Panthers v Storm Preview

Panthers v Storm
CUA Stadium
Saturday, 5:30pm

They may have just escaped Cyclone Ului’s crash into Townsville last week, but the Panthers will have nowhere to run when the Storm hit the foot of the mountains on Saturday night.

Penrith haven’t been able to avoid a Storm lashing since the days when Brett Howland was whizzing by defenders in a black jersey in 2005 – that’s five consecutive losses. And judging by the form of both sides in the opening fortnight of 2010, it doesn’t look like the streak will end this week.

Melbourne have seemingly taken it upon themselves to try to conjure their own challenges this year. If four of their first five games away from home wasn’t hard enough, they’ve had to see if they could win without Ryan Hoffman, Cooper Cronk, Sika Manu and Brett White. Heck, they even threw Cameron Smith in at halfback to make it “easier” for other teams. But, as it stands, unspectacular wins at Toyota Stadium and EnergyAustralia Stadium to kick off the year goes to show that there’s no mountain too high for coach Craig Bellamy and his purple band of successful footballers.  

The Panthers, on the other hand, are proving to be slow learners. A lucky intercept by Adrian Purtell against the Raiders in Round 1 saw them dodge a fast-finishing Raiders outfit two weeks ago, but there was no sidestepping the brilliance of Australian halfback Johnathan Thurston, who needed just 10 minutes to rein in a 14-point deficit last Saturday.

Clearly the Panthers are only capable of playing enough good footy to last one episode of The Simpsons, and, just like Bart, always seem to find themselves in trouble.

Cronk does return for Melbourne this week, but they do lose another international in Adam Blair (suspension). White, Manu and Hoffman are all at least another week away.

Penrith’s depth will certainly be tested this week, as Travis Burns (knee), Frank Pritchard (shoulder) and Nathan Smith (groin) were added to an injury list that already includes Wade Graham (shoulder) and Daine Laurie (toe).

Watch out Panthers: Aiden Tolman has been a revelation for the Storm in the absence of former NSW rep Brett White. Tolman starred in Melbourne’s World Club Challenge, and has continued his good form in the first two games of the year.

The blonde-haired bookend is among the leaders in average metres gained (135 per game) and tackles (34 per game). His 63 minutes per game so far is almost double his average output last year (38).

Watch out Storm: It seems there’s been a lot of emphasis on Penrith’s short kicking game over the summer, as they have turned to a grubber almost as much as any other team in the competition.

The Warriors have used it 17 times already, whilst the Panthers have utilised in 15 times. Luke Walsh and co have also shown that they’re not afraid to kick early in the tackle count, so Billy Slater and his wingmen will definitely need to be on their toes.

Where it will be won: Whilst the Storm have the reputation of being a side that strangles teams out of the game (literally), the Penrith boys are also quite known for their unpredictable style of play.

Yet both sides have shown an unwillingness to offload the ball. Melbourne have made just 18 offloads this year (for 15th), while the Panthers – with Frank Pritchard in their ranks – have made just 16 (least in the NRL).

A dour style won’t cut it in this one – whichever side takes the risk of creating some second-phase play could come out on top.

The history: Played 20; Penrith 6, Melbourne 13, Drawn 1. The Storm won a tightly fought contest in Round 5, 2009 at Olympic Park last year, when Penrith were controversially denied a late try that would’ve won them the match.

Despite Melbourne’s dominance over the Panthers in recent years, Penrith still hold the upper edge at their home ground: four of their six wins against the Storm have been at CUA Stadium.  

Conclusion: Penrith always prove a formidable outfit at home – they lost just four of their 12 games at home last year. But the Storm have shown how tough a team they are in the early rounds, grinding out wins against the Sharks and Knights.

Not only is Cooper Cronk’s return a massive boost for the visitors, but even more important is Cameron Smith’s move back to hooker where his guile is always a key factor in games.

We’ll opt for the Storm by an unconverted try.

Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Phil Haines; Sideline officials – Russell Turner & Henry Perenara; Video referee – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 5:30pm.