Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Panthers v Rabbitohs
Friday, 7.30pm (AEST)
In a world where the sun rises in the east and the toilet water rotates clockwise, fourth meeting 12th would be as straightforward an outcome as they come.
Only problem is,the NRL has taken up residence on a wacky planet where perennial underachievers Penrith are your fourth-placed team and competition heavyweights South Sydney sit closer to last than first. Let us put it another way: If the semi-finals started on Friday, the Panthers would be hosting one, while the only thing the Rabbitohs would be hosting is a barbeque.
But alas, there's a reason why they say premierships aren't won in March (or April, for that matter). The next 21 weeks is about sorting out the contenders from the pretenders – it just might take a little longer than usual this season.
Penrith bounced back from an embarrassing loss to Parramatta with an insipid 12-6 win over the Raiders in soggy conditions last Saturday evening. The only notable differences between the two teams was what is looking more and more like a State of Origin-calibre Jamie Soward and an exuberant debutant in two-try hero Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Soward produced a signature flawless kicking and passing display to keep his side on the front foot for most of the game, while rookie winger DWZ overcame a nervous start to show why many consider him in the athletic ilk of Israel Folau.
Meanwhile, South Sydney finally found their mojo against their old foes in St George-Illawarra, bashing their way to a 26-6 victory and ending a worrying three-game slide that included losses to Canberra and the Wests Tigers. The Rabbitohs made full use of a 7-1 penalty count in the first half to set up a 14-0 first half lead that rendered a tired Dragons outfit helpless in the second.
But does it mean they're back? Have they finally put the Sam Burgess drama behind them? Did Maguire err in moving John Sutton out of the halves and has his return set them back on track? Or, do they succumb to a Panthers side hoping to show that they're more than a flashy new set of wheels?
That last question we find out the answer to on Friday night. As for the rest, we've got another 20 weeks to wait.
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The Souths trio of Burgess brothers – twin Tom is expected back from a foot injury in Round 8 – amassed more than 402 metres between them against the Dragons. Add in Greg Inglis' 205m gain and that's almost half the 1392m the entire team recorded that night.
It's no secret that South Sydney's strength lies in their bevy of man-monsters in the middle of the field. Knowing that is one thing, stopping them is another. Good luck.Watch Out Rabbitohs:
Jamie Soward is happy, and when Jamie Soward is happy, Jamie Soward is in good form. And when Jamie Soward is in good form... Alright, alright. An Origin return might be unlikely but that should only benefit a Panthers side who has found a fluency in their attack with Peter Wallace (two try assists), Soward (four) and a sweeping Matt Moylan (five) showing plenty of promise as a combination early in the year.
The former Dragon has also kicked two 40-20s, forced three line drop-outs, and assisted on five line breaks. No wonder he's happy.
WATCH: Soward a massive factor, says FittlerPlays To Watch:
The Panthers sucked the Raiders in with a couple of short balls to their second-rowers in their sweeping plays, before Soward found some success for his wingers by chipping over the top on the right edge and firing out what has been some impressive long balls on the left.
On the flip side, two of the Rabbitohs’ four tries came with face balls from young hookers Apisai Koroisau and Cameron McInnes to Luke Burgess and Sam Burgess respectively. With a full set of six in attack, it's South Sydney's go-to play at least one or two times a set.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 6Where It Will Be Won:
Surprise, surprise - in the middle. As was the case against the Dragons, and the Roosters in Round 1, when South Sydney's big men bully the other team's big men, they generally walk away with the two points. But when their forwards lose the ruck battle, the field position and, on occasion, their heads, then ill-discipline creeps in and a frustrating loss generally follows.What Are The Odds:
The Bunnies have been backed from $1.87 into $1.68 with Sportsbet.com.au as money has come in six to onr in their favour in head-to-head betting. The Panthers have eased from $1.93 out to $2.15. Punters are very keen on the Rabbits covering the -3.5 point line at $1.92 – money eight to one in their favour.The History:
Played 83; Penrith 36, South Sydney 45, Drawn 2. The Panthers have yet to taste victory against the Rabbitohs since Michael Maguire took over in 2012, losing their past three games against the NRL heavyweights. In their one and only clash last season, South Sydney belted Penrith 44-32 on their own turn turf, with winger Nathan Merritt grabbing a hat trick and fullback Greg Inglis breaking the line three times.Match Officials:
Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.Televised:
Channel Nine – Delayed 7.30pm (AEST).Full NRL broadcast scheduleThe Way We See It:
We had some success going with the form guide last week, having picked the Panthers by eight. So we'll be led by that again. Not since 2008 has a winning margin for either side been lower than 12 points. And with Penrith yet to back up a win this year, we'll go Rabbitohs by 13-plus.