Dan Walsh, Staff Writer, NRL.com
Roosters v Panthers
These two sides have spent most of 2014 at polar opposites in terms of the levels of expectation surrounding them, and they'll head into what's shaping up as a pearler of a Round 19 clash at Allianz Stadium in much the same fashion.
The Roosters' year began with all the anticipation of a royal wedding, being lorded up as the first to go back-to-back titles since the Broncos in '92-'93, only to find out just how hard that is to do as opposition outfits puff out their chests and back themselves to ruffle the premiers' feathers week-in, week-out.
More often than not the Chooks have held their own and come out on top, they are sitting 5th and not 15th on the table, but their last-start supporting role in Cronulla's latest epic comeback was a clear indication this is not the Tricolours of 2013 vintage, and based on that insipid second-half showing they've got a ways to go before they get back to that level.
Coach Trent Robinson will no doubt have rammed this home during the Roosters' second bye week of the year, when the latte-sippers packed up the coffee cart for a four-day camp on the Central Coast. The expectation around Roosters HQ is they'll roll back into town refreshed, focused and ready to suit up for a clash with the Panthers they need to jag two competition points from in order to avoid falling back into the thick of the mid-table traffic.
They'll do so with a re-jigged backline due to injuries to rep stars Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Daniel Tupou and Michael Jennings, with Brendan Elliot and Nene MacDonald getting starts on the flanks, while Queenslander Aidan Guerra also makes a welcome return to the Chooks' starting pack after Origin.
The Panthers by way of contrast have slipped in through the cat flap in the back door (Jamal got stuck and had to use the window) to occupy second spot on the NRL ladder behind Manly on points differential only. And despite doing so, and having been a top eight regular for all bar one week back in April, the mountain men will again come slinking into this fixture as rank outsiders.
Battered, bruised and on a five-day turn-around from Monday night's thrilling one-point win over the Broncos, Ivan Cleary has scrounged around the foot of the Blue Mountains for a five-eighth and some other essential items in naming his side for their trip to the East.
With first-choice pivot Jamie Soward switching into the injured Peter Wallace's No.7 jumper, and second- and third-stringers Isaac John and Tyrone Peachey also set for extended visits to the casualty ward, Cleary has thrust Monday's miracle man Matt Moylan (say that five times fast) into the frontline for the Panthers date with the premiers.
The 23-year-old's spot at the back will be filled by fellow whiz-kid Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, creating a Panther's spine rich in potential but a touch light on in experience, and ensuring the lion's share of playmaking duties will land on Soward's plate. Wingman Josh Mansour has also been named but remains under plenty of doubt having limped from the field early on against Brisbane with an ankle injury, with Isaah Yeo on standby.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 19
Watch Out Roosters: Boyd Cordner is playing like a man making up for lost time since returning from his syndesmosis injury a few weeks back, though it's not like he was just sitting out on the Chooks left edge twiddling his thumbs in the first half of 2014 in any case. Fresh off the back of being one of NSW's best in Origin III, the Old Bar Pirates product has already crossed for six tries in his 11 games this year, behind only Simon Mannering and Matt Gillett (seven each) for four-pointers scored from second row, while also averaging a tick over 26 tackles and 108 metres a game. Given he'll be lining up on Jamie Soward (46 misses and a tackle efficiency of under 70 per cent) expect Cordner to be given plenty of opportunities to add to that try tally of his.
Watch Out Panthers: As dangerous as the dodgy lollies from which his nickname is derived, James 'Chico' Segeyaro has been a revelation for the Chocolate Soldiers since shifting into the starting side, with the Panthers averaging almost 30 points in the seven games Segeyaro has started, compared to 17.6 with the Papua New Guinean coming off the bench earlier in the year. His nine line breaks out of acting half are double the next best effort from a hooker in the competition, and the Roosters ruck defence will need to be on constant alert to Segeyaro's sniping, given he has also taken the third most dummy-half runs (110) in the competition, behind only Origin rakes Robbie Farah and Cam Smith.
Plays To Watch: Jamie Soward consistently chipping into the backfield after having so much success against the Broncos; the Chooks fleet of foot outside men, particularly Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to venture infield given the success they had splitting the Sharks' ruck defence in their last outing; an Adam Docker bell ringer you can set your watch to late in the game having crunched the Tigers' Mitch Moses and Brisbane's Jake Granville in successive weeks; and if it's not Cordner glued to Mitch Pearce's hip on the left edge it'll be Mitchell Aubusson looking to cash in on their halfback's average of a line break assist per game and two try assists every three.
Where It Will Be Won: Edge defence. Both these outfits possess oodles of firepower out wide, and the likes of Cordner, Sonny Bill Williams, Dean Whare and the world's biggest human Jamal Idris will have spent all week eyeing the opposition's little men – James Maloney and Mitch Pearce for the Chooks and the Panthers' Jamie Soward and the untried in the front line Matt Moylan – like they're a free meal. Whichever halves pairing can turn in a stronger defensive effort and keep a leash on the monsters they line up against will then likely turn around and let their own behemoth's loose to devastating effect.
The History: Played: 81; Roosters 50, Panthers 30, drawn 1. On the face of it there's been but a bee's appendage between these sides over the past five years; the ledger sits at four apiece, and the Panthers have crossed for 172 points, just trumping the Chooks' 168. But just like emails from 'Nigerian princes', you can't always trust the numbers, as these two outfits have been trading blow-out score lines for the past half a decade, averaging a 23-point margin, with the Roosters cantering away to 30-6, and 42-6 in their two clashes in 2013.
What Are The Odds:
Roosters ($1.25) are red-hot favourites but according to Sportsbet, nearly double the investment is on the Panthers ($4), perhaps because of their huge price for a team on top of the ladder. Panthers 1-12 is the popular margin with punters. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Touch Judges – Dan Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 3pm.
How We See It: The Panthers showed on Monday against the Broncos they're not ones to let a few injuries faze them, so even without a few key foot soldiers the boys from Penrith will put up enough fight to ensure the Roosters single afternoon fixture on home turf for 2014 is a humdinger. But with the visitors' untried halves pairing and the Roosters edge men Cordner and SBW primed for a first class showing, we can't go past the Chooks to re-ignite their premiership defence, though it'll be closer than the bookies are predicting. Roosters by four points.