Do the 2009 Panthers have the instincts to go for the kill when the situation presents itself? We are about to find out.
Penrith have surprised the pundits who were predicting they would fall out of the finals zone before season’s end, moving up to sixth spot in the NRL ladder after beating the Cowboys last week. But it is this match at home that will give a better indication of their desire.
They have the perfect chance here to well and truly kill off one of the contenders, albeit the Warriors are pretty much dead and buried already, in a game they are expected to win.
If they do so, in impressive fashion, then all and sundry will sit up and take notice – despite their injury worries. But if they can’t, and if they allow a struggling Warriors unit to get the better of them, you can expect their premiership odds to drift significantly.
The Warriors pretty much put up the white flag of surrender last weekend with a 29-4 loss to St George Illawarra. They sit in 13th spot on the NRL ladder, five competition points out of eighth place, and while a six-game run would get them to 29 points and give them some hope of qualifying for finals football it is about as likely as Barack Obama offering his job back to George Bush.
Instead, this side is now playing for pride and pride alone. Centre Jerome Ropati is back this week with Patrick Ah Van missing out. Captain Steve Price will also miss the match; his place at prop will be taken by Russell Packer.
Jacob Lillyman has earned his starting spot back at the expense of Ben Matulino, while Jesse Royal won’t travel over to Penrith, his place on the bench taken by Evarn Tuimavave.
Lewis Brown is the final new face on the bench.
For the home side, Shane Elford and Frank Pritchard have been named on an extended bench to possibly return from injury, with the only other change being Wade Graham selected to start at five-eighth with Maurice Blair to start from the bench.
The pair had a late switch last weekend; this could repeat here.
Watch out Panthers: The Penrith wingers are good players in their own right, with Michael Gordon being a top finisher and point-scorer and young Junior Tia Kilifi showing some great promise. But the Warriors still boast ‘The Beast’ Manu Vatuvei out on their wing. Vatuvei is hungry for blood and wants to make up for a disjointed season with a big finish to springboard him towards the end-of-season four nations.
The man mountain averages 134 metres a match, has seven line breaks and eight tries and has also busted 57 tackles. If the ball doesn’t get to Manu, look for Manu to search for the ball.
Watch out Warriors: Penrith fullback Jarrod Sammut is in sensational form. He could prove a real X-factor in the finals should the Panthers find a place in the top eight. He was tremendous against the Cowboys last weekend, seemingly beating the first tackle every time he ran the football. While he still has a few errors in his game the youngster is an excitement machine, the type of player you pay good money to see.
The Warriors have to take him on with numbers or they too will feel his wrath. So far this season Sammut has six line breaks and four tries but it’s his 44 tackle busts which are beginning to get the attention of opposition coaches.
It is a bit of a ‘Catch 22’ for the Warriors. It makes sense to kick the ball to Sammut and hope for a mistake, but if he gets the ball cleanly he can be very difficult to contain.
Where it will be won: While a strong defensive display would guarantee a win in this match it doesn’t appear likely either team will provide one, so it will come down to taking attacking chances as they arise.
For some reason the Panthers historically get into high-scoring shoot-outs with the Warriors and one gets the feeling this could continue. In terms of converting line breaks into tries the Panthers have a small edge on the Warriors so far in 2009. While the two teams have almost the same amount of busts (the Panthers 79 for the year, the Warriors 76) this season Penrith are converting 34 per cent of these directly into tries, while the Warriors are making the most of just 30 per cent.
With attack set to be the key, the battle of the halves is also crucial. Stacey Jones needs to lift his game and young pivot Isaac John needs to grab a game by the scruff of the neck to prove his worth in the top grade.
Penrith duo Luke Walsh and Wade Graham need to keep the attacking magic flowing but also need to toughen up in defence with both guys still having the odd issue.
The History: Played 23; Panthers 13, Warriors 10. The Warriors have won four of the past six between the two teams but the Panthers hold a 7-4 advantage at CUA Stadium. Expect plenty of points to be scored: in the past seven games the average total points has exceeded 57, showing defence hasn’t been the priority.
Conclusion: Penrith is the sane tip. They have it all to play for and they are at home against a team who have been a major disappointment this season.
The Warriors can be good on their day but they appear to be playing without motivation and this can be a real killer to your chances.
The Panthers should win by 20 – and it’s likely they’ll post at least 40 points on the scoreboard.
Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Ricky McFarlane; Video Ref – Russell Smith.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.