After last week’s humiliation to the Broncos in Brisbane, Penrith need a win here to keep their finals hopes alive. Their for-and-against took a savage battering up at Suncorp – not to mention their confidence – and they must knock over the gallant Souths to stay in the race.
This will be easier said than done– even though most have now written them off, the Rabbitohs still believe they can sneak into the top eight. South Sydney have fought hard in recent weeks and if they can topple the Panthers, then perhaps a glimmer of hope will remain.
But whether or not they’re a realistic chance, Penrith could not have picked a worse opponent to come up against than Souths. The Rabbitohs are playing with heart and flair, and have proved to be one of the hardest teams to beat in recent weeks.
In planning during the week Penrith coach Matt Elliott would have only played back the tape from his side’s first half against the Broncos, where they were on top and playing to their capabilities. He would have pressed stop as soon as the second half ticked over – for that’s when the mountain men began to leak a point a minute until fulltime.
Penrith deserve to be in the finals and they should win this match, but they’ve got a hell of a fight on their hands.
Watch out Panthers: Souths fullback Nathan Merritt has been in outstanding form this year and has made nine line breaks (4th for fullbacks in the NRL) from the back. He’s also scored eight tries and has a great knack of finding his way across the line. Watch for Merritt up the middle of the field, chasing a kick or running off a John Sutton inside ball.
With 18, Sutton has more line-break assists than any other five eighth in the competition and if Penrith’s middle isn’t tight, Souths will penetrate. Sutton will run to the line often and has broken 47 tackles this year – the third most of any no. 6.
Sutton is the general, Merritt is his weapon.
Watch out Rabbitohs: Frank Pritchard’s form in the first half last week was outstanding – and coach Elliott and the Panthers fans need ‘Frank the Tank’ to sustain his rampaging runs over 80 minutes of football.
When playing well, Pritchard is the most dangerous wide-running back-rower in the competition. He’ll roam out on the left edge and when he gets some speed up he is impossible to stop.
Last week against Brisbane, in a losing side, he made a line break, three tackle breaks, got away two offloads and ran 85 metres from just five runs. In just nine matches this year he’s made five line breaks, four line-break assists, 16 tackle breaks and has a try assist.
Where the game will be won: This match will prove to be a true battle of the halves. It pitches the cool head of Luke Walsh and the young skills of Wade Graham up against the enigmatic Chris Sandow and the deadly John Sutton.
The Sandow-Sutton combination appears to have plenty of runs on the board. Souths’ attack has produced 65 try assists this season to the Panthers’ 51, while the Bunnies have seven line-break assists and Penrith haven’t had one for the entire season.
Walsh has been doing a solid job for Elliott at halfback, but close to the line, perhaps he needs to come up with some better options to get more points on the board for his side.
Sutton and to a lesser extent Sandow have used their outside men well; Walsh and Graham now need to follow that lead and get their support players across the stripe.
However, the Panthers should hold a distinct advantage out wide in the centres. Up until this week, Rabbitohs three-quarter Beau Champion had arguably been the form centre in the game, but he’s gone for the rest of the season now with a broken knuckle. Champion had 13 line breaks and 11 tries and he will be sorely missed. Josh Morris from the Bulldogs and Michael Jennings from Penrith are the only other two centres in the NRL who have looked more likely than Champion.
Unfortunately for Souths, Michael Jennings is playing. The NSW debutant has effortlessly posted 16 tries this season and made 19 line breaks on his edge of the field. The Penrith halves should be conscious of getting Jennings as much early ball has possible.
If Penrith think they can win this game simply by outscoring their opposition, they should think again. Defence is going to be crucial. Souths has made defence their trademark in recent weeks – particularly on their goal line – and they have notched 78 try-saving tackles. Penrith has just 48, reflective of their showing against the Broncos last week where they missed 60 tackles and leaked 58 points. If Penrith shape up in defence they can get home at CUA Stadium.
The history: These two teams have played 67 times, with the Rabbitohs having the better record with 37 wins to Penrith’s 29, with one draw. At CUA Stadium, it’s more even but Souths still hold a 16-15 advantage, with one draw.
Conclusion: Penrith currently sits on 25 competition points – a point outside the top eight. Parramatta is equal with them on points; however, the worry for them is they have slipped behind the Eels on for-and-against.
A win is crucial for the Mountain Men, but so is maintaining a healthy balance on the scoreboard. Ideal for them would be to wrap up this game early and then try to pile some points on towards the end.
A loss here would surely spell the end for both sides – it’s do or die out west!
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Gavin Reynolds & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Television: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.