William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent, NRL.com
Panthers v Storm
For the second straight week the Panthers take on a side in fifth spot on the NRL ladder and eyeing off their place in the top four.
They dealt with the previous challenger by only the slimmest of margins courtesy of a Matt Moylan field goal that downed the Cowboys 23-22 on Monday night.
The win was not only Penrith’s third in a row but cemented the side as mathematical certainties to return to finals football for the first time since 2010.
Funnily enough a field goal in the dying moments was precisely what sealed their fate earlier this year when they travelled to Melbourne in Round 2, with Cooper Cronk proving the hero for the Storm on that day.
With four wins from their past five games, Melbourne are looking ominous at the back end of the season and found themselves back on the winner’s list last Saturday with their biggest win of the season, and in their history over Cronulla, by 44 points.
With seven different try-scorers for a total of nine four-pointers, the Storm played a near-perfect game albeit against bottom-placed opposition.
Therefore it is no surprise they head into this week unchanged, looking to keep the pressure of a top four finish right on the home side.
The Panthers also have named an unchanged line-up but coach Ivan Cleary’s cut-and-paste job is likely due to the short 24-hour turnaround between last round and Team List Tuesday. Severe doubts surround James Segeyaro after twisting his ankle in the second half of Monday night’s win over the Cowboys and his fitness will be one to watch.
Watch Out Panthers: Storm scoring machine – Five weeks ago the Melbourne Storm ranked 9th for points scored, now they sit 5th overall on the back of a blistering month where they have averaged 32.8 points per game and a lowest score over the stretch of 28 points. Sisa Waqa has led the way, the Fijian Flyer crossing for six tries in the last three games to sit second on the NRL try scorers table with 17 for the season.
Can’t score against Storm – Earlier this season the Panthers recorded their highest score against Melbourne in seven years, a miserly 17 points. You have to go back to Round 6, 2007 for the last time the Panthers put at least 20 points on the Storm.
Watch Out Storm: Scintillating Soward – Jamie was at his brilliant best against the Cowboys on Monday night, scoring two tries of his own with some dazzling footwork and setting up the Panthers’ other two scores. He even put in the grubber kick to set up the goal line drop out that resulted in the winning Moylan field goal. The Panthers have asked a lot of their playmaker over the past few weeks following injuries to other key players, and he is certainly delivering.
Home, sweet home – With eight wins and two losses at Sportingbet Stadium this season, this will be the Panthers’ first year with a winning record at home since 2010. It has been a long time since their fans have been able to enjoy sustained success and the Storm best be prepared for a hostile welcome on Monday night.
Plays to Watch: Right side, strong side – Will Chambers and Sisa Waqa have combined for nine tries and an average of 283 metres in their past three games. Bromwich in beast mode – A man of the match performance last week with 178 metres in the first half alone. Soward – will he bring his own football to the game again? With two tries, two assists and 526 kick metres last round he may well try to.
Where It Will be Won: Defence – Conceding an average of five fewer points per game this season than last, the Panthers are ranked 4th best for defence in the NRL. Melbourne have been a team known for its staunch defence under coach Craig Bellamy, ranked in the top three for fewest points conceded in every season since 2004. It has been obvious that dominance has waned this season but the Storm appear to have steadied the ship, restricting their opponents to single digit scores in four of their past six games. Whichever team brings their defensive attitude for the full 80 minutes will be in the box seat to win this one.
The History: Played 27; Panthers 7, Storm 20. Twelve of the last 13 meetings have fallen the way of the Storm but the Panthers took the chocolates in Penrith last year and fell short by just one point in Round 2 down in Melbourne.
What are the Odds:
People keep writing off the Panthers, but Sportsbet punters aren’t – there’s been more support for the home side ($2.55) to beat the Storm than there has been for Craig Bellamy’s men ($1.52). Penrith’s 5.5 start is proving to be a hit with punters as well. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee - Ben Cummins; Assistant – Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Brett Suttor & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Steve Folkes
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: This should be a cracking contest with the Panthers looking to further prove they belong among the competition’s best when it matters most. The Storm are in some hot form of their own but having just fallen over the line in Round 2, Penrith should return the favour on Monday night. Panthers 22-20.