It's a case of which high-flying side from this clash will miss their superstars more given their considerable Origin representations, with the Dragons minus four strike-weapons and the Panthers drained of two of theirs.
St George Illawarra (equal competition leader) will putty up the holes filled by the absence of fullback Darius Boyd to Queensland, along with dominant props Michael Weyman and Justin Poore plus the long-striding back-rower Ben Creagh to the Blues.
Meanwhile the Panthers (currently fourth after four straight wins) lose potent attacker Michael Jennings (NSW) and lead-by-example captain and chief metre-eater Petero Civoniceva (Queensland) – as well as lock Luke Lewis who has been drafted into the NSW 17 after Manly’s Glenn Stewart failed to beat his dangerous throw charge at the judiciary on Wednesday night.
In a well-thought-out reshuffle, Wayne Bennett has elevated capable Kiwi rep Jason Nightingale from the bench to wear the no.1 jersey, as well as shifted punishing defender Beau Scott from centre to the pack to make up for Creagh’s absence, with Chase Stanley to start in the centres.
Also, Jarrod Saffy’s timely return from injury sees him assume Weyman’s starting position, while Poore is covered by Dan Hunt. And with back-rower Matt Prior out with an injured hand, captain Dean Young moves from hooker, with Luke Priddis starting in no.9.
Micky Paea, Jon Green, Mat Head, Michael Lett, Trent Merrin and Nick Emmett form an extended bench.
Meanwhile Brad Tighe returns to the Panthers’ starting line-up on the wing, with Geoff Daniela pushing in to fill Jennings’ spot in the centres. Nathan Smith will line up at lock, Tim Grant substitutes for Civoniceva, while Trent Waterhouse makes a return in the second row after overcoming an eye injury. Lachlan Coote remains on an extended bench.
It’s an intriguing match-up; Wayne Bennett is the master at battling through club rounds minus a host of Origin talent. And the Dragons are at home in Wollongong. But the way Matt Elliott’s Panthers are playing – slick, committed, fast-paced footy – only a fool would discount them.
A curious sidelight, and a sign of the times, is that first-choice refs for this clash – Jared Maxwell and Bernard Sutton – have been quarantined having been exposed to Swine Flu on a domestic fight to Canberra last week. They have been replaced by Jason Robinson and Steve Lyons.
Watch out Dragons: Matthew Elliott may spring a surprise tactic in this game. Much of the Panthers’ success in recent weeks has come from clearing the ruck early and spreading the ball to Jennings. Last week they made just 12 dummy-half runs, the week before just 15.
But with the speedster missing this week, and with the inclusion of wily hooker Masada Iosefa on an extended bench, the Panthers may look to play it a lot tighter and try to make inroads from dummy-half.
This could prove extremely successful as the Dragons’ forwards will be missing some structure in defence with Weyman, Poore and Creagh on rep duty.
Also, when the Panthers do run from dummy-half they can be devastating – they have five line breaks for the year, ranking them the second-most effective side at busting the line from the ruck behind the Robbie Farah-inspired Wests Tigers.
Trent Waterhouse has been handed the captaincy for this clash. You can bet he’ll be keen for a monster game to boost his 93 metres a match and 31 tackle breaks for the year.
Watch out Panthers: Brett Morris is in scintillating form, leading the NRL tryscoring list with 10 brilliant efforts. He’s scored seven tries in his past three outings including four against North Queensland and a hat-trick last week against the Sharks. Coach Bennett calls him one of the few “true wingers” in the modern game – a huge rap.
Morris is averaging 126 metres a game (12 metres a run!), with almost four tackle breaks a game. He also busts the line at least once a game and is devastating on kick returns, averaging two a game – and with Darius Boyd missing expect the Dragons to call on him in this regard more often.
Where it will be won: Both sides will test each other up the centre and also probe for openings out wide.
The Dragons average 1420 metres a game is the benchmark in the NRL – but they’ve achieved that with solid contributions from Michael Weyman (128 metres a game), Justin Poore (116 a game) and Ben Creagh (118 metres) in the forwards – while fullback Darius Boyd has missed 100 metres a game just once (average 138 metres a game). That’s some serious territory the replacements will need to carve out.
Likewise Civoniceva and Jennings are major contributors for the Panthers with average metre gains of 145 and 96 respectively.
The Panthers in particular will miss Jennings out wide – he’s top of the NRL charts for line breaks (12).
Defence will be key – and in this department the Dragons hold the ace, having missed six tackles less a game than their opponents (22.09 compared to 28.4). That could lead to a bunch of points for the home side.
The History: Played 19; Dragons 13, Panthers 6. The Dragons have won five of the past eight, including the past four in a row. The record at WIN Stadium stands at 3-1 in favour of the red-and-whites.
Conclusion: The Dragons continue to impress with their dour but effective style. They are strangling their opponents out of contests early before looking to the creative genius of Jamie Soward to conjure points as opposition defences fatigue.
The Panthers are playing awesome footy but it remains to be seen how they will cope without both their linchpin and major attacking weapon.
Expect a big game from Dragons hooker Priddis – the club signed unwanted Warrior utility Nathan Fien for three years during the week, putting Priddis’ future solely back in his hands.
The loss of Luke Lewis is a major dampener for the Panthers; he’s been on fire for the Mountain Men in 2009 – especially since his shift to lock which coincides with the Panthers’ four-game winning run.
He’s really been Mr Versatility; he topped 100 metres gained in their wins over the Sharks and Roosters, made a whopping 10 tackle breaks against Brad Fittler’s boys.
Expect the Panthers to be competitive but it should be noted they are gunning for a fifth straight win – something they haven’t achieved since the end of 2005-early 2006.
Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Chris James; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – delayed 10.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.