A huge game for both sides, with the table-topping Dragons not wanting to take their foot off the pedal as they cruise towards their first minor premiership since the stand-alone St George side achieved the feat in 1985.
Meanwhile Matthew Elliott’s Panthers can’t afford an exhale just yet – their good form has elevated them to fifth on the NRL ladder on 25 points, but given the eighth-placed Knights are just a point away a defeat could prove catastrophic in their bid for finals football.
The home side have rebounded strongly since their drubbing at the hands of the Rabbitohs in Round 18. They smashed the Raiders, then surprised plenty with a gutsy defeat of the Cowboys in Townsville before steaming home to grab one competition point in a thrilling 32-all draw with the Warriors at CUA Stadium last week.
The fact they trailed the out-of-sorts Warriors 32-6 with 27 minutes remaining is a worry – but the way they blitzed back into the contest can only be a positive as the side has now proven they can overcome extreme adversity. And from that comes confidence.
Importantly, star lock Luke Lewis, sidelined with a broken toe since Round 13, has been named in jersey no.19 and is expected to get good game time subject to a late fitness test.
The Dragons showed their mettle against the Storm last week, overturning a 12-4 scoreline late in the second half to accelerate away from an in-form Melbourne in the second stanza to run out comfortable 26-12 winners.
They’ve now won six in a row and would seem on track for the minor premiership, or at worst, second place after the regular rounds.
They are strengthened for this game with the return from injury of key duo, centre Matt Cooper and lock Jeremy Smith, who help form a six-man bench.
Watch out Panthers: Jamie Soward holds all the aces in the Dragons’ quest for the 2009 title. While Greg Inglis showed him up again in their rematch last week, to be fair to Soward not many men of his limited stature would stand much of a chance of dominating 195cm, 99kg Inglis in defence.
But rather than go into his shell it only served to rev up the Dragons’ playmaker. He finished the game with four try assists, two offloads and three tackle breaks, with every touch oozing class.
In particular Panthers’ left wing Shane Elford will need to be wary of being caught out when Soward opts to loop his 25-metre torpedo passes to Wendell Sailor down the right edge – he did so twice last week to gift Sailor two tries while Joseph Tomane was caught out of position standing infield from the touch line.
The difficulty for opposition defences is that Soward gives no indication he’s going to spin it wide. He just does it. And he hits his man first time, every time.
Also, Soward’s kicking game remains a pot of gold, whether it’s a cross-field bomb for his wingers, or a grubber in goal.
No side has managed to totally take Soward out of the equation in 2009. That’s the task Matt Elliott faces.
Watch out Dragons: The Panthers like to get on a roll out of dummy-half more than any team in the comp – significantly hooker Paul Aiton has run more in his past two games (94 metres v Warriors, 100 metres v Cowboys) than at any other time in 2009 and this could be a tactic coach Elliott will look to pursue against the Dragons.
With the Dragons’ defensive line so structured (only 246 points against, best in the comp by 92 points) it’s possible the Panthers will try to catch out the retreating markers and earn penalties as a means of gaining cheap metres. To counter this, the Dragons will need to up their dominant tackles (414 – third fewest in the comp).
Where it will be won: Mistakes, or lack of them. The Panthers can’t afford to be slow out of the blocks, like they have been the past two weeks, or else the Dragons will make them pay.
Penrith overcame an early 10-point deficit against the Cowboys and got the points. And last week they gave away a 26-point start and drew level.
Matt Elliott will have been drumming into his troops the importance of not missing a beat in completing their possessions – the Dragons have scored almost half of their 79 tries (39) from inside their own half – that’s 10 more than the entertaining Wests Tigers. Meanwhile The Panthers have conceded 25 tries to long-range – the sixth-most by any side.
As for handling errors, the Panthers are averaging 9.5 a game, the Dragons 6.3. If the home side is to win they’ll need to come out on the right side of that ledger here.
The History: Played 20; Panthers 6, Dragons 14. The Dragons have won six of the past eight including the past five in a row. The Panthers haven’t beaten the Dragons since a nail-biting 13-12 win in Wollongong in 2006. But the Panthers’ record at home is much better, winning 50 per cent of the 10 encounters at CUA Stadium.
Conclusion: Just how much last week’s crucial game took out of the Dragons remains to be seen. There’s no doubt Wayne Bennett’s side lifted a huge gorilla off its back and sometimes the mental letdown that follows can result in an inability to get ‘up’ for the next game. That’s not complacency, but rather an unavoidable aspect of a tough season.
Penrith will prove a formidable opponent for the premiership favourites; they are less structured than other NRL sides but their unpredictability can often pay huge dividends. They need Michael Jennings to get off to a flyer and they need to post points early – if they don’t they won’t be able to chase down the Dragons if their opponents get ahead by 10. Simple as that.
On form it’s hard to go past the Dragons.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.