Panthers v Raiders Preview

Panthers v Raiders
CUA Stadium
Saturday 8.30pm

Panthers coach Matthew Elliott finally gets the Panthers to the finals, and in second spot no less… but one gets the felling he might be a little nervous about the prospect of playing his old team, the Canberra Raiders, who come into this finals series as the form team.

The Raiders enter the finals having won eight of their past nine matches, one of which was against the Panthers, to find themselves in seventh spot and facing sudden-death football for the rest of the season.

Having finished second, the Panthers are guaranteed another shot even if they lose, but they would then be facing elimination and possibly playing outside of Sydney.

In their past nine matches before the finals they won just four, but three of those have been consecutively to finish the year, giving them at least a little momentum.

The Canberra run smells a bit like the Eels of 2009, who stormed through from eighth to make the grand final. Can the seventh-placed Raiders make a similar run? Plenty think they can but the Panthers want a week off and the only way they can get that and be just one win away from a grand final is by sending the Green Machine packing.

The home side is still without inspirational skipper and front-rower Petero Civoniceva, as he has another match to serve on his suspension.

After a demolition of the Sharks in the final round they have named Luke Walsh to return at halfback, pushing Wade Graham to the bench. Luke Lewis comes back into the side at lock with Nathan Smith joining the reserves.

The Raiders, who secured their place in the finals with a close win over Brisbane, ending their 18-year run in the finals, is also without their motivating captain Alan Tongue. Otherwise they have the same side as last week, with Trevor Thurling added as an 18th man.

Watch out Panthers: Terry Campese is on fire and knows he needs to prove himself in a big game for critics to finally pay him his dues. So far this season Campo has nine line-breaks, 16 line-break assists, five tries, 15 try assists, 43 tackle-breaks and 32 offloads.

The beauty of his game is the ability to play off-the-cuff. He’ll take the line on if a chance comes and spin the ball wide if the shift is on. He also showed he isn’t afraid to kick for himself, early in the tackle count. He helped start the run against the Dragons a few weeks ago with a great little grubber behind the line for a try. Penrith need to get to him hard and in numbers to shift down any second-phase play.

Watch out Raiders: You can’t go into this match without working on your defence to kicks. The Panthers scored a mammoth 42 tries from kicks this season, the most by any team all year and the most by a side in recent memory. This represents 38 per cent of all of their tries.

The Raiders on the other hand have only scored 14 tries from kicks but they have conceded 17 to the boot. Luke Walsh has just been deadly with his attacking kicks and although his number one chaser in Lachlan Coote remains missing, he will still bring out his bag of tricks.

Josh Dugan will really need to have his skates on, especially as sometimes he can find himself positioned a fair way from the play.

Where it will be won: This match will be won at the ruck and the subsequent speed of the play-the-ball and metres that come from them. In other words, the big units getting a roll on and giving the flashy backs a chance to shine will win this match.

When you watched the Raiders closely against the Broncos last week one thing was certainly obvious… the big pack was totally dominating and was not only getting big metres but was also winning the tackle, avoiding any wrestle and playing the ball quickly. This allowed the team to march down the field on every set of six and gave the likes of Terry Campese prime field position to set up attacking plays.

Dally M Prop of the Year David Shillington starts things off (averages 120 metres a game) and is well backed up by other big boppers like Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (99 metres), Dane Tilse (104 metres) and Scott Logan (73 metres).

The Panthers are without their biggest asset here in Civoniceva (averages 139 metres) but have some eager young guys in Sam McKendry (77 metres) and Tim Grant (115 metres). Frank Pritchard and Luke Lewis also eat up plenty of metres.

With players like Penrith’s Michael Jennings and Michael Gordon and Raiders Josh Dugan and Jarrod Croker waiting for space, the battle of the big men will be huge. The side that is able to win the ruck will win the game.

For the record, Penrith averaged 1359 metres a game this year and the Raiders 1416 metres; however the Raiders conceded an average 1343 metres while the Panther muscled up and conceded an average 1195 metres, by far the most restricting defence in the league.

Another critical factor will be edge runners. With Pritchard running amok for the Panthers on the left edge and Bronson Harrison doing the same on the right fringes for the Raiders, the defence against these individuals will be critical.

The history: Played 57; Panthers 28, Raiders 28, drawn 1. All locked up after 57 encounters… at least we know someone is definitely moving ahead this week!

The two teams shared the spoils in 2010, Penrith won 34-16 in the opening round at Penrith but the Raiders took care of business in Canberra by 30-26. The last win gave the Raiders five out of the past eight against the Panthers although Penrith have won three of the past four.

At CUA Stadium the home-side Panthers lead the way with 15 wins, nine losses and a draw against the Raiders .The Raiders last won there in 2008, the same season they smashed the Panthers 74-12 in Canberra.

Conclusion: The smell of an upset is here. While the Panthers are rightful favourites and could easily end the Raiders’ run, the loss of Civoniceva in a big game is critical. They come in with three wins but all against weaker opposition who aren’t in the finals, while the Raiders are battle-hardened.

If you fancy an outsider, the Raiders are possibly the best ‘tip’ of the week.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Ricky McFarlane; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 8.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 12.15am.