron Smith's record for most club games, Billy Slater's 250th, and Cooper Cronk's return from injury.
But the underdogs almost ruined the party. The Panthers held a slender two-point lead midway through the second half only for Melbourne to draw level, then take a one-point lead, then let Penrith tie the game, then take another one-point lead, before having to watch Peter Wallace miss a 45-metre penalty attempt after the siren. In the end, the scoreline read an awkward 18-17 in favour of the celebrants.
There are unconfirmed reports that some onlookers still have their jaws glued to the ground after the ridiculous finish.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, had their Ben Barba-less attack exposed against the Ben Barba-led Broncos in Round 1, only for it to be seemingly resolved last Monday as they easily disposed of an unrecognisable Sharks side with six former/current Origin players on the sidelines.
Halves Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson looked a combination worthy of playing behind next year's star-studded forward pack, while the win also included a T-Rex sighting, a Mick Ennis grubber and chase (and try), and the least amount of minutes James Graham will probably ever play over his next four years at the club.
By the end of that one, the Bulldogs skipped away with a 42-4 victory, and we learnt that the mercy rule is a myth when, for one game at least, it probably should have been.
It all makes for a fascinating backdrop for two sides with top-four ambitions but more realistic top-eight hopes, both of whom can beat up on opponents when they're down, but yet to land a killer blow when they're up.
Watch Out Panthers: Bulldogs Halfback Trent Hodkinson racked up a personal 18 points last week, has four try assists in two games, forced a competition-high eight repeat sets and if anything – has overshadowed his Origin-calibre halves partner in Josh Reynolds over the opening fortnight of the competition.
He's obviously the puppet-master of the team but, as he told NRL.com last week, has added another weapon to his repertoire. Panthers big men, take note: "Josh is more of a ball-runner and my role is more to organise and get the good kick in, so I guess it can take the defence by surprise when I take the ball up" Hodkinson said.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Former Bulldog Jamal Idris ran 140m from 15 runs, busted three tackles, offloaded three times, set up a line break and a try in an virtuoso 80-minute performance against the Storm last week. Not bad for his first game in eight months! The runaway Titan will be keen to both impress his new Penrith fans – and possibly silence some old ones – in his first official outing in front of the locals.
"You always want to play well no matter who you're playing, but I think the only difference is the little remarks you get from people who still remember when you were at the Bulldogs in Sydney going, 'Why'd you leave?'" Idris told NRL.com on Tuesday.
"And I'm like, 'Really? That was three years ago!'"
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Plays To Watch: Renowned for their benchmark ability to get over the advantage line through their ball-playing forwards, the Bulldogs got over the try line plenty of times last week courtesy of the dynamic play of their improving halves combination. Both Hodkinson and Reynolds mesmerised the Sharks defensive line as they drifted across field and found strong hole-runners on the fringes, with centre Chase Stanley in particular enjoying plenty of success cutting back inside.
On the other hand, the Panthers pulled one right out of the South Sydney playbook last week, running a two-decoy variation on that universally used sweeping play designed to capitalise on Matt Moylan's supreme decision-making. The result? A couple of tries for winger Kevin Naiqama – there should've been a third – taking the try-scoring tally for both him and wing partner Josh Mansour to a combined four meat pies between them so far in 2014. Hungry boys.
Where It Will Be Won: Defensive game plans. It's no secret the Bulldogs isolate fringe defenders with the passing game of their ball-playing forwards, and since it's been fairly successful over the past couple of years, Ivan Cleary will have his hands full coming up with something to stop their go-forward.
On the flip side, the ingenuity of impact players James Segeyaro and Tyrone Peachey add plenty of punch to Penrith's relatively conservative opening 20 minutes of games. Des Hasler will have to be at his cunning best to nullify what can best be described as the 'tempo team' Penrith is creating itself to be.
The History: Played 92; Panthers 35, Bulldogs 54, drawn 3. The Panthers have won three of their past five, but none of them have come in the past two years. The two sides have played each other just once in each of the past two seasons, including last year's 34-14 victory to the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium, when the home side shut out the mountain men 22-0 in the second half to all but end Penrith's finals hopes in 2013.
What Are The Odds: Fresh off smashing the toothless Sharks, fans have launched into the Bulldogs who have firmed from $2.44 into $2.25 with Sportsbet.com.au. Apparently money is flowing eight to one in their favour in head-to-head betting. The Panthers have eased from $1.56 out to $1.60.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Andrew Dunemann.
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Televised: FoxSports 1 – Live 4.30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: Form-wise, Penrith's impressive road trip to Melbourne edges them just in front of their counterparts, and if you include the home-ground advantage, then it's only logical you tip Jamal Idris' new Sydney team. Panthers by 7 points.
Statistics: Champion Data.