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Panthers v Knights
CUA Stadium
Saturday 5:30pm (AEST)

Let’s be honest: in a week when the NRL lost Israel Folau, rugby league will be hurting. But you know who isn’t hurting? The Newcastle Knights – who welcome back five of their biggest stars for their clash with the Panthers this Saturday evening.

After a disappointing 23-6 loss to the Wests Tigers two weeks ago, the Knights will no doubt be enthused by the arrival of Kurt Gidley, Jarrod Mullen, Adam MacDougall, Isaac De Gois and James McManus. If that’s not enough to inspire the visitors, then maybe memories of their last encounter with the Panthers will.

Leading 24-6 at half-time back in Round 4, Penrith looked headed for a disastrous 1-3 start to the season. Instead, the Panthers took out the second half 28-6 – with an Adrian Purtell try in the last minute kick-starting the Panthers 2010 campaign into gear to the tune of five wins in six games. And now they occupy third on the ladder.

As for Newcastle? While they haven’t been totally horrible, they lost four of their next seven games, including a thrashing to Cronulla and the Tigers. So if there’s one team Rick Stone wants to get one back from it’s the Panthers, who are ripe for the picking after an insipid 42-22 loss to South Sydney last Sunday. The men in black never looked in it from the opening whistle, giving perfect ammo to the naysayers who believe their current standing is flattering.

The absence of veteran warhorse Petero Civoniceva was a huge factor in the loss, and an injury to Frank Pritchard will only unsettle the Panthers further. Still, at home, they have the ability to turn it on and if the Knights don’t pick up an at-times lazy defence, then the Penrith boys could pounce.

It’s a milestone weekend for Trent Waterhouse, who plays his 150th first grade game.

Watch out Panthers: While five stars are returning for the Knights, there’s been one who’s played all 11 games this year and has quickly become the fan favourite. Akuila Uate has set the NRL alight this year with 12 tries, and the Panthers will shiver at the memory of his barnstorming double back in Round 4.

Currently one behind Lachlan Coote on the NRL tryscorer’s list, Uate’s stirring charges from the back of the field are Lote Tuqiri-like and he could give the smaller Penrith wingers – Michael Gordon and Brad Tighe – plenty of nightmares. Averaging 142 metres a game, tallying 16 line-breaks and 61 tackle-breaks, Uate might actually be the biggest danger on the field.  

Watch out Knights:
The Knights – who have conceded more tries than any other team in the competition – face off against the team who have scored more ‘meat pies’ than anyone else, which spells trouble for the visitors.

At the top of the danger list isn’t livewire centre Michael Jennings, surprisingly, but team-mate Lachlan Coote, who tops the league this year with 13 tries so far. Jennings has six tries, as does the NRL’s leading pointscorer, Michael Gordon. Then there’s Raiders recruit Adrian Purtell with five, including his last-minute heartbreaker in Steel City.   

Where it will be won: Both sets of fans will be keen to see how Kurt Gidley and Jarrod Mullen line up alongside each other for the first time this year. Knights supporters will hope it’s a move that could kick-start their season, while the Penrith faithful are keen to see some early struggles.

With a host of big names returning for the red and blue, much depends on how quick they can recapture their individual form, and click as a team.

An interesting sidenote: while much has been made of the Panthers’ ability to score via kicks, not a lot has been written about their inability to break the line – they are easily ranked last in the category this year. But this week they come up against the team that has let in the most tries (29) through line-breaks so if Matt Elliott’s charges can’t do it this week, then they will be exposed as a truly one-dimensional attacking team.  

Also, there could be plenty of points scored – at least one team has scored 30 or more points in the past five encounters between the two sides.

The history:
Played 32; Newcastle 17, Penrith 12, Drawn 3. Even though the ‘penny’ Panthers took out the first meeting this year, it doesn’t quite overturn the dominance the Novocastrians have held over the mountain men in recent memory.

Even at CUA Stadium, the Knights hold a 10-4 advantage, including a 30-18 victory in 2008 where Kurt Gidley blitzed them from hooker (of all positions!). In saying that, it was the only match-up between the two teams at Penrith since 2005.  

The Panthers are looking to win their fourth consecutive game at CUA Stadium for the first time since 2006.

Conclusion: Big names could be the factor in this one. While on the surface, it’s easy to pick the Panthers, they looked uninspired against Souths last week without captain Civoniceva. And whilst Pritchard has polarised Penrith fans with his enigmatic form, his match-winning ability takes a lot of strike power out of their team.
On the flip side, it’s hard not to be inspired when your top five players return to the team, and if they can perform well from the get-go, the Knights could add to the win they shouldn’t have had earlier this year.     

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline officials – Luke Potter & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

Televised:  Fox Sports – Live 5:30pm (AEST)
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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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