Panthers v Sea Eagles Preview

Panthers v Sea Eagles
CUA Stadium
Friday 7:35pm (AEST)

Lose your linchpin and pundits write you off quicker than you can say “Women in League Round”. And that’s exactly what happened when Manly lost Matt Orford in the off-season. But how new halves Kieran Foran, Trent Hodkinson and the Sea Eagles have proved them wrong.

However, the bigger shock are those penny Panthers, whose second-place standing on the ladder would’ve almost knocked anyone off their perch at the start of the year. With four wins from their past five games, Penrith are firing on all cylinders at the moment.

It sets the scene for this clash between the surprise packets of 2010 and the new-and-improved northern beaches side to be a very interesting battle this Friday night.

Against the high-flying Broncos last week, the Panthers showed a mettle in defence and aggression in attitude we’ve hardly seen from the mountain men since Mark Geyer stood toe-to-toe with the great Wally Lewis. To come away with two competition points from Suncorp is like the NSW Blues netting a win against the almighty Queenslanders.

On the other hand, Manly won against Souths via the boot of Hodkinson, whose two field goals in the last three minutes saved his team from a Des Hasler tongue-lashing. They lose lion-heart Jamie Lyon for this match, but rising star Dean Whare (three tries on debut) isn’t a bad replacement.

Penrith skipper Petero Civoniceva mightn’t be named, but look for an early return for the veteran forward, whose absence was supposed to trigger a collapse from his young team. Instead, bullish prop Tim Grant has exploded this year, to the tune of 122 metres per game.

Watch out Panthers:
Almost half of Manly’s 51 tries this year have come on their left edge, where the improved Michael Robertson and the hard-hitting Steve Matai lurk. The pair lead the side in ‘meat pies’ with eight apiece, but Matai is the main threat. The dreadlocked missile-head has recorded four line-breaks assists and five try assists – no doubt most of them to Robertson.

It spells danger for Penrith’s new right edge of Adrian Purtell and Michael Gordon, two of the least effective tacklers in the club. Purtell has missed a team-high 53 tackles this year to go with his lowly 74 per cent tackling efficiency, while Michael Gordon tackles at just 77 per cent.

Watch out Sea Eagles: If Manly’s left edge gives the Panthers problems, then Penrith’s own left side causes some real havoc. With the fleet-footed Michael Jennings re-united with destruction machine Frank Pritchard on that side of the field, the Sea Eagles’ pair of young Whare (six missed tackles in two games) and Tony Williams (19 missed tackles) will no doubt go home with nightmares.

While Jennings’ seven tries and five line-breaks are down on last year’s output, his shift to his natural side could explode Penrith’s somewhat one-dimensional attack of kicking. The fact that winger Brad Tighe is on the left means there’ll be some seriously fast action on that side of the field, which has also reaped half of their total tries this year (30 out of 61).

Where it will be won:
The kicking game. Manly’s Kieran Foran and Trent Hodkinson might be getting plenty of raps for their play this year, but what needs improvement is their precision with the boot. Their 49 per cent accuracy rate makes them last in the competition. Penrith aren’t that great either – only Brisbane are lower than their 53 per cent – but once the Panthers are in the attacking zone, everyone knows the kicking abilities of halfback Luke Walsh (24 try assists).

The history:
Played 72; Manly 46, Penrith 25, drawn 1. It’s home away from home for the Sea Eagles – at least in recent years anyway – as they’ve won three of the past four games at the foot of the mountains.

You can make that five of the past seven altogether, a run that goes all the way back to Round 13, 2006, where a young Travis Burns – now a Panther – kicked four goals to help his team to a 29-22 win.

Conclusion: Without skipper Jamie Lyon, Manly might not have the artillery against a team that will be inspired by the expected return of their own leader in Petero Civoniceva. At home and in form, expect Penrith to continue to show the mental aptitude necessary to take out the big games.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline officials – David Abood & David Munro; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9:30pm (AEST); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am Sat.