THE Panthers take on the Broncos for the 40th time in premiership history this Friday night – and considering two of the past four games between the sides have gone to golden point, we could have one hell of an anniversary party.
Last season they couldn’t be separated, drawing 12-12 after 10 minutes of extra time; and while the Broncos may be sitting third on the NRL ladder, two wins above the eighth-placed Panthers, there is no reason to suggest this one won’t be just as close.
Sure Brisbane has won four of five matches this year and also been victorious in their past four away games, including a 28-24 win over the Sydney Roosters last weekend, but the Panthers were a flea’s leg away from beating Melbourne in Melbourne last Saturday night.
The 16-14 loss to the Storm came after two impressive wins, so the boys from Penrith have some form coming in and will be a tough assignment for the Broncos.
Panthers coach Matt Elliott has named Wade Graham to start at five-eighth again, although for three weeks now the youngster has started from the bench on game day with Luke Lewis reverting from lock to five-eighth in the early stages.
The same routine has been used with props Tim Grant and Matthew Bell and hookers Paul Aiton and Masada Iosefa. Either could start for the other.
Frank Puletua is the only new face in the named squad – although his inclusion is on a five-man bench, so his involvement isn’t guaranteed.
The Broncos have only made one change from the side that held off the Roosters, with Ashton Sims coming into the second row at the expense of Lagi Setu who reverts to Queensland Cup.
Watch out Panthers: Brisbane centre Steve Michaels may not attract the raps that Justin Hodges and Israel Folau get but he is proving devastating on the left side for the Broncos and will need to be closely marked by the Panthers. Michaels is averaging 100 metres a game, has four line breaks, a line-break assist, 20 tackle breaks and three tries. His form is allowing the Broncos to attack both sides of the field evenly and stops the opposition from sending more numbers to combat the Hodges/Folau combination on the right.
Watch out Broncos: The Panthers will no doubt look to exploit the Broncos’ weakness against bombs and cross-field kicks in this clash. The Brisbane boys are only defusing 57 per cent of bombs hoisted their way while they fare even worse when it comes to cross-field kicks, defusing only 50 per cent successfully. But to their credit they have only conceded four tries to kicks despite these poor figures. The Penrith halves will no doubt look to increase that number with numerous high kicks.
Where it will be won: In the wrestle. While the pace of play thanks to two referees and reduced stoppages has certainly picked up and eliminated some of the heavy defence and wrestle in the ruck we have come to expect over the past few seasons, it will be the team that dominates the tackle that will win here.
Both sides are doing particularly well at getting three men into the tackle, with Penrith having three men in the contest on 246 occasions so far this year, ranking them second behind only Melbourne, while the Broncos have managed to get numbers in the ruck 227 times to be ranked seventh in the competition.
If both sides can continue to get numbers in and dictate the pace of the game it will fall to the creativity of the halves and the outside backs – which gives the Broncos the edge. The right-side combination of Justin Hodges and Israel Folau is pure class, while the left-side combo of Steve Michaels and Antonio Winterstein is almost as prolific at this early stage of the season.
Plus with Peter Wallace, Darren Lockyer and Karmichael Hunt feeding them, they are dripping points.
The Panthers will need a mammoth effort from New South Wales hopeful Michael Jennings in the centres. If he can slice and dice his way through the Broncos’ defence, his side is half a chance.
The History: Played 39; Panthers 13, Broncos 25, drawn 1. Recent form for the Panthers has been reasonable with Brisbane winning four, the Panthers winning three and the teams sharing the points in the most recent of the past eight encounters. At CUA Stadium, Brisbane has won 10, Penrith eight and the one draw.
Conclusion: Penrith have been a much-improved team over the past three weeks but this will be another tough encounter. Usually it’s an advantage to play at home, although the Panthers’ record at CUA Stadium has included 17 losses in their past 26 games, which nullifies the home-field edge.
They will hang tough if the past few games have been any indication but the Broncos’ class might just shine through in the crucial moments. Brisbane is the safer tip but it will not be a huge surprise if the plucky Panthers pull off an upset. We could once again be headed for a grandstand finish.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm AEST; Fox Sports – delayed 11.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.