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Panthers v Sea Eagles
CUA Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Two flashy units with plenty at stake look set to scorch the turf here: a win would elevate Penrith from borderline top-eight to the outskirts of the top four, while a loss would mire them in the battle for the finals zone.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles need a win to stay in touch with the pack of top-eight contenders; currently they’re 10th on the ladder on 12 points, two wins away from the Panthers. A loss would be severely damaging as they play the Bulldogs and Dragons following their Round 16 bye next week.

But Manly coach Des Hasler will like his chances of a win in this game, with key injuries to Michael Jennings (still out with a calf complaint suffered in Origin I) and Luke Lewis (toe, possibly for a month) depleting the Panthers’ ranks.

Both sides have played fair footy over the past month. The home side have won five of their past six, falling only to the table-topping Dragons a fortnight ago. Last round, fielding under-strength troops, they put the sword to the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt.

The Sea Eagles have won three of their past four, kick-started by a stunning upset win over the Broncos and punctuated by a heartbreaking one-point loss to the Titans in controversy. Last week they accounted for the Roosters at Brookvale Oval in a tradesman-like effort.

Watch out Panthers: Manly’s David Williams and Anthony Watmough will be out to press their Origin claims. Both are back to their devastating best, illustrated by dominant displays against the Roosters last week.

Williams scored a runaway try, gained 276 metres and made a bunch of tackle breaks, while Watmough scored a try with 17 hit-ups and nine punishing tackle busts.

Also, the Panthers can’t afford to misfire their set plays and get in front of their kickers when they go to the air and bomb (which with 46 for the year they do more than any other team). Trouble is they have conceded a whopping 13 penalties in attack (behind only the Dragons). They can’t afford to blow their chances against the Sea Eagles.

Watch out Sea Eagles: With the creativity and pace of Lewis and Jennings missing, much falls on the shoulders of the forwards to cut out mistakes and gain good field position.

While captain Petero Civoniceva has been a powerhouse as usual, back-rower Trent Waterhouse has shown he’s back to top form in 2009; he was dominant against the Wests Tigers, making 21 hit-ups for 146 metres with 41 tackles for good measure. He is an inspirational-type player whose involvement the visitors will need to snuff out early.

Elsewhere the Sea Eagles will need to watch for runs out of dummy-half: the Panthers have made six line breaks from the ruck to rank third in the NRL. Manly will especially need to be careful defending their line, where they are prone to defensive lapses; Panthers hooker Paul Aiton caught the Tigers napping when running from five metres out last week to score and won’t be afraid to try again when presented the chance.

Lastly: Manly have only won two of their six games at night this year.

Where it will be won: The kicking battle. Whichever side pulls out a better-than-average kicking game will hold a distinct advantage.

Both sides have only average stats when it comes to kicking to open space – Penrith do it 49.3 per cent of the time to the Sea Eagles’ 45.7 per cent. But alarmingly for both sides, they make the least territory (Penrith, 1676 metres, Manly 1873 metres) of all teams in the NRL.

But let’s go a few steps further: to date Manly have tallied the fewest metres (6155) on kicks in the comp, while Penrith have the second fewest (6213). Then there’s Penrith’s woeful 43 per cent kick accuracy…

Last, Penrith and manly are two of just five sides to have not kicked a 40/20 in 2009.

As you can see, whoever turns up the heat with the boot will gain an edge. Will it be the experienced Matt Orford, or the emerging talent Luke Walsh?

The History: Played 71; Sea Eagles 45, Panthers 25, drawn 1. A fairly even history with the Sea Eagles successful five of the past eight times they’ve met. But the Panthers sprung a huge surprise at Brookvale Oval in Round 3, winning 12-10.

Conclusion: Expect this to be a fast and furious game, especially given both sides’ defensive records around the ruck – to date Manly’s 273 marker tackles are the third fewest in the comp – with Penrith only marginally ahead of them with 281. Given Manly have tallied 10 more penalties in defence for the year than their opponents, chances are Matt Elliott may direct his mobile forwards to test the Sea Eagles – and the referees.

Jennings and Lewis’ absence is a huge blow for the home side and it definitely swings the pendulum towards the visiting side. But the Panthers have shown they will be competitive at all times in 2009, so tip with caution.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
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