RECENT results in the NRL have given this game a whole new edge; while most would have slated it an easy Melbourne Storm victory a few weeks ago, the reinvigoration of the Panthers and the loss of the Storm’s seemingly invincibility at home has opened up the distinct possibility of a Penrith win.
The Panthers have won back-to-back games against the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers to skyrocket up the ladder to sixth spot, while the Storm surrendered at home to the Scott Prince-deprived Titans last week to fall to eighth.
The difference between the sides might be just 11 differential points but form-wise the Panthers come into the match full of confidence, while the Storm are still trying to come to grips with attacking changes to their line-up.
Once again they have named Greg Inglis at five-eighth and Cameron Smith at hooker, with Joseph Tomane to join Will Chambers in the centres.
But don’t be surprised to see Inglis shift to centre and Smith to start at no.6 with Ryan Hinchcliffe starting at hooker, as has been the case the past two weeks.
Coach Craig Bellamy is still tinkering to find his best results and has added Sika Manu and Matt Cross to his extended bench.
Penrith have also been naming one side and starting with another in recent weeks.
They have slated Wade Graham to start at five-eighth, with Luke Lewis moving back to lock and Nathan Smith to the bench. But if Smith starts and Lewis goes to no.6 it won’t be a huge shock.
Tim Grant has been added to the bench which has five members at this stage.
Watch out Storm: Luke Lewis is in great form, slotting in all over the field and having a great time doing so. Playing as a lock/five-eighth, Lewis has been running the show for the Penrith side and had some luck over the past fortnight in particular.
He leads his side in line breaks with three, line-break assists with four and try assists with two, while he has also added a try of his own.
He is also second behind Petero Civoniceva in team offloads, so it is obvious the Storm will need to spend some extra effort containing Lewis if they want to stay on top.
Watch out Panthers: Beware the wounded Storm. The Melbourne side is one full of pride and to be beaten on their home turf last weekend would have cut deep and inspired them to lift their games.
Look for Billy Slater to add to his 107 metres gained a game average, his three line breaks, three line-break assists, two try assists and two tries. Look for Inglis to react to some criticism about his weight and game with improvement on his 127 metres a game, two line breaks, two tries and a try assist. Look for the so far very quiet Ryan Hoffman to step up from his slow start, which has seen just an average of 84 metres and just the one line-break assist.
Just look for an all-round step up in class from the home side – something the Panthers will need to expect.
Where it will be won: Cohesion, building pressure and execution. Both sides have the ability to put points on the board but both sides are yet to click convincingly in attack (although the Panthers’ final 10 minutes against the Wests Tigers was reasonably impressive).
As the cohesion isn’t fully developed, the side that shows some patience and builds pressure to ensure opportunities come up frequently will likely win the match… assuming they can execute those chances.
The frequent chopping and changing of positions in both sides could either prove brilliant or create disjointedness. The fact they have been successful over the past three seasons with similar personnel gives the Storm the edge here, although the Panthers have broken the line much more often with 19 breaks to the Storm’s 13 this year. Breaking the line against the Storm is a different proposition though; they have only conceded six line breaks all year.
The History: Played 18; Storm 12, Panthers 6. The Storm have won five of the past seven between the clubs, including four straight, and they also have a decisive 7-2 advantage over the Panthers at Olympic Park.
Conclusion: Despite the hiccup last weekend and the two impressive wins from Penrith recently the scales still tip towards the Storm here.
They rarely lose two in a row and it would be even rarer to see them lose in consecutive home games. Penrith have been gutsy to build up wins after a slow start but this is a new level of difficulty. They did, however, go to Brookvale and beat the premiers, so going to Melbourne to beat the Storm isn’t beyond them – it’s just unlikely. But what results this year have been likely?
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & David Abood; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Delayed 9.20pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.