Arguably no other game this round holds more importance from the point of view of the premiership chances of both sides competing, with the Panthers clinging to fifth spot just one competition point ahead of five sides – including the Broncos who are languishing in 10th position due to their woeful points differential.
With just two points separating eight sides from fifth to 12th, neither of these outfits can afford to put in anything less than total commitment or their 2009 season may well be over.
The Broncos managed to arrest their fall of the past month with an at times snappy 30-10 win over the Sharks last Monday. But a win against the wooden spoon co-favourites is hardly reason for great joy. Still, having conceded 134 points in their past three games and scoring just 30 points, it’s a start.
Peter Wallace rejoining the side at halfback last week made a huge difference and coach Ivan Henjak will be looking for even greater authority from his no.7 up against Luke Walsh.
The Panthers may have succumbed to the Dragons 25-6 at home last week but they would have lost few admirers. Momentum shifts at crucial stages cost them their chance but they did manage 1390 metres against the competition leaders, up from their average 1324 metres, and caused the Dragons headaches up the centre of the park.
Their only personnel change this week is Junior Tia Kilifi, in for injured winger Shane Elford, while Luke Lewis assumes the starting lock spot with Nathan Smith slotting back to the bench. Tim Grant and Adam Woolnough make up an extended bench of six.
Watch out Broncos: The Panthers don’t always play a structured style of football and often break with convention. While that is often a source of frustration for coach Matt Elliott, it does have its benefit as opposition sides struggle to adapt to their off-the-cuff tactics.
The Dragons were caught out around the ruck several times last week, with hooker Paul Aiton taking charge from dummy-half and either running himself or finding a willing and enthusiastic ball-runner.
And expect the Panthers to execute good last-tackle options this week, having gone to ground with the ball on the fifth tackle on four separate occasions.
Individual-wise the impact Luke Lewis made last week on his return from a toe injury was telling. Lewis is a wonderfully deceptive playmaker who can leave even good defences in two minds, opening up options for his speed men like Michael Jennings and Brad Tighe out wide. The Broncos really need to be careful when the Panthers build pressure inside their 20-metre zone.
Watch out Panthers: Darren Lockyer needs to lift if the Broncos are to push deep into finals football. If that is to eventuate expect Lockyer to pull out a banner game here.
While the Aussie skipper is missing more tackles than he’d like (average 4.375 this season or 5.25 from his past eight games since Round 9) he knows his spark is the key to getting his partly inexperienced outside backs including Antonio Winterstein, Jharal Yow Yeh and Alex Glenn firing. It will lift Karmichael Hunt and Justin Hodges, too.
The Panthers’ defence needs to be careful not to rush up too quickly or Lockyer will shift the point of the attack down the short side or else prop and feed to a runner close off his hip – two of his trademark plays.
The Panthers need to contain Souths-bound Dave Taylor, who is in the form of his (young) life. Last week the 21-year-old was unstoppable as he carved the Sharks up out wide. Taylor showed what a damaging weapon he is with seven tackle breaks, a line break, an offload, 112 metres and a try in 68 minutes – his most game time ever for the Broncos.
Where it will be won: The first 40 minutes. The Broncos are still shell-shocked from their dismal past month of football while the Panthers have shown an alarming inability to register on the scoreboard early.
The Panthers trailed the Cowboys 10-0 after 33 minutes (but still won) in Round 20, the Warriors 32-6 after 51 minutes (and managed a draw) in Round 21 and trailed the Dragons 12-0 after 36 minutes. If they continue to trail sides it’s just a matter of time before their premiership bid ends, either before or in the semi-finals.
Also, Penrith needs to maximise their chances of points by ensuring they don’t give away any penalties in attack – to date they have conceded 16, the second-most by any side. What this means is they are failing to stay behind the kicker on the chases and they are struggling to execute their dummy-runner options. Expect them to be better drilled now we are at the business end of proceedings.
The history: Played 40; Broncos 26, Panthers 13, drawn 1. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes although the Broncos gave the Panthers a touch-up in their 38-18 win at CUA Stadium in Round 6. The Broncos hold a 6-4 advantage at Suncorp Stadium.
Conclusion: The jury is out on the Broncos, even at home. A 20-point victory over the injury-riddled Sharks isn’t a great barometer of how they are travelling.
Meanwhile the Panthers blew a host of chances but showed great enthusiasm, both in attack and defence, to compete with the Dragons last week.
Usually you’d lean towards the home side in this sort of encounter. But sorry Broncos’ fans: in this instance we can’t. Expect the worst.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Morris Morris; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 7.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.