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Roosters v Panthers
Sydney Football Stadium
Saturday 7.45pm

Momentum and injuries will be the key to this sudden-death semi-final, with the Panthers limping off a defeat to the Raiders at home last week to take on the full-strength Roosters, who no doubt will still be adrenaline-charged following their 100th-minute great escape against the Wests Tigers.

By all measure the Roosters should be dead and buried for 2010; they trailed the Tigers 15-2 with 21 minutes remaining, and by a point with 35 seconds left, before a bizarre sequence saw them steal only the second against-the-feed possession from a scrum in 2010, then Braith Anasta snap a 32-metre field goal with five seconds left.

Had Anasta missed, the Roosters would have been out and the Warriors would have been facing off against the Panthers…

Incredibly, thanks to the intricacies of the McIntyre top-eight system, they now get a home semi-final, while the Panthers, who finished the regular season in second place, surrendered all the advantage that achieved them with a narrow loss to the Raiders at CUA Stadium.

Injuries always play part in the big games at the end of the year and in this regard the Roosters are smiling. They have all troops available, making them the least-affected side of the six remaining combatants.

They’ve named a similar outfit to last week’s, although starting hooker James Aubusson makes way for Jake Friend, with Jospeh Leilua on the bench in jersey No.17. Aubusson, Lopini Paea and Mose Masoe complete the seven-man interchange, with three to be cut.

Injuries have put a severe dent in the Panthers’ premiership aspirations; they’ve lost both of their impact back-rowers in Trent Waterhouse (torn pectoral, six months), while Frank Pritchard looks to have played his last game in black after sustaining yet another hamstring injury. Nathan Smith and Gavin Cooper are their starting replacements.

On the plus side, inspirational captain Petero Civoniceva returns from suspension; he’ll be ably assisted on the prop rotation by Tim Grant, Matthew Bell and Frank Puletua, while the six-man bench is rounded out by the enigmatic Daine Laurie, plus Masada Iosefa and Wade Graham.

(Psst – he hasn’t been named, but whispers suggest Lachlan Coote could be a surprise participant!)

Dally M medallist Todd Carney requires nine more points for 500 career points and – we know it’s a stretch – 28 points to overtake Ivan Cleary’s most points in a season at the SFS (142). Fifteen would see him equal Bondi legend Dave Brown for third most points by a Rooster in a season (244 in 1935).

Of minor distraction this week are reports linking Roosters captain Anasta to the Cowboys from as early as next season. But this shouldn’t affect his focus given a premiership ring is just three victories away.

The Panthers have won three of their past four games at the SFS.

Watch out Roosters: Brian Smith’s charges can’t afford to be dominated in the first half like they were last week. Aspects of their first 40 minutes against the Tigers were abysmal: they were steamrolled in territory gained (790 metres to 472 metres), missed 22 tackles (to just eight misses by the Tigers) and failed to make a line-break (to the Tigers’ seven).

They were forced into 157 tackles to the Tigers’ 111 – that they were able to come and play the next 60 minutes and miss just 24 tackles, complete 203 more tackles, make five line-breaks (to the Tigers’ one) and dominate territory 1273 metres to 1009 metres pretty much sums up their fitness and resolve.

Panthers centre Michael Jennings knows he needs to lift; now the comp is do-or-die coach Elliott would have spent the week pumping up Jennings for a big game. Last week he was simply pedestrian, making four errors and failing to make a tackle-break while running just 78 metres. To be fair though, the Raiders worked him over, forcing him into 21 tackles – way up on his average 13 tackles a game for the season.

Brian Smith needs to aim Shaun Kenny-Dowall and his fringe forwards at the speedster and tire him out, or risk him shredding them at some stage of the game.

The Roosters need to be vigilant defending their line – they’ve conceded 12 tries from dummy-half, the most by any team.  

Fullback Michael Gordon’s impact needs to be contained – last week he ran for 230 metres, with a game-high 11 tackle-breaks.

And, of course, the Roosters need to be wary of all manner of attacking kicks, given the bounce of the ball seems to have favoured the Panthers in 2010 with a whopping 44 tries scored off the boot – including two of their four last week.

Watch out Panthers: Last week in our preview of the Tigers-Roosters game we said: “Tigers centres Blake Ayshford and Mitch Brown’s task won’t be to stop Shaun Kenny-Dowall as much as just limit his impact.

The blockbusting Kiwi has scored 12 tries in his past seven games, through speed, power and skill. He ranks third for line-breaks (19) and has a deadly one-handed offload (35 for the year).  It would be a huge surprise if he wasn’t responsible for points in this game. And if he’s not, then chances are the Tigers win.”

Of course, he did score points… which cost the Tigers the win.

Nothing changes this week. The halves aside, Kenny-Dowall is the man the Panthers – and Michael Jennings in particular – should fear.

The Panthers also need to be careful they’re not caught out with a quick shift from a scrum, as they were last week when Raider Reece Robinson scored in the left corner. Brian Smith would have noted that on that occasion fullback Michael Gordon packed into the scrum, with his place in the defensive line taken by Luke Lewis. But the Raiders managed to shift it wide quickly, not giving Lewis the chance to halt the play and leaving Gordon no chance to get across in time to cover.

Last, the Sydney Football Stadium hasn’t been a great source of points for the Panthers’ backline – their players combined, they have scored a measly three tries there.

Where it will be won: Completing sets, building pressure and then unleashing the attacking flair. There’s not a lot between these sides stats-wise, so whichever side takes the hard yards, makes the fewest mistakes and capitalises on their chances will have a huge advantage.

The Roosters are completing at 71 per cent to the Panthers’ 73, average four tries scored (4.6), concede 3.7 tries a game (to 3.5), make 9.5 handling errors (to 9). But on the plus side they make 5.2 line-breaks a game (to 3.8)  

Both sides trailed early last week before mounting comebacks; both will be focused on greater intensity from the opening whistle.  

Expect the Panthers to go to the air early, and often. There’s nothing more frustrating for a side to concede points from a kick, irrespective of whether it’s a well-crafted play involving a mid-air take or grounded grubber, or an unlucky bounce of the ball and scrappy play. They all tally four points.

Expect the Roosters to make plenty of rapid-fire shifts though the hands of their halves, with Anthony Minichiello a beneficiary on the left edge either running hard for the corner or ducking back inside on the angle.

The history: Played 75; Roosters 46, Panthers 28, drawn 1. The honours are shared four games apiece from the past eight clashes; however, the Panthers have won the past two (which were played at CUA Stadium), including a 28-6 win in Round 5. Before that the Panthers inflicted their biggest ever defeat of the Roosters with a 48-6 thrashing last year.

Conclusion: Stats suggest it could be closer than most think – all of the Panthers’ six losses in night games have been by eight points or less.

But realistically, a win by the Panthers would be a huge surprise. While both sides haven’t been models of consistency in 2010, the Roosters have been a consistent attacking force in the back end of the season, while it seems almost a toss of the coin whether the Panthers will put it together from week to week.

They’re certainly capable. But we think their 2010 campaign will end here.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.
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