Panthers v Storm Preview

Storm v Panthers
AAMI Park
Saturday, 7:30pm (AEST)

The Panthers are heading south – both literally and figuratively – so fast that a loss to Melbourne this weekend would leave their top-two hopes hanging by a thread.

They can’t go quite as low as the Storm (who can?), but unless they can turn around a one-dimensional attack – and a bad history record against the southerners – then they could quickly find themselves in the middle of a pack of teams jostling for a finals spot.

It’s not panic stations yet, as Penrith have only just started their losing streak following their 34-28 loss to the Eels last Saturday night (their second on the trot). But it’s the manner in which they’ve lost that has caused plenty of angst amongst commentators. Their preference to continue kicking for tries is proving a downfall, and is restricting the match-winning ability of Frank Pritchard and Michael Jennings on their left edge, where they have scored almost double the amount of tries (38) than down their right (20).

Melbourne, on the other hand, are “one up” on Penrith, with their 13-6 loss to the Warriors their third loss in a row. The Storm haven’t lost four consecutive matches since 2002, and while the salary cap scandal provides a different backdrop to this contest, it’s hard to see a team with the Fab Four continuing their streak. Still, one wonders whether all the drama surrounding the club is starting to affect the team’s mental state.

Panthers lock Luke Lewis remains out of action with a shoulder injury, but don’t be surprised if the NSW rep is a last-minute inclusion in what is a pivotal game for the visitors. Prop Tim Grant remains inactive with a leg injury.

The Storm, on the other hand, move Ryan Hoffman into the starting line-up, pushing Adam Blair to lock which means Kevin Proctor misses out this week. Utility Ryan Hinchcliffe – who missed last week’s game – returns to the bench, and Dane Nielsen has been named 18th man.

Watch out Storm: Fullback Billy Slater mightn’t be on the market, but if he was, Penrith wouldn’t want him anyway. In Lachlan Coote, the Panthers have their own “Billy the Kid”, who has a knack of being in the right place, at the right time.

The diminutive custodian was among the Panthers’ best last week, making 178 metres with ball in hand to go with his four tackle-breaks and try. The lightweight still leads the try-scoring list with 17 and is Melbourne’s biggest danger in the air.   

Watch out Panthers:
Despite all the kafuffle around the Panthers’ reliance on kicks, they still managed to score four tries through the boot last weekend. Count ’em – four! While coach Matt Elliott insists that he has no problem with that method of attack, it could come unstuck against the Storm, who have defused 92 per cent of bombs this year – the best rate in the competition – and still boast the second-best defence in the NRL.

On the other side of the ball, the Storm have scored more tries in the 21-50m section of the field than any other team. Look for Cooper Cronk (10 line-break assists), Brett Finch (14) and Billy Slater (13) to test Penrith’s frail edges.

Where it will be won: Melbourne have been the most penalised team with ball in hand (16), while the referees have been heavy on the Panthers’ tacklers, with 96 infringements while defending making them the second least disciplined side in the NRL.

Discipline is the key. If the Panthers – who have been offside with the referees in recent weeks – can rid themselves of some ill-discipline in defence, it’ll go a long way to restricting Melbourne’s chances of advancing towards their try-line. Similarly, Melbourne can’t afford to commit silly mistakes in attack, otherwise their freefall could continue and it’d make for a very ugly final seven weeks of the season.

The history: Played 20; Storm 14, Panthers 6. Forget the fact that the Storm have beaten the Panthers in their past six encounters – a streak that started, strangely, at Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide in 2006.

The real context of this game lies in the record between Matt Elliott and Craig Bellamy. The Panthers’ mentor has never beaten a Bellamy-coached side. That’s 13 games over eight years!

Conclusion:
Obviously, the Panthers have more to play for and unless they can rid themselves of that one-dimensional tag, they’ll be on the cusp of losing a home semi-final.

Melbourne, on the other hand, are beginning to freefall the way most pundits thought they would, albeit a lot later than estimated.

Still, the Storm have a lot of class players and are in the comforts of their new stadium. Unless Penrith rally and find a way to get through the line instead of always trying to go over it, they could lose that coveted second chance in the finals sooner than they think.  

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline officials – Phil Haines & Luke Potter; Video referee – Chris Ward

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7:30pm (AEST).