William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent, NRL.com
Storm v Panthers
Both with winning starts to their 2014 campaigns, the Panthers travel to Melbourne for Members' Round looking to return home with two competition points for the first time since 2005.
Penrith put on a blistering second-half display that saw them pile on 24 unanswered points on the way to a comfortable 30-8 victory over Newcastle.
On the Storm front, at 20 points down against a rampaging Sea Eagles outfit, critics were ready to put a red line through the boys from the southern state.
However in a memorable second half Craig Bellamy’s side emphatically answered those critics, as Cameron Smith slotted through the golden-point drop goal to cap off a thrilling 23-22 win.
Penrith narrowly defeated the Storm (12-10 at home) in their only 2013 meeting, snapping a run that spanned eight years and 11 straight defeats against Melbourne.
Last week’s win also showcased promising Panther debuts for Peter Wallace (67 touches, 16 tackles), Jamie Soward (30 and 10) and Elijah Taylor (42 tackles).
Yes, Ivan Cleary’s side beat up on a depleted Knights team but there were significant improvements - most notably to their kicking game.
The Panthers booted more metres than any other team in Round 1 – an indication of the impact Jamie Soward will have in the No.6.
Meanwhile the Storm's makeshift halves pairing in promising youngster Ben Hampton and new recruit Ben Roberts shook of a nervy first half to play a key role in orchestrating the comeback at Brookvale.
In an added boost, star halfback Cooper Cronk returns to the side from shoulder surgery. Hampton has kept his spot in the side while Roberts is the unlucky half to be relegated to the reserves bench.
Penrith have named an unchanged line-up to last week’s side, with the recuperating Jamal Idris kept in cotton wool for another week.
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Watch Out Storm: This Panther team isn’t the same one that the Storm have beat up on for almost a decade (11 wins from 12 at an average winning margin of 17.5 points). Indeed, off-season recruiting now sees the Panthers boast a host of former NSW Origin players. Peter Wallace, Jamie Soward and Brent Kite bring with them almost 600 games of NRL experience, 16 Origin games and 23 Tests. Ask any coach and they will tell you first-grade experience is gold – the Panthers now have that in bars.
Panthers' right-side winger Josh Mansour had a monster Round 1 - leading his team with 155 metres and two tries. Mansour’s first try was a real spectacle, breaking three tackles before dragging two Knights players on his back as he reached the line. Mansour was in the groove last week; whether it will be a similar story at AAMI Park remains to be seen. However the 23-year-old looks set for a big 2014 season.
Watch Out Panthers: Penrith could not have been assigned a worse time to travel to Melbourne: the Storm will be riding high following their win over Manly and the re-signing of skipper Cameron Smith for a further four-years. The champion hooker will take to the field for the 263rd time and in doing so will also overtake Matt Geyer as the club’s games record holder. As if that weren't enough, it is Billy Slater’s 250th so you can be sure emotions will be running high at AAMI Park. Penrith better be ready, as the Storm will be doing all it can to ensure their champions enjoy the milestone occasion in a winning fashion.
The statistics are in the Storm’s favour - defensively Penrith conceded on average almost seven points more than the Storm per game in 2013 while the Storm’s missed tackle count of 14 against Manly last week was the lowest of any club in Round 1. The Panthers also ranked a lowly fifth worst for missed tackles last season. Given their opponents led the way for metres gained and ranked third for points scored, Ivan Cleary will be desperate for an defensive effort from his side – otherwise it could play right into the Storm’s strength of scoring… and scoring quickly.
Plays To Watch: Like a conductor leading an orchestra, Cameron Smith will become the club’s games record holder on Saturday, securing his legacy as a one-club legend; Josh Mansour could be in for a break-out 2013 – two barnstorming tries last week to go with numerous tackle busts would have grabbed Craig Bellamy’s attention.
Where It Will Be Won: The forwards battle – gaining metres by foot and also ensuring they hold onto the football will be crucial. A pivotal match-up looms between Jesse Bromwich and Brent Kite in the props while Elijah Taylor, who had an impressive club debut last week, will be tested against the experience of Ryan Hoffman in the No. 12. Both sides have good kicking games and try-scorers; the arm wrestle in the forwards will be the key in dictating the direction of the contest.
The History: Played 26; Storm 19, Panthers 7. Penrith narrowly came out on top last time these two teams meet in Round 9 last season. However, prior to this the Storm had won the past 11 meetings between the two sides.
What Are The Odds: Punters are tipping the Storm juggernaut will roll on this weekend, with money flooding in four to one in their favour against the Panthers ($3.50) at home, according to Sportsbet.com.au. The Storm winning big is also on the cards according to punters, with Melbourne winning by 13 or more points backed into $2.10!
Match Officials: Referees - Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials - Paul Holland & Adam Reid; Video Referees - Steve Chiddy & Paul Mellor.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: On a night when their captain breaks the club's games record and their star fullback plays his 250th, Melbourne have too strong a culture to give the Panthers a sniff at spoiling the party. The home side by 12 points.
*Statistics: Champion Data.
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