Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday, 2pm (NZ time)
Penrith might be flying over the Tasman Sea to take on the Warriors this Sunday, but they might also be flying into uncharted – but welcome – territory if they can escape with the two competition points.
Both the Panthers and the Warriors have started the season with a respectable 3-2 record, and look to continue their good form this week.
For Matt Elliott’s men, it’s the best start they’ve had under the former Raiders mentor, and a win can here would do much to re-ignite their long-suffering fan base, who haven’t forked out for finals tickets in the past five years. The Panthers have been in the contest in each of their games so far, but last week’s comprehensive 28-6 victory over the Roosters showed they loom as a real dark horse.
Ivan Cleary’s unit, on the other hand, are on a high after last weekend’s stunning, last-minute 30-24 victory over the Dogs. The Warriors, too, have shown a new-found grit in 2010, and are well-placed for an assault on this year’s finals if they can continue their current vein of form.
But despite their similar starts to the year, these teams have contrasting medical wards. The return of five-eighth Travis Burns means Penrith are almost at full strength. Young gun Wade Graham was overlooked for first grade and will play for Windsor this weekend. Only Nigel Plum (knee) is unavailable.
It’s vastly different for the Warriors, who have five senior players on the injured list. Captain Simon Mannering (hamstring), Steve Price (heel), Micheal Luck (finger) and Brett Seymour (thumb) are all on the sidelines for this match.
Watch out Warriors: Australian Kangaroo Luke Lewis has started the year in arguably the form of his life. The 26-year-old is unstoppable with ball in hand (four tries, three try assists, 21 tackle-breaks and eight offloads), and is also proving brutal in defence (14 one-on-one tackles, five big hits, and three try-saving tackles).
Despite appearing in both the ‘6’ and the ‘13’ this year, the local junior has found a home on the fringe of the ruck, where he’s causing plenty of trouble in both attack and defence.
Centre Michael Jennings also deserves a mention. A lot has been made of his lacklustre start to the year, but the representative star has made 26 tackle-breaks and 10 offloads; strong stuff by any critic’s measure. Having crossed the stripe in each of his past two games, the NSW centre looks set to explode any time.
Watch out Panthers: The Warriors look like they’ve returned to the good ol’ days, where they look more like the Harlem Globetrotters instead of their stuttering cricket team. Coach Ivan Cleary clearly (try saying that 10 times in a row) has them enjoying their football again; they currently lead the league for tackle-breaks (223) and offloads (93), and are ranked second for line-breaks (28) and average metres gained (1421 metres).
While Vatuvei’s hulking frame has provided the bulk of these numbers, others have looked just as dangerous. Centre Brent Tate looks to have fully recovered from a bad run of injuries, breaking 20 tackles and offloading the ball 12 times, while big Sam Rapira has also kept the ball alive 12 times.
Where it will be won: The battle between two of the most improved halfbacks in the competition so far, Luke Walsh and James Maloney, shapes as the key to this encounter. Walsh is a surprising leader on the try assists board (9), while Maloney has been a revelation since his move across the Tasman.
Both teams lead the NRL in grubbers kicked, and while the Warriors favour a cross-field bomb for high-fliers Vatuvei and Kevin Locke, the Panthers look towards a centre-field bomb for chasers like Lachlan Coote and Luke Lewis to pounce. We know both these halfbacks are kick-happy, but whoever performs better gives their team the best chance of taking the two points.
The history: Played 24; Penrith 13, Warriors 10, drawn 1. Both teams would still be smarting from a bitter 32-all draw in Round 21 last year. The Warriors led 32-6 at should’ve had the game sewn up before a scintillating comeback saw Penrith – who just missed out on the finals – level the scores with just five minutes remaining. Neither side was able to break the deadlock in golden point.
Conclusion: After a solid five rounds of footy, both teams look primed for an assault on this year’s finals. But the Warriors are still without hardened campaigners Steve Price, Micheal Luck and captain Simon Mannering. And arguably the biggest blow is the injury to Manu Vatuvei, who has been in fantastic form this year.
Penrith, meanwhile, are boosted by the return of five-eighth Travis Burns, which means Luke Lewis shifts back to lock and Trent Waterhouse moves into the second row. So while both teams are playing good footy, Penrith are healthier and have a better line-up on paper. Penrith by 10.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline officials – David Abood & Gavin Reynolds; Video Referee – Chris Ward.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 12pm (AEST)
* Stats: NRL Stats.