The stuttering South Sydney come up against the surprise packet of the 2010 premiership, who’ve won six of their past seven to rocket to joint leaders on 16 competition points through 11 rounds.
Meanwhile Souths just can’t seem to find fourth gear in 2010; they’ve won just two of their past five games to sit in equal fifth place on 12 points, four points adrift of the top of the ladder but in a logjam with four other sides.
They played well against the Warriors in New Zealand last week, with several standout performers, but just couldn’t get the job done. They will be much more comfortable at home and will have the benefit of a solid week of training with a near-intact squad, having lost just Dave Taylor to Origin commitments.
Meanwhile the Panthers will be sweating on captain Petero Civoniceva, Luke Lewis and Trent Waterhouse to back up from Origin. On the plus side, their roster is almost injury-free, with just Daine Laurie, who hasn’t played for them yet, unavailable. That hasn’t been a luxury they’ve enjoyed for a long time.
Souths’ captain Roy Asotasi is back from injury, pushing Scott Geddes to the bench, while Taylor’s return sees Eddy Pettybourne warm the pine.
For the Panthers, Frank Puletua makes way for Civoniceva, while Gavin Cooper and Nathan Smith are relegated to the extended bench, with Waterhouse and Lewis returning.
This period of the season looms as a test for the Panthers – at the corresponding stage last year they were fourth in the premiership race, before falling away in the second batch of games to finish a hapless 11th.
Watch out Rabbitohs: Even though the likely wet conditions will nullify free-flowing attack, the home side needs to be alert and really muscle up when defending in their opponent’s half – the Panthers are second best in the comp at scoring tries from long range, having posted six this season (the Rabbitohs have just three to rank equal 15th).
Also, wet weather means the playmakers will look to turn their opponents around with deft kicks – and the Panthers have scored a massive 24 tries this way. That’s a whopping double the number of the next best Sea Eagles and Bulldogs.
The Rabbitohs aren’t too bad at getting themselves out of trouble when kicked to, conceding just eight tries. But they might want to place special focus on cross-field bombs, where they spill the ball once every three kicks.
Watch out Panthers: Rabbitohs hooker Issac Luke will try to get the Panthers’ defenders back-pedalling from dummy-half.
To date the livewire rake has 55 tackle-breaks, eight line-breaks and is making an average 125 metres a game. The Panthers need to stop him from getting away his crafty offloads – he has 15 for the year including six try assists.
Elsewhere, this game marks former Panther Rhys Wesser’s first NRL clash against the side he won a premiership with in 2003.
Wesser has been a solid contributor at the back for Souths, scoring four tries and running for an average 124 metres. He’s also tallied the second most tackle-breaks for Souths (34). Expect him to inject himself at every opportunity; the wet weather will play into his hands as he has great evasive skills and is quick off the mark.
Where it will be won: With Sydney’s ‘big wet’ forecast to continue into next week, you can forget about a dry track for this game. It will be all about recovering from errors… which will surely come.
To date the home side has made a whopping 149 errors, while the Panthers have been quite disciplined with just 111 made.
Biggest offenders for Souths are Luke (21), Chris Sandow (17) and Beau Champion (13), while the Panthers who need to watch their stuff are Lachlan Coote (11), Shane Elford and Michael Gordon (10 each).
From that stat you’d expect the Souths kicking game to target Coote and Gordon, while the Panthers will get numbers in tackles on Luke, hitting him hard and hoping for some loose carries.
The history: Played 68; Rabbitohs 37, Panthers 30, drawn 1. The Panthers have won five of the past eight clashes, including a 40-10 dusting at home the last time they met in 2009. However, the Rabbitohs are undefeated in clashes at ANZ Stadium, winning all three games played between the sides there. Conclusion: A really difficult game to tip but if you’ve found it tough to jump on the Panthers’ train in 2010, now might be the time to do so. With their momentum, they could turn into a juggernaut.
The Rabbitohs will be more disciplined and have better direction with their leader Asotasi back, so a win would not surprise. But momentum and confidence are everything in a successful premiership campaign – and the Panthers have both in bucket loads at present.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & David Munro; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.