Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Panthers v Knights
Ivan Cleary is clearly working his magic with the Panthers, just as he did with the Warriors before leaving that club at the end of 2011. Cleary is still working on getting the playing roster that he wants, and there will be further significant changes at the end of this season, but most of the many new players the club either bought at the end of last season or brought up through their junior ranks are performing well.
Cleary has introduced an attacking structure and a defensive pattern that he wants the players to stick by, and after it inevitably took a while for everyone to get on the same page, the Panthers are now at the stage where they have settled into a groove and become consistent. Even when they are a bit off their game, like they were against the Eels last week, their processes stand them in good stead.
The Panthers beat the Eels 17-10, making it three wins on the trot after beating the Dragons (25-10) and Titans (40-18). After losing six of their first eight games, they have won six of their past eight, and their 8-8 record has them in seventh place, on 20 points. Plus, they have a healthy points for-and-against differential of plus-65, which could be very important after 26 rounds in a competition that is very congested mid-table.
The Knights are in sixth place, also on 20 points with an 8-8 record. Their differential is plus-77 points. But things can change dramatically for either of these teams with even one loss, because the teams running from eighth to 10th (Bulldogs, Titans and Raiders) are each on 20 points as well, and the 11th-placed and in-form Warriors are on 18.
The Knights won three of their first four games and five of their first seven. They then lost six of their next seven, but have steadied the ship with wins over the Titans (46-16) and Bulldogs (18-12) at their past two starts. They beat the Panthers 8-6 at home in Round 6. It is obviously quite possible both of these teams could make the finals, but it would be a surprise to most people if they did both get there. So, when they are playing each other, the result becomes critically important.
Second-rower Matt Robinson and prop Nigel Plum are out for the Panthers, replaced by Lewis Brown and Mose Masoe, who have both been promoted from the bench. Jeremy Latimore and Ryan Simpkins are the new bench players.
In a boost for the Knights, second-rower Beau Scott is back, with Chris Houston dropping to what is a five-man bench.
Watch Out Panthers: Jarrod Mullen gets most of the publicity when it comes to the Knights' halves, but Tyrone Roberts is doing a great job. Roberts has come up with six line-breaks, 11 offloads and four tries this season. He has got a terrific passing game and when he runs the ball he can be very hard to tackle. The Mullen-Roberts partnership is giving the Knights the consistency in the halves that they previously lacked.
Watch Out Knights: The Panthers are killing it out wide. David Simmons, on the right wing, has scored 15 tries in 16 games, and James Roberts, on the left, has scored four from four. Simmons is a great finisher and Roberts has extraordinary natural talent. And halfback Luke Walsh knows how to get the ball moving quickly towards them, either through the hands or off the boot.
Plays To Watch: The double act of Kevin Kingston starting at hooker for the Panthers and James Segeyaro coming on later, but with Kingston then moving to the back row rather than going off, is killing opposing teams. Tired opposition forwards are getting sick of Kingston and Segeyaro taking off and slipping under their guard.
Knights centre Joseph Leilua can be a little quiet at times, but when he is on his game he is dangerous and he is getting more and more used to how the Knights' halves play the game. Leilua has six line-breaks and five tries in eight games.
Key Match-Up: Matthew Moylan is a nine-game rookie for the Panthers. Darius Boyd is a premiership winner at the Dragons and a State of Origin and Test veteran. They are each going to provide highlights playing at fullback in this game. Both teams defend fairly well, so whatever Moylan and Boyd can get in terms of extra metres returning the ball from kicks will be important.
Where It Will Be Won: Whenever these teams have won this season, their big men have made a significant impact.
The Knights look to props Willie Mason and Kade Snowden to help carve the way through. The Panthers have been getting great value out of Tim Grant and Plum, with Sam McKendry being out. But now Plum is out for this game, leaving Mose Masoe to start in the front row with Grant. It's going to be a thunderous and meaningful collision of forces up front.
The History: Played 37: Knights 21, Panthers 13, drawn 3. The Knights have won seven of the past 10, including the past four. The Knights have won two of the past three at this venue.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Shane Rehm; Video referees – Luke Phillips & Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Panthers v Knights clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 2pm.
The Way We See It: The Panthers are down on forward strength, but playing at home against a Knights outfit that has been disappointing at times on the road, and with Luke Walsh in great form at halfback, they can still come out on top as long as they stick to the approach that has served them so well this season. Panthers by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.