Broncos v Panthers
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.30pm Qld Time

All hail ‘King Locky’! For a very long time the Queensland faithful have hailed ‘King Wally’ at this hallowed ground but another man has taken their attention over the past 17 seasons. 

Broncos captain Darren Lockyer will play his first game since announcing he will retire at season’s end – and perhaps the powers that be will commission another bronze statue to stand next to Wally’s before the week’s out, such is the love for this Queenslander!

The scene will be an emotional one and hopefully a packed house greets the skipper in each and every one of his games through 2011. 

But back to the game in hand. Does anyone know which Panthers team is coming to Brisbane to take on the Broncos? Is it the inept one… the one that coudn’t tackle their way out of a wet paper bag? We saw this team in Round 1 against the Knights (lost 42-8) and again last weekend against the Sharks (lost 44-12). Or is it the Panthers team with a little more steel; the one that showed some passion and skill in disposing of the Eels (20-6) in Round 2? 

With talk already surrounding the future of coach Matt Elliott the Penrith mentor will be hoping for the Round 2 version – or at least something with more fight in it than the other two games. Interestingly enough he comes up against a rookie Broncos coach in Anthony Griffin – a man who has been mentioned as a possible replacement in Panther town next year. 

The home side is sitting third on the NRL ladder after back-to-back wins over Canberra and the Gold Coast but they have lost fullback Josh Hoffman from the team this week. Gerard Beale shifts to the back from the wing, allowing Dale Copley to join the side on the flank. 

The Panthers have a handful of disruptions and changes to worry about. Of most concern is the loss of halfback Luke Walsh to injury. Elliott has thrown a huge curveball and named hooker Kevin Kingston at half, while also bringing in Masada Iosefa at dummy-half. 

Travis Burns returns at five-eighth, allowing Luke Lewis to return to lock, while Matthew Bell hits the bench. Brad Tighe comes back into the centres, meaning new recruit Timana Tahu will start as a reserve. Sarafu Fatiaki is out, with Nafe Seluni added to a five-man bench.

It will be interesting to see if Kingston actually plays halfback or if he slots in as a lock forward and Lewis controls the plays.

If Lockyer’s announcement wasn’t enough to get you to the ground, consider the fact only 48,303 more people need to come along to a game at Suncorp (old Lang Park) to make it five million fans who’ve witnessed an NRL match there… could that fan be you?

Watch Out Broncos: There are a few Panthers with damaged pride – none more so than former Bronco Petero Civoniceva and fellow Test player Luke Lewis. Lewis loves playing the Broncos and has scored 13 tries in 14 appearances against the Queensland club. Only Brad Fittler (14) and Billy Slater (15) have crossed the line more times against the Broncos. 

This marks the third time Big Petero has taken on his former club and he is yet to register a victory, something he’d no doubt love to achieve. In fact, the Broncos are the only club Petero has never beaten in 14 years of first grade! Since joining the Panthers the big prop has increased his average runs (16.3), metres gained (139.8), tackles (23.6) and minutes played (53.5) but he might just give the stats up for an after-game victory song here. 

Another former rep player, Trent Waterhouse, could also be up for a big game, especially given he needs just 51 more metres to hit 15,000 for his career. 

Danger Sign: If Luke Lewis decides to take the game by the scruff of the neck you’ll know. The extremely versatile Panther will bob up at first, second and even third receiver as he tries to get his team on the front foot. If he is heavily involved early, the Broncos could be running into an ambush.

Watch Out Panthers: The mercurial Lockyer is primed for a mammoth performance in front of his home fans. Now playing like every game could be his last, we could be due some extra vintage Locky performances… something to look forward to all season long. He hasn’t broken the line or scored a try yet this year but perhaps this is the game. Lockyer needs just a solitary line-break to become the first player in stats history to record 200 in a career. 

It also shapes as a huge game for Justin Hodges who plays at Suncorp for the first time in 559 days. During his time at the Broncos and the Roosters Hodges notched up seven wins from 11 attempts against the Panthers, including wins in the past three. The last time he lost to the Panthers was in 2007 when he ran for 200 metres and scored four tries, becoming the first player in 32 years to do so in a losing team! 

A small milestone for Corey Parker here – he equals Tonie Carroll on 218 games for Brisbane, the seventh most of all time. 

Danger Sign: If Lockyer is running to the line with ball in hand the Panthers are in trouble. If you see him pull out one of his trademark quick switches to the blindside corridors, he is on his game. And if he decides to run the ball on the last tackle… it’s Locky time. 

Plays To Watch: Other than the above-mentioned Locky magic, keep an eye on Hodges’ big right-foot step (yes, the one we warned you about last week and the one that cut the Titans up and led to the winning try); Jack Reed running flat and hard close to the line; Peter Wallace grubbering at the posts; Michael Jennings getting early ball out wide; Lachlan Coote chasing down bombs like they are nuggets of gold.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. If this is the case and form is any indication, the Panthers are in for a long, long night. 

The Broncos currently possess the best defence in the competition, having conceded just 28 points, or 9.3 a game. The Panthers on the other hand have been the worst defensive team in the league, conceding 92 already, or 30.7 a game! 

It is the best defensive start for a Brisbane team since 1996 (although they are struggling a little to score points with just 48, which is their lowest start since 1999). Interestingly Penrith have conceded a try in their past 187 games, the longest streak of any current club. 

Brisbane are tackling at 87 per cent effectiveness with just 93 misses for the year while Penrith are down at 81.8 per cent effectiveness – the worst in the NRL – and have missed 135 tackles already. That’s 45 a match! For all his skill, Luke Lewis needs to lift here – he has missed 21 tackles already this season.

The History: Played 42; Broncos 27, Panthers 14; drawn 1. The Broncos have won five and drawn one of the past eight matches between the two clubs, although the Panthers won the only encounter last year when they triumphed 22-12 at Suncorp Stadium. It was their fifth win at the venue against the Broncos in the 12 matches between the clubs here. 

If you are one for omens, Brisbane have won only one Round 4 match since 2004!

Conclusion: Everything points to a Brisbane win – which probably means the Panthers are ‘specials’ the way this comp has gone so far! But playing at home, with a settled team, after Locky’s announcement and versus a bits-and-pieces Penrith should be enough to get the Broncos home. 

Watch highlights from the last time these two teams met.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Steve Clark. 

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.