Panthers v Warriors
Sunday, 6.30pm (AEST)
So, here we are, after a long season filled with countless controversies, an abundance of upsets (and blowouts), a handful of premature retirements (and debutants) and some ridiculous coaching miracles (and sackings), including one almighty Origin boilover, we've finally arrived at the 190th and final game of the regular season.
The bean-counters will definitely be boasting the TV audience of this one, with the fate of one – possibly two, maybe even three – teams' season resting on the outcome of this fixture.
Even the top four could be turned upside-down by the end of night, given Penrith's craving for the holy grail of a second chance, one they probably need given the novel-length list of injuries that has the team doctor working triple-overtime.Promising Panther gets in the groove
But if it isn't the physical injuries that are upsetting the mountain men on Sunday night, it might be the emotional one, given their heartbreaker against Manly last weekend that had skipper Jamie Soward the 239th marquee man spitting chips at the game's officiating.
To make matters worse, Penrith haven't walked away from a weekend's worth of work without suffering at least one casualty, with lock Adam Docker this time copping two weeks on the sidelines for a lifting tackle.
Hooker James Segeyaro returns from a two-week layoff spent grieving the passing away of his father in Papua New Guinea, with impressive back-up rake Kierran Moseley retaining a spot on the bench.
But the Panthers' desire for a top four spot is a first world problem in comparison to the Warriors, who'll have the Steeden in one hand and a calculator in preparation for this do-or-die clash.
They made mince meat of a depleted Gold Coast squad with a 42-0 beatdown in front of their agitated locals last week, but remain seven points shy of eighth-placed Brisbane's differential of +103.
It would've been better if they had carried on with the 30-0 halftime lead they had on the Titans, but they dragged themselves through the mud in the second period and will now nervously wait the outcome of Storm-Broncos, Titans-Bulldogs, and Raiders-Eels.
All in all, it makes for the mother of all climaxes before we hit finals fever next weekend, where the stakes get higher and the pain of defeat could linger through the summer.
Watch Out Panthers: After coming up with his lowest yardage count in three months against the Roosters, veteran winger Manu Vatuvei fronted up with a season-high 212 metres in their trouncing of the Titans last week. It was just the second time the big fella has cracked the double-century this season, with the other coming a month ago against the Sharks. Sunday's clash with Penrith will be his 23rd game of the season – matching his career-high mark set in 2007, and just the second time he's done so over his 11 year career.
Watch Out Warriors: For so long, commentators have enjoyed barrelling out 'Plummed' whenever prop Nigel Plum sat an opposition player back on his backside, but the under-rated frontman has put together an impressive month on the other side of the football. His 140 metres gained last week was his fourth consecutive game cracking the 100-metre mark, the first time he's achieved the feat this season. However, with Docker outed for this match, more of the onus will be on the remaining bash brother to dominate tackles with his ferocious hits.
Plays To Watch: Keep an eye on Penrith's right centre Dean Whare sneaking away to the left on attacking sets after chiming in on their regulation backline movements a handful of times against the Sea Eagles last week. While they didn't exactly come off, the shifty tweaks add to what is already a deadly play that has become a staple in the Panthers' playbook.
For the Warriors, it didn't matter which variation they took on their sweeping plays against the Titans last week – particularly in the first half, they call came off. Whether it was hitting their lead runners in Ben Henry or Dominique Peyroux, finding fullback Sam Tomkins out the back, or even Shaun Johnson running it himself, the success the Warriors had last week is sure to come under heavy review by Penrith's crew of clipboard holders this week.
Where It Will Be Won: The Warriors' ability to hold onto the ball, and Penrith's ability to offload it. The Warriors are just one of four teams to average fewer than 10 errors per game, although they do meet the competition's best team at forcing them.
On the other hand, Penrith's 11.1 offloads per game is the third most in the NRL, and their opposition this week are giving up exactly that amount – only two teams concede more.
Played 33; Penrith 17, Warriors 15, Drawn 1. Penrith's three-game winning streak over the Aucklanders was snapped in a 30-20 defeat at Mt Smart back in Round 16, when centre Konrad Hurrell blew two kisses to mamma bear as he bagged himself a double. The Panthers have in fact been quite hospitable to this week's opponents, giving away the chocolates in four of their past five meetings at the foot of the mountains. What Are The Odds:
Sportsbet punters are holding no faith in the Warriors away from home, with five times the hold on the Panthers to get the job done, and 13+ to Penrith has been backed off the map in the final game of the regular season. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Lead Referee – Shayne Hayne; Assistant Referee – Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel & Rickey MacFarlane; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 6.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: Really tough one to call this, and it got even tougher when the Panthers copped the Adam Docker ban on the chin. The James Segeyaro inclusion is huge though, and with it being a home game and the chance of a top four spot up for grabs, we pick the chocolate soldiers to get the chocolates. Penrith by seven.
*Statistics: Champion Data