The NRL couldn’t really have scripted this match much better. One game… one result… one team into the finals… the other gearing up for ‘Mad Monday’ – and all happening on a Sunday afternoon in league-mad Newcastle.
When the Knights and the Panthers run out onto EnergyAustralia Stadium there will be no room for any excuses, no room for any complacency, no room for anything but a full-blown, leave-nothing-behind, mammoth performance.
The Panthers will finish eighth if they can muster a win… but if they cannot, their season is over.
The Knights, currently eighth, could finish sixth with a win (even fifth with some very unlikely large scores) but a loss would pull the curtain on their year also.
In other words, this is for all the marbles. Both sides come into the match with losing form; the Panthers were destroyed by Parramatta last Friday while the Knights were humbled by Canberra last Monday.
Penrith therefore have the luxury of more time to prepare for the match – but the Knights have the advantage of a home field which will no doubt be packed to the rafters for the annual ‘Old Boys’ reunion.
The home side will be without ‘punch-happy’ Ben Rogers who accepted a guilty plea for his fight with Canberra’s Daniel Vidot on Monday night; his place will be taken by the skilful Scott Dureau.
Cory Paterson has been named as an 18th man on the bench.
The Panthers have also kept a similar side to last weekend; however Tim Grant and Nathan Smith have been added to a reserves list of six.
Once again Matthew Bell and Paul Aiton have been named to start, although they have been replaced by bench players Adam Woolnough and Maurice Blair before kick-off in recent weeks.
Watch out Knights: The attacking kicks will come… and come often. The Knights have conceded 26 tries from the boot this year, the second most in the NRL, and Luke Walsh, a former Knight, knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Newcastle back three.
Look for the Panthers to put plenty of grubbers in behind the line and plenty of bombs and cross kicks into the air.
But the Panthers cannot rest either, as they have conceded 23 tries from kicks and the Knights can turn the tables on them. Jarrod Sammut is good for at least one error a match – in fact he averages almost two a game – so the Knight should put all sorts of pressure on him.
Watch out Panthers: Enter the moment, enter the man. Jarrod Mullen has long been touted the future of Newcastle but after a quiet match against the Raiders the question must be asked… can Mullen produce the goods when the side desperately needs it?
He certainly has the talent and his season stats are reasonable, with an average 45 running metres, 311 kicking metres, eight line breaks, 14 line-break assists, nine tries and 19 try assists. It does shape as his chance to shine, so the Penrith defence must be ready.
Where it will be won: This match will boil down to desire and the will to do whatever it takes in the crucial moments. The little things will all add up to victory. Both sides only need to look at their most recent losses to see what it takes to win.
The Panthers showed very little urgency against the Eels and they were hammered into submission. When a ball hit the deck, an Eel dived on it. When one player slipped off a tackle, he had no help from his mates.
The Knights also were off the pace. They let the opening kick-off bounce and go dead in-goal. They chased their own kicks poorly and they failed to clean up Canberra kicks with any sense of urgency.
Basically, when there was a need for a play, the Knights or Panthers players weren’t able or ready to come up with the goods.
This must change in this clash. The sides need to focus on basics. Ball control, metres gained, good kick-chase and similar fundamentals will set up chances to score points. A no- panic, controlled approach in what will be a very nerve-wracking environment will prevail here.
The history: Played 30; Knights 16, Panthers 11, drawn 3. The Knights have won four of the past five matches between the sides; however the last match in Newcastle was won 46-12 by Penrith – and in fact, the Panthers lead the head-to-head stats at the ground 7-6.
Conclusion: Newcastle at home in front of a packed house is a very difficult prospect to go up against, making the Panthers’ task a huge one indeed. But they can certainly do the job if they turn up focussed and ready to play.
This match is a classic toss-of-the-coin job, with pros and cons to both teams’ chances and the fact the motivation for both is the same coming into it.
If your tipping comp is coming down to the wire, this game could well be the clincher. Take a stab in the dark and buckle yourself in for some classic Sunday arvo footy.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & David Abood; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 4pm Monday.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.