Panthers v Warriors
CUA Stadium
Sunday, 3pm (AEST)

It seems the referees mightn’t be the only ones sponsored by OPSM. The Warriors might gain some extra dosh too, if they keep looking into the sunny skies that Sunday afternoon footy brings.

The New Zealand coaching staff will be working overtime on a rare game plan that includes sunshine and a dry track, as they travel to Penrith this Sunday. And while last week’s strong 35-6 win over the hapless Eels was a confidence-booster for the players, Warriors coach Ivan Cleary and his team will need to come up with something special to defeat the competition’s co-leaders.

It was the Warriors’ third victory in a row – and prior to that they lost a close tussle 20-22 to the Dragons. Last week veteran Jerome Ropati was special in his stand-in game at fullback, notching 275 metres, six tackle-breaks and one try assist, while second-rower Lewis Brown ran amok, scoring a brace of tries, in the wider pastures of the centres. And not to be forgotten was prop Russell Packer, whose inspirational 165 metres was timely, considering Steve Price’s sad retirement last week.

But while there’s no doubting the Warriors are in form, it threatens to all come apart at CUA Stadium, where the Panthers are enjoying an aura of confidence not dissimilar to the one that encircled the Eels late last year.  

Not even the loss of Origin stars Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis, Petero Civoniceva, plus Luke Walsh (who missed the game through a hamstring injury) dented their self-belief as they bested an equally depleted Dragons team buoyed by the return of Mark Gasnier 12-8 last Monday night.

Stand-in wingers Sandor Earl (144 metres) and David Simmons (166 metres) played big roles on the night, and find themselves on an extended bench this week. Daine Laurie is probably the biggest name on that bench, and could make his Panthers debut after prop Tim Grant suffered a leg injury last week.

For the Warriors, regular fullback Lance Hohaia returns, seeing New Zealand return to the original line-up selected seven days ago.

Watch out Panthers: Of all 16 teams in the competition, the Warriors use the grubber the most (77). The ever-dangerous Manu Vatuvei is the obvious target, as his 10 tries in nine games indicate.

Penrith’s back three of Coote, Gordon and Brad Tighe can expect a thorough examination, but all three have proven adequate in 2010. Coote has defused 12 of 17 grubbers this year, while Gordon and Tighe have neutralised the eight between them this year.  

Watch out Warriors:
While the Storm have become renowned for their seemingly perfect work around the ruck in recent years, the Panthers are fast becoming the legitimate kings of the ruck. They’re second in the comp for making “big” tackles (52; Luke Lewis has 11), and one-on-one tackles (409; Michael Gordon has 37, Michael Jennings, 36, Luke Lewis 32, Trent Waterhouse, 31).

In contrast, the Warriors rank 15th and 16th in the corresponding categories.

Also, Penrith rank 3rd for “flops” (132), although this could also work against them (Penrith are the most penalised team in the competition with 96).

Off the ball, five-eighth James Maloney can expect to see the dangerous Frank Pritchard and Michael Jennings for most of the night. He’ll also need to watch his discipline – the Storm recruit has conceded the most penalties in the competition this year with 15.

Where it will be won:
Discipline. As mentioned, Penrith are the most penalised team in the competition, and were warned on numerous times last Monday night about their repeated offside infringements.

Likewise, the Warriors are the fourth worst in the NRL with 88 conceded.

Whilst Penrith have obviously done well to overcome their behavioural issues, if they continue to lose the penalty counts, an offensively minded team like the Warriors could make them pay.

The history: Played 25; Penrith 14, Warriors 10, drawn 1. It’s been almost impossible to split the two teams in their past 10 games, with the Panthers just winning the ledger 5-4 with the lone draw in their last match at CUA Stadium last year.

Penrith fans will have horror memories of that night. Flying high in fifth position on the ladder, the home team were supposed to make short work of the Warriors, but found themselves down 32-6 with just half an hour to play. They roared back to finish with a draw, but the Panthers went on to lose four of their last five games to spectacularly fall out of finals contention.

Conclusion: Don’t fall for the looks. The Warriors’ three-game winning streak might be impressive, but the fact that they came against the Knights, Roosters and Eels is nothing to crow about.

The Panthers look like a team at the peak of their powers, and are the safest bet of the round. But then again, the Warriors’ win last Sunday could mean that they’re enjoying their time in “the sun”.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm (AEST); Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.