Panthers v Raiders
Saturday, 5.30pm (AEDT)
Sometimes in the NRL you've just gotta shrug your shoulders, roll your eyes, and admit that it was just "one of them games".
That was certainly the out-dated rugby league cliche that Penrith coach Ivan Cleary muttered after his men was out-classed, out-enthused, and out-worked 32-16 by a determined Parramatta outfit last Saturday night.
Clearly these 2014 Eels refused to buy into the idea that their chest-pumping neighbours joined the rugby league elite this year, exposing vulnerability in the Penrith defence that hadn't been seen over the first three weeks.
And the loss has driven Cleary to make a number of changes this week, recalling embattled prop Tim Grant into his run-on side and handing 18-year-old whiz kid Dallin Watene-Zelezniak a debut on the wing for the injured David Simmons (hamstring).
In arguably Penrith's strongest team, co-captain Peter Wallace has been named to play just his second game alongside five-eighth Jamie Soward in place of Isaac John, Josh Mansour replaces Kevin Naiqama on the other wing, while Sika Manu has also been given a run-on start with Lewis Brown reassigned to the bench.
For the Raiders, last Sunday's 30-18 pummelling of the Rabbitohs was also "one of those games" - although in this case a quirky twist where everything just seemed to go right.
Undaunted by an angry and out-of-form South Sydney, the Raiders completed a match-defining 92 per cent of their sets and made just four errors for the 80 minutes.
For one game at least, the sleeping giant that is the Green Machine was at its rollicking best, with fullback Anthony Millford making the most of a starting front row combination of David Shillington and Brett White that engineered 250 metres between them.
And to think that they did it without the workload of Holden NRL Fantasy king Shaun Fensom for over half the game... you can understand why the Raiders will arrive at the foot of the mountains in a buoyant mood.
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Strategically placed at the family-friendly time of 5:30pm on what is the final day of daylight saving until next summer, the stage is set for this Heritage Round match-up where both sides will want to prove that last week's showing was more than "one of them games".
Watch Out Panthers: According to Champion Stats, you've missed a total of 129 tackles - the second most in the competition. And, as fate would have it, you come up against a side that has forced its opponents into missing almost just as many, 125 to be exact – good for fourth-best in the NRL. Put the two together and, on paper at least, it's all green lights at the foot of the mountains.
Penrith's main offenders are: Isaac John (12 missed tackles), Dean Whare (12), Adam Docker (11), Josh Mansour (11) and Jamie Soward (11).
And on the flip side, the opposition threats will be posed by Anthony Milford (22 tackle breaks), Jarrod Corker (13) and Matthew Allwood (11).
Watch Out Raiders: Consider this your lucky day. Particularly you commentator-type folk. For Saturday, April 5 marks the day you'll remember the can't-be-forgotten name of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. The Panthers have been big on this St Clair Comet since he laced up a boot as a junior. Just 18 years of age, they figure now's the time to unleash this Israel Folau-like prototype on the NRL.
At 186 centimetres and 92 kilograms, he's got it all: speed, agility and skill. And to think this outstanding athletic specimen is nowhere near done developing his body. There's no downplaying this young fella, he'll be around for a long while.
Plays To Watch: Canberra will have taken note of Penrith's soft underbelly against the Eels last week, twice conceding tries at dummy-half. Hooker Glen Buttriss isn't a noted force close to the line, but replacement substitute Josh McCrone is a goer, while distress signals need to be sounded if Terry Campese or Anthony Milford rush into acting half.
On the flipside, former Knights winger Kevin Naiqama must've brought a bookshelf of Matt Gidley DVDs to Penrith over the summer after teammate Dean Whare twice split Parramatta's left edge with a couple of Gidley-esque flick passes. After starting the season on the left, his shift back to the right in Round 2 re-united him with last year's top tryscorer in the competition, David Simmons, but the veteran flyer has been ruled out for a month with a hamstring tear so it will be young Watene-Zelezniak (or potentially Mansour) more likely to profit here.
Where It Will Be Won: After a month of footy, the Raiders have been forced to tackle their opposition inside their 20m line the second most in the NRL (307). Meanwhile, the Panthers sit second in the competition for being tackled inside the opposition 20m line (298). So if the pattern continues, this game will literally be won inside Canberra's red zone.
What Are The Odds: Off the back of their impressive road win, punters like the Raiders. For every $1 bet on the Panthers, who are currently $1.48 favourites with Sportsbet.com.au, $3 is being bet on the Raiders – who remain outsiders at $2.70.
The History: Played 64; Panthers 31, Raiders 32, drawn 1. Having split their past 12 clashes, Saturday's game presents an opportunity for Penrith to square their overall ledger against their 1990 and 1991 grand final opponents at 32 wins apiece. In fact, just 10 points separate the two clubs over the 64 games – the Panthers lead the Raiders 1,330 to 1,320. The two sides split their two games last year, winning their respective matches at home 32-10 in Penrith, and then 24-12 in Canberra.
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Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Jon Stone; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Paul Mellor.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: Tough one to pick, so we'll just follow the form guide. Penrith's reads: W-L-W-L. And Canberra's goes: L-W-L-W. Well, there you go. Tipping's not that hard, is it? Panthers to win by eight points.
*Statistics: Champion Data.