Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Panthers v Dragons
Saturday, 5.30pm (AEST)
Just like a supreme Jamie Soward 40/20, the Panthers are rolling right now – and he'll be pretty keen to continue the run against his old club when he meets them for the first time.
Truth be told, the competition's new ladder leaders weren't exactly dynamite in their 36-14 blowout on the Gold Coast last week. Penrith merely did all the little things right – and took advantage of how the Titans didn't – on their way to posting a fourth straight victory.
Before last week, the Dragons were rolling too, only down a slippery slide towards the bottom of the ladder. But when neighbours Cronulla brought their third-grade team to Wollongong for a fistfight, the game was a mere mismatch as the hosts poured on six tries to one in an overdue 30-0 shutout.
Panthers whizkid Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is named for his third game in the NRL in place of injured winger David Simmons (knee), while Cleary has reached deep into his reserves by resting banged-up lock Adam Docker and bringing in rookie Bryce Cartwright.
For the Dragons, Josh Dugan and Trent Merrin are both on Origin duty, while Brett Morris (shoulder), Dan Hunt (groin), Dylan Farrell (pec) and Kyle Stanley (hamstring) are all nursing injuries in the casualty ward.
Boom centre Charly Runciman gets his first taste of NRL this year, while Mitch Rein returns from suspension.
Note NRL Junior and Officials passes will be accepted to all Round 14 games.
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Watch Out Panthers: Dragons second-rower Joel Thompson didn't get many plaudits after last week's game, but his 144-metre outing was his best game of the year. The former Raider came out like a man possessed, posting up a season high in metres, carries and possessions. A pumped up Thompson is a sight to behold, but one that just hasn't been seen enough this season.
Watch Out Dragons: There's a reason why sidelined co-captain Kevin Kingston is wrapped in cotton wool right now, and it's because his replacement is keeping him in there. James Segeyaro has been begging for a starting gig since his move from Townsville and Kingston's injury has given Cleary a good insight. In the past four months, Segeyaro's stats read: four tries, five line breaks, six offloads, and 362 metres.
Plays To Watch: Twice Marshall sent face-balls whizzing past the nose of whichever second-rower was running the decoy line to find Dugan in support. Coach McGregor copped it good when the experiment bore no fruit a fortnight ago, but the new combination between his high-profile duo justified the move last week with three tries between them. The Dragons' new three-quarter is away on Origin duty this week, but look for Marshall to still make it his pet play.
For the home side, everyone needs to get on whatever diet second-rower Tyrone Peachey is on, because the former Shark has put together a scintillating fortnight where he's run amok on the left edge. Check out his stats over the past two weeks: 475m, three tries, three four line breaks, and one team from the Shire kicking itself as to how they let this phenom go.
Where It Will Be Won: In the forward battle. Pilloried one week earlier for an inept outing against the Rabbitohs, Marshall and Dugan rightly earned the points on the scoreboard and the ladder after the win over the Sharks. But McGregor made it distinctly clear post-game that his star duo wouldn't have been able to do the job without their under-fire forward pack. Injured prop Dan Hunt said himself that the criticism has gotten to him at stages this year, and if the big men don't back up their effort against a well-oiled Panthers machine on Saturday, then they'll be leaving their outside men out to dry.
The History: Played 28; St George Illawarra 16, Penrith 10, drawn 2. After losing six straight in a three-year span between 2006-09, the Panthers have since won four of the past five, including the past three. Of interest: Soward was part of the Dragons side that was shut out 19-0 on its own turf by the Panthers in Round 11 last year, but wasn't there for the re-match because he was dropped one week later.
What Are The Odds: A whopping 87 per cent of money is on Panthers in head to head betting with Sportsbet.com.au, with the Panthers firming from $1.33 into $1.28. The Dragons have drifted from $3.44 to $3.55.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Rickey MacFarlane; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 5.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The Dragons got some much-needed confidence against a severely under-manned Sharks outfit last week, but the assignment of a red-hot Panthers side in front of an anticipated full house on the road – without their best forward and back – will be just too much for them. Panthers by 12 points.