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Panthers v Knights
Centrebet Stadium
Sunday 3pm

Penrith kick off their season with high hopes of another successful year, albeit with a much nicer ending, against a Knights side hell bent on restoring some pride and passion into their home-grown jersey.

As the surprise packets of 2010 the Panthers finished second after 26 rounds only to bomb out of the finals with two straight losses, largely due to some crucial end-of-year injuries. They have lost a real weapon in Frank Pritchard, changing the dynamic of the side, but are quietly confident they can once again become a front-runner.

The Knights were in contention for finals football up until the last few rounds in 2010 but ultimately fell short. They have recruited grand final winner Neville Costigan and some impressive youth in a bid to find a way back into the top eight. With the Nathan Tinkler privatisation bid lingering, every player wants to prove he belongs in the Knights’ make-up.

Penrith have selected Lachlan Coote at fullback, with Michael Gordon on the wing – despite the spectacular form Gordon showed as custodian in the back half of last year. David Simmons earns a centre jersey and Nigel Plum is the man set to start in the second row for Pritchard.

The Knights have handed the five-eighth jersey to debutant Beau Henry, the 2009 Toyota Cup Player of the Year who was recruited from the Dragons. James McManus returns on the wing (for the departed Cooper Vuna) and Wes Naiqama will play centre. The returning Chris Houston has the starting lock jersey, with Costigan to play second row and Antonio Kaufusi and Evarn Tuimavave start at prop.

Watch Out Panthers: Akuila Uate was possibly the most dangerous player in the competition last season. The blockbusting winger will be heading towards a New South Wales jersey if he keeps up his form. He averaged 139 metres gained a match and led the league in line-breaks (29) and tries (21). He busted 136 tackles during the year and left countless opposition players sprawling on the turf. The Panthers cannot afford to give him free space.

Danger Sign: If Kurt Gidley starts motioning signals to Uate, get ready for a sweeping backline movement towards the man monolith.

Watch Out Knights: Penrith were deadly at scoring tries from kicks last season and with the same halves pairing and Coote back in the line-up they are sure to go to their strength once more.

Incredibly, the Panthers scored 42 tries from kicks in the regular season last year – almost 40 per cent of the tries they scored altogether! Luke Walsh was the main destroyer with his grubbers, chips and bombs causing all sorts of headaches for opposition players. Travis Burns can also get in on the act.

Danger Sign: If Coote finds his way in tight near the end of the tackle count (or even early, as they are prepared to kick early in the count) you can be assured Walsh and the custodian have teed up one of many attacking kick options. Knights bodies need to be ready to get in the way and others need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get to the ball first.

Plays To Watch: Jarrod Mullen taking the line on; Cory Paterson coming from the Knights’ bench to add second-phase football to the attack; Uate getting plenty of ball; Luke Lewis popping up all over the park for the Panthers with aggressive yet skilful touches; Trent Waterhouse on the right edge; Michael Jennings being fed the ball on the left; and of course the countless ‘kick tricks’ from the Panthers’ kitbag.

Where It Will Be Won: Completions. Lack of errors in the early rounds is always difficult but also crucial to getting the job done on the scoreboard. Last season the Knights were poor when it came to errors, compiling 314 for the year to be at the higher end of the NRL scale, while the Panthers had 279, only bettered by three other teams. It is important both sides pay close attention to ball control, as multiple possessions are key to their halves doing their business.

Interestingly, teams playing against Penrith last year came up with 295 errors whereas teams playing against Newcastle had 323. Of course, many errors are unforced but the pressure placed from the opposition brings some about. Are Newcastle a good side at forcing errors? If they do manage to rattle the ball free from the Panthers often, they can cause an upset here.

The History: Played 33; Panthers 13, Knights 17, drawn 3. The Panthers won both encounters against Newcastle last season but the Knights won five of the six before those. Traditionally the Knights have not been afraid to venture to Penrith – they have won 10 matches to the home side’s five at the venue.

If you like an exotic bet, don’t be afraid to look at the draw… all three draws between the clubs occurred at this venue.

Conclusion: Newcastle surprised everyone last year with a Round 1 ambush of the Bulldogs in Sydney and they are certainly capable of doing the same to the Panthers. Penrith should still be favourites, especially as their halves pairing is tried and tested together, while the Knights have invested in a rookie five-eighth.

Lean towards the Blue Mountains men but if you want to take a small risk early in the year, this might be the match to do so.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.